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Authors: Gail Sattler

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BOOK: Secret Admirer
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“Neither do I,” she replied tersely.

Todd clenched his teeth, then began to pat his pockets, making it look as if he couldn't find something. “I'll be right back. Or if you want, I'll meet you at my place. I have to go back inside for a minute.”

Shannon sighed loudly. “Did you lose your keys again? We go through this same routine at least a couple of times a week. I think I'm going to buy you one of those key-chain things with a voice-activated signal.”

He knew she thought he was a birdbrain, but if Shannon left at the same time he did, he wouldn't get a chance to slip a new note in her drawer. She had started coming to work earlier in the morning, so he was no longer certain he would arrive before her. He had to make sure he left each new note when he went home at the end of the day.

“Very funny,” he grumbled, trying to make it sound as if he was annoyed. “I'll be right back.”

No one was in the main office when he returned, making his mission fast and efficient. He was back in the parking lot at the same time Shannon's car pulled up to the exit. While she waited for an opening in the traffic, she turned around, so he held his keys in the air and waved. She waved back to acknowledge that he had them, then turned back to the traffic and pulled out as soon as she had an opening.

Todd hurried home, arriving only a minute behind her. She left her car in the visitor parking and hopped into his car to go to the supermarket, where he pretended he knew what she bought, when he had no clue what some of the strange things were called. Soon they were in his kitchen, ready to start cooking. She showed him how to cut the chicken into small pieces and cook it. Then they added cut-up vegetables while the noodles cooked in another pot.

“This would go so much easier if you had a wok.”

“I'm lucky to have this big frying pan. I just bought it a couple of weeks ago. I found it at a garage sale. I didn't know this was going to be such a complicated thing with so much to do.”

“You said you wanted to make something that was mostly vegetables.”

Todd lifted the lid to the pan and tested a noodle to see if it was cooked. “I know. My mother doesn't eat enough vegetables.”

Shannon smiled. “Usually, it's the other way around. Mothers telling their sons they don't eat enough vegetables.”

Todd didn't reply. Instead, he grunted so she would think he'd said something.

“How's your mother doing anyway? My mom was asking about her again. Lately, I've been seeing you more than Craig. In fact, I don't think you've done anything with Craig for a week, since he's been seeing so much of Faye. So Mom asked me instead of Craig to ask you about your mom.”

“She's doing better,” he mumbled.

“I'm sorry. I didn't know she was sick. You never talk about your mom.”

“There isn't much to say,” he muttered as he replaced the lid. “I don't think these are done yet.”

He flinched as Shannon's fingers rested on his arm. Todd looked first at Shannon's hand on his arm, then up at her face to see the saddest expression he'd ever seen.

“I don't know what's wrong with your mom. My mom has been asking me about her ever since we've been working together, so I know it's not that she had the flu or something temporary. Todd, please tell me what's wrong.”

“It's nothing.”

Her grip tightened for a second as she gave his arm a gentle squeeze. “Maybe there's something I can do.”

He stiffened. “There's nothing you can do. There's nothing anyone can do. Except Mom. When she decides herself.”

Todd lifted the lid again and watched the noodles in the boiling water. Even though he doubted much had changed in the last thirty seconds, he poked at them with the fork, about to taste another noodle, which forced Shannon to release his arm.

He didn't want to talk to Shannon about his mother. Only a few people knew besides the social worker. Craig knew everything, but he'd said a few tidbits to Craig's mother in a moment of weakness. At the time, it felt good to get some of it off his chest; but later, he regretted saying anything because she kept asking how things were going, and he never had anything good to report. The only other person who knew what was going on was his pastor, and Todd planned to keep it that way.

In his peripheral vision, he saw Shannon shuffle around so she was behind him. He was about to scoop up another noodle when Shannon's arms slipped around his waist. He nearly dropped both the fork and the lid when she held him tight and pressed her cheek into his back between his shoulder blades.

“Come on, Todd. You can talk to me. I want to help you. Can't I do more than help you cook? Even if there's nothing else I can do, I can pray for her.”

He clenched his teeth. But when she started rubbing little circles on his arm with her hand, he felt as if he would fall apart. He nearly threw the fork and lid onto the counter so he could peel her off him. As he covered her hand with his own, Shannon sighed. The heat of her breath through his shirt warmed a spot below his shoulder blade, and the movement of the sigh pressed her closer to him. Instead of pulling her hands off, he found himself holding them tighter, just to keep her there.

“You can tell me,” she whispered against his back. “That's what friends are for.”

Friends
. Todd squeezed his eyes shut. He wanted so much more. Lately, he'd had dreams of spending his life with Shannon, not just at work, but living together as man and wife, with a dozen kids in a cozy, stable little house with a white picket fence and a big black dog in the backyard. Instead, Shannon was spending more time with Gary.

Todd had planned to talk to her today about Gary while they were cooking, although they were nearly finished and he still hadn't thought of a way to put his thoughts into words. He knew she liked Gary. But Todd couldn't tell her everything, especially how Gary threatened his job. Regardless of how she felt about Gary, if he told her what Gary had said, she was bound to say something to him that would get both of them fired. That would end the relationship, but Todd didn't want Shannon to lose her job because of something he'd started. He needed to think of a better way. He couldn't think properly with Shannon wrapped around him, though. But he didn't want her to be anywhere else.

Todd forced his thoughts away from Gary and back to what they were talking about earlier—his mother.

He tried to clear his throat, but his voice came out in a hoarse croak. “No one can help. She's been like this since my dad left when I was in my teens. I help her a little bit with the basics when she comes over for dinner on Tuesdays, and I go through her stuff.”

“Go through her stuff? I don't understand.” Todd's head swam. He chose his words carefully. “She's never been good with money or anything that required any planning or advance preparation. She doesn't take care of herself, and she's not good with commitments, but she will come here every Tuesday for dinner and for me to balance her checkbook. That's why I want to feed her something with lots of vegetables. It's the only good meal she gets all week.”

Shannon's hands didn't move beneath his, but she gave him a short, gentle squeeze. “I can't imagine anyone cooking any worse than you do. Between you and Craig, I remember a few disasters in my mom's kitchen. But that's so sweet. Do you give her leftovers to take home?”

“Yes, but she eats everything when she gets home, and the next day it's back to the usual patterns.”

He felt her arms stiffen. Part of him wanted her never to let him go, but the more sensible part of him told him to pick up her hands and push her away. Having Shannon's arms around him had altered his judgment, and he'd already said more than he should have.

“Usual patterns? What usual patterns?”

She gave him another gentle squeeze. All Todd's selfconstraint melted away. He pressed his hands more firmly
over hers, as if the closer contact could make everything bet
ter.

“On payday, if she's working, she blows all her money on stupid things—cigarettes, movies, clothes, things she doesn't need. I know a lot of the money goes toward illegal drugs, but I can never catch her with them. And then she has nothing. Often she can't pay the rent, and the landlord threatens to evict her. That's one reason why I go through her checkbook. I don't give her money because she'll spend it, then not tell me what she did with it. So I pay her landlord myself. I also give her groceries, but sometimes she sells them for much less than I paid for them, just to get a couple of dollars for more drugs. When she's completely out of food and money, I make her come here, and I feed her. When she's hungry enough, she comes, even if it isn't Tuesday.”

Shannon squeezed him tighter. “I'm so sorry. I didn't know. Isn't there anything you can do? Can't social assistance help her? Or a counselor at church or something? There are agencies and all sorts of places she can go to for help.”

Todd remained silent while he tried to maintain his composure, grateful Shannon was behind him and couldn't see his face. He did feel awkward talking to her this way, though it was easier. He'd talked to his mother's social worker and his pastor more times than he could count. As an adult, he understood more of her mental state than before, but in his teen years, he hadn't known what was wrong or what he could do about it. He only knew that none of his friends lived the way he did.

Craig had been the only one to see through the show he put on for the rest of the world. Todd had confided in him, especially when matters got bad and his mother started selling his belongings when he wasn't home. Whenever he confronted her about his things being missing, especially treasured or high-priced items, she either yelled at him or slapped him for accusing her of stealing.

Since she was his mother, he certainly couldn't hit her back, even when she went berserk and hit him repeatedly. Once, he remembered breaking down in front of Craig when he asked him how things were going. That was when Craig had involved his pastor, but his mother only got worse and kicked him out. It was the worst thing she could have done for herself, but perhaps it was best for Todd. By then, he couldn't do anything more, and it gave him the separ
a
tion
he needed. He'd been an adult then and already supporting her for the most part for years. Now he helped her from a distance, when she was desperate enough to accept it.

Todd stiffened as he repeated the words he'd heard so often and was helpless to do anything about. “She's not breaking into homes and stealing things, and she's not really hurting anyone but herself with everything else, so they say there's nothing anyone can do until she makes the decision to get help herself. My only choices are to have her arrested or committed. I can't do either one. She hasn't stolen from anyone else besides me, at least not that I know of. I'm certainly not going to press charges. Even if I did, they wouldn't lock up a first-time offender. And she's not whacked out enough to be placed in a rehabilitation center without her consent. All I can do is be there to pick up the pieces and make sure she has a roof over her head.”

Shannon pulled her hands away, releasing her backward hug, and stepped back. He didn't intend to move, but she latched onto his arm and turned him around until they stood face-to-face, leaving her hand on his arm. “I had no idea things were that bad. Why didn't you tell me?”

The pain in her eyes touched him deeply. The last thing he wanted was her sympathy. He was coping with everything—badly at times—but with help from the Lord, he was coping better than before.

Todd wanted to hold her tight, but he knew if she wrapped her arms around him again he would fall apart, and he couldn't let that happen. Instead, he smiled wryly and brushed a wayward lock of hair out of her eyes so he had something to do with his other hand. “We never had that kind of relationship.”

“I guess. I'm beginning to see I didn't know you at all and am only starting to get to know you.”

Todd didn't know if that was good or bad, so he chose not to comment. “I think the noodles are probably wrecked by now. I guess my cooking skills haven't improved over the years.”

“Forget the noodles. I think you need a hug.”

Without waiting for him to respond, she stepped forward and pressed herself into him. She slid her hands around his back and held him tight.

Todd couldn't have spoken if the roof had caved in. His heart pounded, his eyes burned, and he could barely breathe. He'd never thought of hugging as an answer, but she was right. Holding Shannon didn't solve anything, but he did feel better, and he had never loved her more.

Shannon spoke first. “Maybe we should check those noodles, before they burn in the bottom of the pan.” She moved away from him.

He ached from the separation, but he didn't want to wreck his only good pan.

Shannon stepped in front of him, took a clean fork out of the drawer, and pulled a noodle out. Watching her pucker up and blow on the steaming noodle made Todd think of her puckering up for something much better than eating. When she blew on the noodle a second time, it almost hurt not to kiss her.

She slurped the noodle into her mouth and chewed it thoughtfully. “A little overdone, but not terminal.” She turned off the heat and removed the pan from the stove top. “They're fine if we eat right now. You set the table, and I'll drain them and mix everything together.”

Todd scrambled to set the table. They said a short prayer of thanks and began to eat.

Todd ate a mouthful, then swirled some of the noodles with his fork. “I've been meaning to ask you something. About your Secret Admirer. Do you have any ideas?”

She laid her fork down. “Yes and no. Sometimes I think I know for sure it's Gary, then other times I don't think he's the one at all. Why do you ask?”

BOOK: Secret Admirer
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