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Jocelyn glanced at herself in the hotel mirror for the last time. This is it, she thought. This is the moment. Her instinct was to put her nightgown back on and climb back into bed. Wonder what was on HBO during the day? Did this hotel have HBO? Maybe she should look for a hotel that did.
She took a deep breath, looked back at the mirror, and straightened her shoulders. What would Miss Edi say if she saw her slumping like this? At the thought of Miss Edi, tears again came to her eyes, but she blinked them away. It had been four months since the funeral, but she still missed her friend so much she sometimes didn't know how to function. Every day she wanted to call Miss Edi and tell her something that had happened, but each day she discovered afresh that she was gone.
"I can do this," Joce said as she looked in the mirror. "I really and truly can do this." She was dressed conservatively, in a skirt and an ironed, white cotton blouse, just the way Miss Edi had taught her. Her shoulder- length, dark blonde hair was pulled back with a headband, and she had on very little makeup. All she knew about the town of Edilean, Virginia, was that Miss Edi had grown up there, so Jocelyn didn't want to arrive in jeans and a tube top and shock the locals.
She picked up her car keys, grabbed the handle of her big black suitcase, and rolled it to the door. Tonight she'd be sleeping in her own house. It was a house she'd never seen, never even heard about until a lawyer told Joce she'd inherited it, but it was still hers.
Just days ago, she'd sat in the lawyer's office in Boca Raton, Florida, dressed all in black and wearing the pearls Miss Edi had given her. It was months after Miss Edi's funeral, but her will stated that it was to be read on the first day of May after she died. If she'd died on June the first, that would have meant waiting eleven months. But she'd died in her sleep just into the new year, so Jocelyn had had time to grieve before facing the ordeal of hearing what was in the will.
Beside her sat her father, his wife beside him, and next to her were the Steps, Belinda and Ashley. But now they were better known as Bell and Ash. Due to their mother's indefatigable efforts, they'd become models -- and the media had loved the idea of there being two of them. In the last ten years they'd been on the covers of all the top magazines. They'd traveled all over the world and modeled the clothes of every designer. When they walked through a mall, teenage girls followed them, their mouths open in awe. And males of every age looked at them with lust.
But for all their fame, to Jocelyn's mind, the Steps hadn't changed since they were all kids together. As children, the twins loved to make up things they said Joce had done to them, then tell their mother. Louisa used to glare at her stepdaughter and say, "Wait 'til your father gets home." But when Gary Minton returned, he'd just shake his head and do whatever he could to stay out of the turmoil. His objective in life was to have a good time, not to referee his three children. He'd retreat to his garage workshop, his wife and his tall stepdaughters trailing behind him. Jocelyn would leave and go to Miss Edi.
"So what did the old witch leave you?" Bell asked as she stretched her long neck to see Jocelyn at the far end of the row of chairs.
For Joce, it had never been difficult to tell the twins apart. Bell was the smarter of the two, the leader, while Ash was quieter and did whatever her sister wanted her to. Since that usually meant saying something nasty to gain a laugh, Ash was often the one to stay away from.
"Her love," Jocelyn said, refusing to look at her stepsister. Bell was on her third husband now, and her mother was hinting that that marriage was about to fail. "Poor thing," her mother said. "Those men just don't understand my darling baby."
"They don't understand her belief that she can have affairs even if she's married," Joce muttered under her breath.
"What was that?" Louisa asked sharply, sounding as though she were about to say "Wait 'til your father gets home." The woman couldn't seem to understand that her "babies" would turn thirty this year and that their fifteen minutes of fame was already on the downward spiral. Just last week Joce had read that two eighteen-year-old girls were "the new Bell and Ash."
Jocelyn didn't begrudge the Steps their fame -- or the fortune that they seemed to have spent. To her, they were just the same: always bad tempered, jealous of everyone, and disdainful of anyone who wasn't in the gossip rags every week. When they were kids, they'd been extremely envious of Jocelyn because she spent so much time at "that rich old bat's house." They refused to believe that Miss Edi didn't give Joce bags full of money every week. "If she doesn't give you things, then why do you go over there?"
"Because I like her!" Joce said again and again. "No. I love her."
"Ahhhh," they would say in that tone that was meant to say they knew everything.
Joce would just shut the door to her bedroom in their faces, or, better yet, she'd go to Miss Edi's house.
But now Miss Edi was gone forever, and Jocelyn was requested to be at the reading of the will. The lawyer, a man who looked to be older than Miss Edi, came in a side door and seemed startled at the sight of the five of them. "I was told it would just be Miss Jocelyn," he said, glancing at her, then looking at her father as though demanding an explanation.
"I, uh...," Gary Minton started. The years had been kind to him, and he was still a handsome man. With his dark hair with just a touch of gray at the temples, and his dark brows, he looked much younger than he was. "We take care of our own," said his wife from beside him. It was as though the years Gary's face didn't carry were etched on his wife's. Sun, cigarettes, and wind had weathered her skin so she looked like a dried-up mummy.
"You don't mind if we're here, do you?" Bell said in a purring voice to the lawyer. Both twins were wearing micro-miniskirts, their famous long legs stretched out until they nearly touched his desk. The little tops they wore were open almost to the waist.
Mr. Johnson glanced at them over his half glasses and gave a bit of a frown. He seemed to want to tell them to put their clothes on. He looked back at Jocelyn, noted her plain black suit with the crisp white blouse under it, the pearls around her neck, and gave a little smile. "If Miss Jocelyn approves, you may remain."
"Oh, la tee da," Ash said. "Miss Jocelyn. Miss college- educated Jocelyn. Will you read a book to us?"
"I'm sure someone will have to," Jocelyn said without taking her eyes off the lawyer. "They can stay. They'll find out everything anyway."
"All right then." He looked down at the papers. "Basically, Edilean Harcourt left you, Jocelyn Minton, everything."
"And how much is that?" Bell asked quickly.
Mr. Johnson turned to her. "It's not my business to tell anything more. Whatever Miss Jocelyn tells you is her concern, but I will say nothing. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have work to do." He picked up a brown paper, string- tied folder and handed it across the desk to Jocelyn. "All the information is in there, and you may look through the documents in your own time."
When he remained standing, Joce also stood. "Thank you," she said as she took the portfolio. "I'll read it later."
"I would suggest that you read it when you're alone. In privacy. Edilean wrote some things that I think she meant only for you to see."
"Everything to her?" Ash asked, at last understanding what had been said. "But what about us? We used to visit the old woman all the time."
Mr. Johnson's old face moved into a bit of a smile. "How could I have forgotten?" He took a key out of his pocket, and unlocked a drawer in his desk. "She left these for you."
He held out two small, blue satin bags, and the contents looked to be bumpy, as though they contained jewels.
"Oooooh," Bell and Ash said in unison. "For us? Why that darling. She shouldn't have. We really didn't expect anything."
With their much-photographed faces alight, they opened the bags, then looked up at the lawyer in consternation. "What are these?"
Ash dumped the contents of her bag into the palm of her hand. There were about twenty small black objects, some of which had been emerald cut, some in the round diamond shape. "What are they? I've never seen stones like these before."
"Are they black diamonds?" Bell asked.
"In a way, they are," Mr. Johnson said, then, still smiling, he started for the door, but he paused with his hand on the knob. Turning just a bit, he gave Jocelyn a wink, then he left the room.
Joce had to work to keep a straight face. The "black diamonds" that Miss Edi had left for the stepsisters were actually pieces of coal.
She didn't say a word as they left the offices. She sat in the back of the car on the drive home and listened as Bell and Ash, sitting beside her, held the pieces of coal up to the light and exclaimed over their beauty and discussed how they were going to have them set.
Joce looked out the window to hide her smile. The joke that Miss Edi had left her jealous, greedy stepsisters lumps of coal made her miss her friend with a painful longing. Miss Edi had been mother, grandmother, friend, and mentor all in one.
Joce glanced up and saw her father frowning at her in the rearview mirror. She could see that he knew what the "stones" were and he was dreading the coming fury when the Steps found out. But she didn't mind. She planned to be gone long before the Steps discovered what the black stones were. Her bags were packed and in the back of her car, and as soon as they got home, she was going back to her job at the university.
Only when Jocelyn was back at school and in her tiny apartment did she open the packet that contained Miss Edi's will. She'd tried to steel herself for what she'd find, but nothing prepared her to see an envelope with that beloved handwriting on it.
TO MY JOCELYN it said on the envelope.
With trembling hands, she opened it, pulled out the letter, and began to read.
My dear, dear Jocelyn,
I promise I won't be maudlin. I don't know if it's been days or months since my demise, but knowing your soft heart, you're probably still grieving. I know all too well what it is to lose people you love. I've had to stand by and watch most of the people I loved die. I was very nearly the last one left.Now, to business. The house in Boca is not mine, nor is most of the furniture. By now I'm sure the contents have been moved out and put up for auction. But don't worry, my dear, the best of what I owned, meaning everything that I took from Edilean Manor, will go back to where it came from.
Jocelyn put the letter down. "Edilean Manor?" she said aloud. She'd never heard of the place. After her initial confusion, a feeling of betrayal ran through her. She'd spent a great deal of her life with Miss Edi, had traveled with her, met many people from her past, and had heard hundreds of stories about her time with Dr. Brenner. But Miss Edi had never mentioned Edilean Manor. It must have been important, as it was named for Miss Edi -- or she was named for it.
Jocelyn looked back at the letter.
I know, dear, you're angry and hurt. I can see that frown of yours. I told you so much about my life, but I never mentioned Edilean, Virginia. As you can guess from the unusual name, the town "belonged" to my family -- or at least we thought it did. Centuries ago, my ancestor came from Scotland with an elegant wife and a wagonload of gold. He bought a thousand acres outside Williamsburg, Virginia, laid out a town square, then named the place after his young wife. The legend in my family is that his wife was of a much higher class than he was, but when her father refused to let his daughter marry the stable lad, he ran off with the girl and a great deal of her father's money. No one ever knew if she was abducted or if she went willingly.
I'm sure the truth is much less romantic than that, but Angus Harcourt did build a big brick house in about 1770, and my family lived in it until I broke the tradition. My father left the house to me alone because my brother, Bertrand, couldn't manage money. If he had a dime, he'd buy something that cost a quarter.
I grew up sure that I'd live in Edilean Manor with David Aldredge, the man I was engaged to, and raise a strong, healthy, handsome family. But, alas, fate has a way of changing our lives. In this case, it was a war that changed everything and everyone. When I left Edilean, I let my brother live in the house, but I kept strict watch over him. Bertrand died a long time ago, and for years now the house has been empty.
Dear Jocelyn, I'm leaving you a house you've never heard of in a town I carefully never mentioned.
Jocelyn put the letter down and stared into space for a moment. A house built in 1770? And outside beautiful Williamsburg? She looked around her drab little apartment. It had been the best she could afford on her tiny salary. But an entire house! An old one!
She looked back down at the letter.
There's something else I want to tell you. Remember how good I was at knowing who at church would make a good ouple and who wouldn't last six months? If you'll remember, I was always right. I'm sure you also remember that I learned from experience not to interfere in your personal life -- after you were old enough to have one, that is. But now I can no longer see your wrath, so I'm going to tell you something. The perfect man for you lives in Edilean. He's the grandson of two friends with whom I went to high school, Alex and Lissie McDowell. They're gone now, but their grandson looks so much like Alex that I thought he'd never aged. On one of my trips to Edilean -- yes, dear, I went in secret -- I told Alex that, and he laughed hard. It was good to see him laugh again, as there were days in the past when he found nothing to amuse him. His wife, Lissie, was a saint for what she did. I look forward to seeing them both again in a Better Place.
Jocelyn looked up. A man for her? The thought made her want to smile and cry at the same time. Twice, Miss Edi had tried to match her up with young men from church, but both times she'd refused to so much as go out to dinner with them. They were boring young men, and she doubted if either of them had ever had a creative thought in his life. She hadn't given her reasons for turning the men down, but Miss Edi had known what was going on. "Beer drinking does not qualify as an Olympic sport," she'd said quietly, then walked away. Joce's face had turned three shades of red. Two weeks before, Miss Edi had driven by Jocelyn's house when she'd been standing outside with two young men on motorcycles and downing a can of beer. For all that Joce loved the ballet, she was sometimes drawn to the life her family led.
"Like my mother," she said aloud, then looked back down at the letter.
His name is Ramsey McDowell and he's an attorney. But I can assure you that he's more than that. My last request of you is that you give the young man a chance to show you that he's right for you. And, remember: I am never wrong about these things.
As for the house, there's some furniture in it, but not much, and there are some tenants in the wings. They are both young women from families I've known for many years. Sara grew up in Edilean, so she can help you find whatever you need. Tess is new to the area, but I knew her grandmother better than I wanted to.
That's all, my dear. I know you'll make the best of all that I leave you. I apologize that my housekeeper won't be there, but the poor dear was older than I am. I have a gardener, so maybe he can help you with whatever else you need.
I wish you all the luck in the world, and please remember that I'll be watching over you every minute of your life.
It took Jocelyn the rest of the evening to recover from the letter. It sounded so much like Miss Edi that it was almost as though she were in the room with her. She slept with the letter curled up in her hands.
The next morning, her mind was so full of all that she'd learned in the last twenty-four hours that she could barely concentrate. Her job as teaching assistant had become uncomfortable because she'd had a year-long affair with one of the other assistants. When they had to work together, he scowled at her across the table and she found it very unpleasant.
He'd been the third man in a row who had been perfectly suitable for her, but in the end, she'd not wanted to go on with any of them. Jocelyn knew it was all Miss Edi's fault. She'd told Jocelyn about the man she'd been in love with who'd been killed in World War II -- a true love, and that's what Joce wanted.
"He was my all to me," Miss Edi said in the voice that she used only when she spoke of him. She had only one small photo of him in his uniform, which was inside a folding picture frame she kept by her bed. He was an extraordinarily good-looking young man, with dark blond hair, and a strong chin. The frame was oval, and on the other side was a photo of Miss Edi in her army uniform. She was so young, so beautiful. Beneath David's photo was a tiny braid of hair, her dark intertwined with his blond. Miss Edi would hold the frame, say, "David," then her eyes would glaze over.
Over the years, Joce had pressed her for details, but Miss Edi would just say he was a young man from her war experience -- which had been brutal and she had the scars to prove it.
But at last Jocelyn had found out something about him. His name was David Aldredge, and he and Miss Edi had been engaged to be married in Edilean, Virginia. But David's death in the war had ended that.
"No wonder she couldn't bear to mention Edilean," Jocelyn whispered.
To Jocelyn, Miss Edi's love for the man had become a legend. It epitomized the love that she wanted. But so far, Joce hadn't been able to find it. Miss Edi never knew it, but Joce had twice lived with young men, and she'd been quite happy with the arrangement. It was nice to have someone to go home to, to tell about her day, and to laugh with about what had gone on. But when the men started talking about rings and mortgages and babies, Jocelyn ran. She didn't know what it was that was missing from her relationships, but it wasn't there -- and she was going to hold out until it was.
And now Miss Edi had given her a way to change everything. That evening, she looked through the legal papers, read them carefully, and held the key that was in the package. All the legal work was being handled by the firm of McDowell, Aldredge, and Welsch in Edilean, Virginia.
The name of "Aldredge" made her pause for a moment before she could go on. Did descendants of Miss Edi's David still live there?
A letter was included saying that when she got to Edilean, she should stop by the office and she'd be told about the financial arrangements. The letter was signed by Ramsey McDowell.
Jocelyn shook her head at Miss Edi's letter. "You never give up, do you?" she said, her eyes raised upward. But the truth was that Miss Edi was always right about the couples at church. Many times Jocelyn had caught Miss Edi staring at a young couple who were more interested in each other than what the pastor had to say. Afterward, she'd tell Jocelyn -- and only her -- what she thought of them. "True love," she'd sometimes say, but not very often. "Pure sex," she said once and made Joce laugh. She was right both times.
"Ramsey McDowell," Jocelyn said, then looked back at the letter. He'd put his home phone number on there. It was only seven. On impulse, she picked up her cell, called him, and he answered on the third ring.
His voice was nice, deep and smooth. Like chocolate, she thought. "Is this Mr. McDowell?"
"I think of that as being my father, but I guess I qualify. Is this Miss Minton?"
She hesitated. How had he known that? "Caller ID."
"Can't live without it," he said. "You know how we lawyers are. We must fight off the masses because of our underhanded dealings. Are you going to be here soon?"
"I don't know," Joce said, smiling at his sense of humor. "This is all quite new to me. I'd never heard of Edilean, Virginia, until I saw the will, so I'm still in a bit of shock."
"Never heard of us? I'll have you know we're the biggest small town in Virginia. Or is that the smallest big town? I never can remember what our mayor says we are. Ask me what you need to know and I'll tell you everything. Oh! Wait! I need to fasten a diaper. There, that's done. Now, what can I tell you about us?"
"Diaper? You're married?" Her shocked tone told too much, and when he hesitated before answering, she grimaced.
"Nephew. I have a very fertile sister who pops them out like corn over a grill. She just stuck her tongue out at me, but then the baby kicked. The one inside her, that is. And the one on her hip. Excuse me, Miss Minton, but I have to take the phone to another room before my sister throws something at me."
Joce was smiling as she waited, hearing footsteps, then a door close and, finally, quiet.
"There now, I'm in what passes for a library in my house and I'm all yours. Figuratively speaking that is. Now tell me what I can do for you."
"I don't really know. I didn't know Miss Edi owned a house, much less a town."
"Actually, she had to give us our freedom in 1864, and -- " "Three," Joce said before she thought, then wished she hadn't.
"Sorry, you were saying?"
"I see...1863. Emancipation Proclamation. Can you tell me the day?"
"January the first," she said cautiously, not sure if this would get her labeled as a know-it-all or worse.
"January the first, 1863. Well, Miss Minton, I can see that you and I are going to get along quite well." There was a change in his voice as he went from teasing banter to more serious. "What can I tell you?"
"I don't know where to begin. I want to know about the house, the town, about the people. Everything."
"It would take much too much time to talk about all of this over the phone," he said. "My suggestion is that you come here to Edilean and we sit down and talk about everything in person. How about if we have dinner and discuss this at length? Shall we say Saturday next at eight?"
She drew in her breath. That was just eight days away. "I don't know if I can get there by then."
"Shall I send a car?"
"I, uh, no, that won't be necessary. I have a car. How do I keep the roof repaired?" she blurted.
"A practical woman," Ramsey said. "I like that. I'm not at liberty to say the exact extent of what Miss Edi left you, but I can assure you that you'll be able to keep the roof in great repair."
She smiled at that. She didn't relish the idea of having the responsibility of the care of a very old house and no way to support it.
"Miss Minton, what is your hesitation? The beautiful town of Edilean is awaiting you, plus a magnificent old house, and Colonial Williamsburg is right next door. What more could you want?"
She started to say "Time," but didn't. Suddenly, she had one of those moments that rarely happen in a lifetime. In an instant, she knew what she was going to do: She was going to change her life. Since Miss Edi's death, Jocelyn hadn't made a single change. She had the same job she no longer liked, the same routine, the same dull, dark apartment. Her friends now looked at her with sadness because Joce was no longer part of a couple. They were already talking about fixing her up with blind dates. The real difference in Jocelyn's life was that her best friend was gone. Now, if she went "home" it was to her father's house, to motorcycles outside, NASCAR on the TV inside, and the pitying looks of her stepmother. Poor Jocelyn, she had nothing and no one.
This was Friday, and if she quit her job tomorrow morning, then she'd have days to sort out all the things she needed to do, like turn off the water, and --
"Could I wire you some money?" he asked, seeming to think her silence had to do with expenses. "No, wait, that's no good. You'd have to give me your bank account numbers and you shouldn't do that. For all you know I'm a..." He hesitated.
"That's right. Scum of the earth. We spend years in school learning how to rip people off. How about if I overnight you a check?"
"I have enough to do what I need to," she said. "It's just that this is a big step."
"If you know the date of the Emancipation Proclamation, then you love history. So how can you wait to see a house that was built in the eighteenth century? No velvet ropes anywhere. You can explore all you want. Did you know that the stables were recently rebuilt? And there's a cellar that's intact. And I believe the attic is full of trunks of old clothes and diaries."
"Mr. McDowell, I think you missed your calling. You should be traveling around the country on a covered wagon and selling snake oil."
"No, no snake oil. I sell Miss Edi's Golden Elixir. It's made from rainbows and flecked with gold dust from the leprechauns' pots. Guaranteed to cure anything that ails you. You have a boyfriend?"
"And what will the elixir do to him?" she asked, smiling.
"No," he said, seriously, "do you have a boyfriend?"
"Not since he asked me to marry him and I ran away screaming."
"Ah," he said.
Joce wished she could take back her comment. "I mean, it wasn't actually like that. He's very nice and I'm not adverse to marriage, but -- "
"No explanation needed. My last girlfriend led me into a jewelry store and they had to take me away in an ambulance."
"A kindred soul."
"Sounds like it. Now, what about dinner?"
"Maybe you shouldn't make reservations yet," she said cautiously. "In case I don't make it out of here in time."
"Who said anything about reservations? I was thinking about wine and pasta served on a tablecloth on the floor of your new eighteenth-century house. By candlelight. With strawberries dipped in warm chocolate for dessert."
"Oh, my goodness," she said. "You are going to be a problem, aren't you?"
"I hope so. I like a girl who knows her history. And I like this photo of you that Miss Edi sent me last year. You still have this red bikini?"
Jocelyn couldn't contain her laugh. "She passed that thing around to half the men at our church. When I had my twenty-sixth birthday and still wasn't married, I thought she was going to staple it to the trees and leave a phone number."
"When was this photo taken?" he asked, and there was a touch of fear in his voice. She could almost hear the unasked question of, How many birthdays ago was that?
"Actually, it was quite a while ago," she said mischievously. "So, shall I see you at the end of the week?"
"I'll be there," he said, but his voice was no longer so buoyant.
Jocelyn hung up and mentally began a list that started with "go to the gym every day this week." The photo of her in the bikini had been taken just last summer, but who knew what had happened under her clothes during the winter?
So that was Ramsey McDowell, she thought as she got up and began to look through her closet. Tomorrow she'd stop by her professor's office and resign. She knew he wouldn't be bothered; there were four applicants for every job on campus.
She paused with her hand on the clothes. Maybe now she could write her own book. Something nonfiction, historical. Maybe she could write the history of the town of Edilean. She'd start with the Scotsman who stole a man's gold and his beautiful daughter, then ran off to the wild country of America. What was Edilean like in 1770? For that matter, what was it like now?
Ten minutes later, she'd Googled the town. The history of the town was much what Miss Edi had written. It had been started by a Scotsman named Angus Harcourt, who'd built a large house for his beautiful wife, then set about putting in acres of crops. But his wife, Edilean, had been lonely, so she'd designed the streets of a tiny town that had eight small areas of parkland in it. Smack in the middle she'd planted an oak tree from an acorn she'd taken from her father's estate. Over the centuries, the tree had been replaced three times, but each time the transplant had been a scion of the original tree.
Jocelyn went on to read that in the 1950s, her Edilean Harcourt had led a four-year-long court battle when the state of Virginia tried to evict the residents, as over five thousand acres of the surrounding land was being turned into a nature preserve. "It was because Miss Edi -- as she is called by everyone" -- Joce read -- "won the battle that the tiny town of Edilean survives today. No new houses are allowed to be built, but the ones that are there are preserved so that it's almost like stepping back into time.
"The town has several upscale shops that draw tourists from Williamsburg, but the crowning jewel is Edilean Manor, built by Angus Harcourt in 1770, and lived in by the same family since then. Unfortunately, the house and grounds are not open to the public."
"I'm glad of that," Jocelyn said, then moved closer to the screen to see the photos and thought she could see a sign in front of one of the pretty white houses. Was that Ramsey's office? Did he live in the same building where he worked? He'd asked her if she had a boyfriend, but did he have a girlfriend?
She clicked on the button that said EDILEAN MANOR, and there it was. Jocelyn stared at it with wide eyes. The façade was perfectly symmetrical: two stories, five windows wide, all brick. On both sides were single-story wings with little porches on them. "I guess that's where my tenants live," she said, marveling at the idea that she now owned this wonderful old house.
Five minutes later, she was tearing through her closet like a leaf blower. She was going to get rid of all the things that she no longer wore, then see what was left. Fifteen minutes later, she looked at her nearly bare closet and said, "I'm going shopping."
The next few days had been a blur of activity as she hurried to get ready to leave, to go to her brand-new life.
And now, she was in Williamsburg, it was 11 a.m. Saturday morning, hotel checkout time, everything she owned was stuffed into her little Mini Cooper, and she was about to see "her house" for the first time. She didn't know if she was elated or scared to death. New town, new state even, and all new people -- one of whom she had a sort of date with tonight.
"You can do this," she said again and opened the hotel door.
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