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Authors: Gail Sattler

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BOOK: Secret Admirer
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She narrowed her eyes, trying to look stern when really her insides were trembling. “I think I can handle Todd by myself.”

“Are you sure?” He glanced back and forth between her and Todd, who remained silent. “It's just that in the past getting you two together in the same room was, well, not altogether pleasant.” He leaned back in the chair and grinned. “Did Mom and Dad tell you? I'm thinking of trading in my car and getting a new one. Brand-new.”

Shannon sat back and listened to Craig prattle on about the car he was looking at, along with a lengthy list of all its features. She noticed Todd still didn't say anything.

He truly was a mystery. Shannon had seen only his comic side, and most of that from the receiving end. Lately, she'd seen so much else. When she'd asked him about his mother, it was as if a brick wall had gone up around him. Now he sat in brooding silence. If she didn't know better, she would have thought he was angry that she was planning to spend time with Gary. But that was ridiculous. For Todd to be angry would indicate he was jealous, and that idea was so far fetched it didn't deserve any further consideration.

After everyone was finished and the group had broken up, she found herself leaving at the same time as still-brooding Todd. To her surprise, he followed her to her car and stood beside her while she fished her keys out of her purse.

Finally, Todd broke the strained silence. “I don't know why you won't listen to me. Gary isn't the least bit interested in learning about God. He's using this as a way to earn points. He's just picking something he feels is close to your heart and taking advantage of it. I hope you don't trust him, because if I were a woman, I sure wouldn't. He doesn't want to change. He just wants to have a little fun with you and nothing more.”

Shannon's hand froze with the key inserted in the lock. She turned to face Todd. “Don't you think you're being rather harsh? And
very
judgmental.”

“I'm being realistic.”

“You haven't worked with him as long as I have, and you've been with him outside of work only once. How can you make that kind of accusation?”

“Stuff I've heard.”

She crossed her arms. She knew Gary's reputation with the ladies, but that wasn't the issue. They had mentioned that regardless of what happened between them they would have to work together every day. She didn't agree to date Gary. In fact, she'd told him the opposite. She'd told him she was busy, but she still was happy to take him to church and answer any questions he had. “I wish you wouldn't be so quick to think the worst of Gary. I know he has his faults, but he's dedicated and intelligent. You should give him some credit.”

“Credit for what? His good looks? The good job? Money? His fancy car?”

Shannon turned around and yanked the door open. “That's enough. I don't have to listen to you and your bad attitude.”

“The only reason he's talking about going to church is that you have a reputation for not going out with anyone, even once, who doesn't go to church. That's it.”

She slid inside the car. “I don't believe you.”

She tried to close the door, but Todd grabbed it, preventing her from moving it. “It's the truth. I don't want him to take advantage of you. He's only looking for a good time.”

Her blood boiled. “I know what I'm doing, Todd,” she said harshly. She sucked in a deep breath and pulled the door, forcing him to release it or catch his fingers as it slammed. She turned the key in the ignition, rolled down the window, and leaned her head out for one last parting comment as she drove away.

“Besides, for your information, he just might be my Secret Admirer.”

Eleven

Todd stood in front of the mirror and straightened his tie. His hand froze on the knot as he gave it a final tug. He closed his eyes.

He'd had a fight with Shannon. That was Friday night. He hadn't spoken to her since.

He'd let the sun go down on his anger. He'd also let Saturday's sun, a second night, go down on his anger.

He didn't know if he'd ever been so angry or so disappointed in himself.

Shannon hadn't listened to a thing he said; yet he'd been speaking the truth. Still, he had no right to be so angry. He'd had all night Friday, all of Saturday, and the early part of Sunday morning to think, giving him plenty of opportunity to sort things out.

Of course, Shannon would give Gary the benefit of the doubt if he said he was interested in learning about God. Her gentle and forgiving spirit was a big part of what made Shannon who she was. She was starting to open up at least to be friends. She'd put aside all the bad things he'd done to her and forgiven him. If she did that for Todd, she would do the same for Gary, who had never personally done anything to hurt or embarrass her, as Todd had.

In many ways, Gary deserved more of a chance than Todd did. And she was giving Gary the chance, too.

Todd was jealous, and he knew it. And that was another thing that hurt.

He knew what the man was like. Shannon had worked with Gary for longer than he had. Years. She knew Gary far better than he did, which made it even worse that she would consider spending personal time with him. The thought of her hanging around with him and liking him was too much for Todd to bear.

What if she liked Gary more than she liked him. . . .

Todd opened his eyes and studied his reflection in the mirror. He'd just showered and shaved, and he'd gelled his hair meticulously into place. He'd bought some new toothpaste; his teeth hadn't been so white since his last trip to the dentist. His shirt and pants were clean and pressed. His tie was a
perfect match, the most expensive one he owned, and it did
n't even have a sound chip or flashing lights. He didn't get any better than this.

But this time, he needed more. If he wanted to look better than Gary, there was no competition. Gary was taller than he was and had one of those handsome faces that turned women's heads. He was in better physical condition because he worked out at the gym three times a week, since he had the money for it. If Todd were honest with himself, Gary was probably smarter than he was, too. When Todd became uncomfortable, he made jokes and displayed ridiculous behavior—anything to get a laugh to ease a difficult moment. Gary, on the other hand, oozed confidence and poise in everything he said and did.

On the surface, Gary had everything going for him. But beneath the trendy clothes and perfect hair and movie-star handsome face, Gary was pond scum. And Shannon was right. Todd knew he was being judgmental, but that didn't make him wrong. While everyone knew beauty was only skin deep, Shannon had to get past Gary's skin layer to see the real man. In doing so, he hoped Gary didn't do something to hurt her, either physically or emotionally.

After Gary's comment the other day, Todd should have figured out he would try to motivate Shannon to see him outside of work. Shannon was right; he was intelligent. The only reason she would see him would be to minister to him, so that was what Gary zeroed in on.

Despite what Todd thought was the reality of the situation, there was still a one-tenth-of-one-percent chance Gary might be sincere in his quest to know God. If that were so, then Todd was being worse than judgmental. He was being unfair. God had touched him when he had no thoughts of Him. Craig had tried to show him God's love ever since they'd been in their teens and often told Todd he'd been praying for him. Every time, Todd had scoffed and told him not to bother. Looking back, he had a feeling Shannon might have been praying for him, too.

If the two of them had been praying for him for ten years before he allowed God to touch him, then it happened, the same could happen with Gary. Todd was a sinner, just as Gary, and God loved Gary, too.

Todd looked around. He figured Shannon would be ten minutes early for the church service, as she was at work, regardless of whether she was driving or if Gary was picking her up.

Todd said a short prayer for wisdom and made his way to Shannon's church, not caring if she wanted him there or not.

He recognized Gary's car in the parking lot and parked nearby.

Once inside the building, he found them easily. Of course, Gary was dressed perfectly, in clothes Todd could never afford. Shannon wore a pretty skirt and blouse, with shoes the same color as the skirt. Over her top, she wore a sweater Todd knew her mother had knitted for her. Todd smiled. She wasn't fancy. She was just Shannon.

He wiggled the knot on his tie and approached them.

“Hey, Shannon, Gary. Good morning.”

Shannon spun around in the blink of an eye. Gary turned more slowly.

“Todd!” Shannon gasped. “What are you doing here?”

He raised his hand and pressed his Bible to his chest. “It's Sunday. I came to church—which is where I go every Sunday
morning. Your invitation to join you this morning still
stands, doesn't it?”

Her face turned ten shades of red. “Of course,” she muttered. “I just didn't expect you to come by yourself.”

Todd smiled at her. “I'm not alone. I'm with friends now.” He turned to Gary. “It's good to see you here in God's house.” He forced himself to keep smiling, trying to tell himself he really meant his words. “Shall we find a seat?”

The three of them walked toward the sanctuary together. When they came to the entranceway, Gary stepped in front of Todd, forcing him to enter behind Gary. Before he could catch up to Shannon, Gary guided her into the nearest pew. He slipped in beside her, leaving enough room for Todd at the end.

Todd narrowed his eyes. He didn't want to sit beside Gary; he wanted to sit beside Shannon, and Gary knew it.

Once again, he forced himself to smile and stepped toward Gary. “Excuse me,” he said. Not giving Gary a choice, he stepped in front of him, forcing him to tuck his legs to the side so Todd could get by. He then stepped gently past Shannon, as she also tucked her legs to the side, then sat beside her. Once seated, he turned to address them both at the same time. “I like to leave the aisle seat open. For elderly ladies.”

Shannon smiled tenderly and rested her fingers on his forearm. “Oh, Todd, that's so sweet.” She sighed.

Gary's ever-present friendly expression faltered for just a second. “That's a good idea. I'll have to remember that for next time.”

Todd hoped there wouldn't be a next time, then mentally kicked himself, in case this was the one-tenth-of-one-percent chance that Gary was here for good and honest reasons that had to do with God and not specifically with Shannon.

When the service started, Todd noted the routine was similar to his own church's but not identical. Shannon's church was much smaller and geared more to a younger congregation than his own, which was the only church he'd ever attended. With the difference in mind, he was relieved to know all the songs except one. Even though singing wasn't one of his greatest strengths, he worshipped from his heart, trying not to notice Gary caught on quickly to the songs and sang better than he did.

Shannon's pastor preached a good message with a little more fire and brimstone than he was used to, about the parable of the man sowing his seed. Once Todd became accustomed to the pastor's animated speech and the shout of the occasional “Amen” from various members of the congregation, the enthusiasm of the pastor and the congregation became infectious. Todd almost called out an “Amen” to a point that hit home with him but held himself back because he didn't want to startle Shannon. Sitting between him and Gary, she didn't appear completely comfortable, and he couldn't blame her. He didn't want to make it worse for her.

Throughout the entire service, in between being enthralled with the pastor's words and writing notes on the back of the bulletin, Todd snuck a few sideways glances over Shannon at Gary. In a way, Todd hoped the pastor would have been more calm and sedate, allowing Gary to fall asleep. Instead he'd caught Gary sneaking sideways glances at him, probably hoping the same thing.

At the close of the service, Todd forced all thoughts of
Gary out of his head and followed in his heart with the pas
tor's prayer and benediction. When most of the congregation called out an “Amen,” he did, too, which caused Shannon to jump and Gary to stare at him, but he didn't care. The service had been great, with the possible exception of Gary being there.

As they filed toward the sanctuary's exit, he tried to push away the guilt he felt about being annoyed by Gary's presence. If the man truly was searching, the sermon had been great for him. If not, it wasn't Todd's place to judge, as Shannon had reminded him.

Todd gritted his teeth as Gary deliberately stepped in front of him at the doorway between the sanctuary and the foyer, nearly landing on his foot. He decided his guilt was again misplaced. From the way Gary kept trying to put distance between Todd and Shannon and the fact he was becoming more aggressive about it, the one-tenth-of-one-percent chance Gary was there for legitimate reasons was becoming exponentially smaller.

Back in the foyer, Shannon introduced both Todd and Gary to other members of the congregation. After a bit of small talk and people welcoming them to the church, Gary suggested he and Shannon go for lunch.

Todd chose to ignore that Gary's invitation had been worded not to include him. He grinned enthusiastically so Gary would look like a shmuck in front of Shannon if he said anything about Todd's not being invited. “That sounds great.” He turned to Shannon. “I think you were saying that most of your congregation goes to that pancake place across from the skating rink. But I also remember your saying parking was pretty tight. Maybe I should go with you guys, then you can just drop me off back here when we're finished so I can pick up my car.”

Gary's eyes narrowed. In response, Todd widened his smile.

Shannon tapped one finger to her chin. “You know, that's a pretty good idea. Some people park their cars in the rink's lot; but there are signs warning people that if they're not there to skate, they could get towed.”

Todd nodded. “I think I've had enough problems with my car lately. I'll leave it here. Let's go.”

Gary didn't say much as they walked out to the parking lot. Once at the car, Todd slid into the back, which he didn't mind. He knew Gary wasn't going to make any efforts to include him in the conversation, but this way he could keep an eye on what was happening in the front, with Gary very aware he was being watched.

While they waited for a table, Todd could tell Gary was pushing himself to make polite conversation with him there. After they were seated and their orders taken, Todd decided it was time to show Shannon the level of Gary's sincerity about learning about God.

He tried to ignore that Gary was sitting beside Shannon in the booth and he wasn't. But this way gave him a better opportunity to watch what Gary was doing. Todd could see him eye-to-eye instead of peeking up from between the bucket seats as he had in the car.

With his elbows on the table, Todd cradled his coffee cup in both hands and made deliberate eye contact with Gary over the top of the steaming coffee.

“Shannon tells me this is the first time you've been to church. What did you think of the service?”

“It was interesting,” Gary replied, smiling politely.

Todd nodded. “Yes. He really made me think. I thought it was an interesting question, asking what kind of ground we were, as an individual.”

“Yes. He allowed for a lot of introspection.”

Todd stared right into Gary's eyes. “Do you remember the four types of ground?”

“Not really. Although I saw you writing notes, so you have more likelihood of remembering.”

“That may be true, but that's not what I was writing down. The four different types of ground are”—Todd set the cup back into the saucer and counted off on his fingers as he spoke—“on the path, in the rocks, among the thorns, and on good soil.”

Gary's expression glazed over for a few seconds, indicating to Todd that Gary hadn't been paying attention and didn't want to be paying attention now. “Yes, that's right,” he said.

The more Todd thought about it, and watching Gary's face now, Todd suddenly understood why Gary hadn't paid attention. According to the parable, the ground accepted the seed initially, and all but one type fell away for various reasons. Gary's situation didn't apply to this because he had no desire to sample the seed in the first place. He only wanted to sample Shannon.

Todd picked up his cup again, suddenly needing something to do with his hands, rather than reaching across the table and wringing Gary's neck.

He smiled nicely, hoping his face wouldn't crack. He opened his mouth, about to comment on the possibility of giving Gary a Bible, when Shannon clinked her cup down into her saucer.

“I think that's enough talk about the sermon. This isn't a question-and-answer period.” She glared at him from across the table. “Todd,” she said firmly. She turned her head slightly toward Gary. “Did you see the construction at the mall on the way here? It looks as if they're expanding the building. I wonder where everyone is going to park.”

They spent the remainder of lunch making small talk about nothing in particular. Gary insisted on paying for all three lunches, which griped Todd but looked good to Shannon.

To Todd's surprise, Gary dropped off Shannon first, instead of returning to the church parking lot so Todd could get his car. Because Todd didn't want it to look as if he was following them, which he was, he stayed in the car while Gary walked Shannon to the door. Part of him was glad he was taking Shannon home first. This way, good manners dictated that Shannon not invite Gary in and that Gary didn't take too long saying good-bye, since Todd was waiting in the car.

BOOK: Secret Admirer
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