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Authors: Gail Sattler

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Todd smiled and continued writing.

Every day while we're at work,

Todd stopped writing. His brain stalled while he tried to think of a word that rhymed with “work.” Since nothing came, he mentally ran through the alphabet starting with A, taking each letter and ending it with the “erk” sound. The first combination he made that was really a word was “jerk,” so he kept going. The next word started with the letter L, but he didn't think it was a good idea to mention the word “lurk” in a note. He was already leaving anonymous notes, and he didn't want to frighten Shannon or hint that he was following her around. He wasn't a stalker. He only wanted to tell her he recognized the special Christian woman she'd become and how much he loved her.

He crumpled the paper and shoved it in his pocket to put through the shredder, then started again.

Dearest Shannon,

Thinking of you makes me smile,

Like. . .

The pen froze again. What happy thing rhymed with smile? He started to run through the alphabet again, mentally choked on the word “bile,” shook his head and kept going with the alphabet.

Like an alligator in the lazy Nile.

Or was it crocodiles in the Nile? He knew alligators lived in Florida and crocodiles lived in Australia, but he didn't know which ones lived in Egypt.

Todd scribbled out the words and shoved that piece of paper in his pocket, too. He didn't want her to think he was a predatory animal. He'd already nixed another predatory word.

Todd started again.

Dearest Shannon,

The phone rang before he could think of another opening sentence. He chatted with the caller for a few minutes while noting some special requests for a pickup of a priority parcel, then resumed his quest.

The light went out for line 3. The scrape of Gary's chair along the tile floor was followed by the metallic grind of his filing-cabinet drawer opening. “Almost ready?” Gary called out. “Those guys should be back soon.”

Todd looked up at the clock. He had five minutes left in which to write the note he would leave tomorrow.

He gritted his teeth. Writing poetry was hard enough, but writing good, meaningful, sincere poetry was even harder, especially when he had to do it while watching the clock.

Dearest Shannon,

I love you more every day

You are more special than words can say

He stopped writing, fighting for the words as every tick of the clock echoed loudly through his head, reminding him time was running short.

Nothing came. Bryan's and Rick's voices drifted through the doorway, signaling their imminent arrival.

Todd folded the paper carefully and shoved it in his pocket. His only option to finish the note in private would be to do it in the washroom before he left. He told himself this was what he deserved for not writing the note at home, when he had more time and the privacy he needed. His struggles also served as a reminder that the more notes he wrote, the harder it was becoming to find different wording and more rhymes he hadn't used before.

It was a lot of work, and he knew he had to be diligent, but this was the only way he could think of to tell Shannon how he felt. When the time was right to reveal himself, he hoped she would see that for once in his life his actions toward her were sincere and she would take him seriously.

❧

Shannon set her mug on the corner of her desk, walked around to her chair, and slid in.

When she reached for the drawer handle, she realized she would be disappointed if she didn't find a new note.

She held her breath, wrapped her fingers around the cold metal, and pulled. Sure enough, another note lay in the pencil tray.

As she picked up the small piece of notepaper, again bound by a red ribbon with a chocolate kiss tied to the end, she paused. This note wasn't as pristine as the other notes. For the first time, the paper was crinkled.

She shrugged her shoulders, tugged the bow on the ribbon to open it, set the chocolate kiss aside, and began to read.

Dearest Shannon,

I love you more every day

You are more special than words can say.

These words I write are to say to you

That I think of you in all I do.

Your Secret Admirer

Shannon smiled. The Secret Admirer's poetry was still bad, but his sentiments continued to be just as sweet.

She put the paper down in front of her and picked up the chocolate kiss. As she picked off the colored foil wrapping, she reread the note, trying to figure out if the word patterns were familiar or if any expressions might be unique to one person. She had almost finished the last line when she heard footsteps behind her chair. She quickly whipped the note into her drawer, grabbed her pencil, and popped the chocolate kiss into her mouth.

“I saw that,” Faye said as she appeared beside Shannon.

Shannon's heart pounded. She had thought she'd tucked the note away soon enough, but she'd become careless. She turned to the side and looked up at Faye, who was standing beside her chair and holding a mug of steaming coffee in one hand. Shannon's voice dropped to a whisper. “Please don't tell anyone.”

Faye's eyebrows raised. “Why? Are you on a diet? You of all people, too.” She rested her free hand on her stomach. “I'm the one who could probably lose ten pounds, but not you.”

Shannon tried not to sag with relief that it was only the chocolate Faye had seen. She said the first thing that came to her mind. “I guess it's just a girl thing. Next weekend I'm going to an anniversary celebration at my old church, and I want to be able to fit into my dress.”

Faye picked up the foil wrapping. “It was just a chocolate kiss, not a whole bar. How many calories can it have?” She
glanced around Shannon's desktop, then to the drawer,
which was tightly closed. “Got any more? Do you share?”

“Sorry. I only got one.”

Faye turned and looked at her own desk, beside Shannon's, which was bare except for her in and out baskets and computer. “Got? You mean someone around here has good chocolate kisses and skipped me? I'm going to have to wring someone's neck. Who's giving them out?”

Shannon nearly choked, even though the last of the kiss had already dissolved in her mouth. Her mind raced to think of what she could say that wouldn't be lying but yet wouldn't be spilling the beans about what had been happening for over a week now. “I don't know. Someone left it for me.” She deliberately didn't mention the notes that came with the kisses and hoped and prayed Faye wouldn't ask for more details.

“Wow. Someone has a crush on you, I'll bet.”

Shannon had a bad feeling it was more than a crush, since someone was going to a lot of trouble and for so long. “Naw. It's probably just someone who knows I like this kind of chocolate. I'll bet they're even wondering why I haven't thanked them. I should probably know who it is, but I can't figure it out.”

Faye sighed, her eyes drifted shut, and she pressed her free hand over her heart. “I wish some handsome knight would woo me with chocolate kisses. He'd have my heart for sure.” Her eyes opened, and she grinned at Shannon. “I'd really like it if Todd would leave me romantic stuff like that.”

“Todd?” Shannon blinked. The only thing he'd ever left her was a cold, slimy live frog. “That man doesn't have a romantic bone in his body. Don't tell me you have a crush on him.” His remark from the previous day—that he thought Faye liked him—repeated in her head. It appeared he was right.

“He's so–o–o handsome. And so funny!”

“He's also. . .” Shannon's voice trailed off. Todd was funny, when a person wasn't the target of his jokes. And she couldn't argue that he wasn't handsome, because he was. The biggest problem was he knew it.

She tried to think of something else to say about Todd to discourage Faye, to tell her what he was really like, but again, she had to be fair. They'd worked together for nearly a month, and he'd done nothing untoward. He hadn't played a single practical joke on anyone. He was polite, helpful, and appeared to be doing a good job. If she had to draw a dotted line in time, from the day he started working there, she couldn't think of anything bad to say about him.

As well, Todd continued to be her brother's best friend after fifteen years. Craig always chose his friends carefully. He had many acquaintances but only a select group of people he would call close friends. Craig said repeatedly that Todd had turned his life around and changed into a decent human being.

Faye waited expectantly beside her. “Todd's also. . . ?”

“Nothing,” Shannon mumbled as she typed in her password and opened her e-mail. “I forgot what I was going to say. Just remember that even though Todd isn't bad looking, beauty is only skin deep.”

Faye nodded. She began to walk the three steps to her desk but stopped after only two steps. She turned her head to look over her shoulder at Shannon. “That may be so, but beauty is also in the eye of the beholder.”

Five

Todd walked into the bookstore, trying to make it look as if he were comfortable in such a place. He stared up and down one aisle, then another, unable to believe there could be so many books under one roof. They even had a coffee shop in the back. The public library hadn't been as large as this store.

The book he'd wanted had been marked “library use only,” and he couldn't go into the library every few days. Therefore, he had come to buy the book.

If he could find it.

A young lady wearing a green polo shirt with a pin-on badge showing the logo of the store and the name “Staci” approached him, proving he looked as lost as he felt.

“May I help you?” she asked.

He didn't know if he should admit he'd just been to the library, where he didn't have to pay for anything. “I'm looking for one of those books that has rhyming words in it. For writing stuff.”

She smiled politely. “You mean a rhyming dictionary? We have a number of different kinds. There are rhyming dictionaries for both children and adults. Some are geared for poets. We have a nice one for musicians—and a few in more of a dictionary format. We have them in paperback or hardcover.”

Todd's head swam. If it wasn't hard enough to pick meaningful words that rhymed and still get his point across, now he had to decide which reference book was the best kind to suit his needs. The one he'd found at the library seemed good, but he hadn't realized it was any specific kind. He only knew he couldn't leave the building with it. “Yeah,” he mumbled. “That's what I want.”

She pointed across the room. “In the nonfiction section, in 18B.”

“Thanks,” he mumbled again and began walking.

When he finally found the right shelf, he gritted his teeth and went through all of the books, one by one, until he found one that looked as if it had the biggest selection of words per page. He cringed at the price, now realizing why the library wouldn't let their copy out of the building, then picked a smaller paperback version instead. For what he was doing, he didn't need every word in the English language. He only needed lists of words that rhymed.

With his selection in hand, Todd headed toward the front of the store to check out. While he walked, he continued to survey the building and its contents, feeling more in awe with every table and shelf he passed. Finally, when he came to a table displaying a big yellow sign that announced everything on it was marked seventy percent off, his curiosity got the better of him. He stopped.

The subject of most of the books centered on past holiday seasons. Some were works of fiction by authors he had never heard of before. When he saw one title that contained the word “Bible” he picked it up. He turned it over and started reading the back cover to discover the book was a work of fiction based on the life of one of the Old Testament prophets.

Todd couldn't remember the last time he read anything that wasn't nonfiction or was longer than a magazine article. He opened the book and started to read the first page to see if he might like it when a voice piped up beside him.

“Todd? What are you doing here?”

He fumbled with the book, snapped it shut, and slipped it over the rhyming dictionary to hide the title.

“Shannon,” he muttered, trying to keep his voice from cracking. “What are you doing here?”

She glanced at the table, then at the two books in his
hand. “The same thing as you, apparently.”

Shannon, too, held a couple of books. From as far back as he knew her, he remembered her reading something. He shouldn't have been surprised to find her in a bookstore.

She lowered her head to look at his two books and tipped her head slightly. “What do you have? Anything interesting?”

He pressed the two books tightly together, not offering her either one. “I guess. Maybe. I'm not sure. What do you have?” Not that he wanted to know specifically what she was reading. He only wanted to distract her from the books in his own hand. Especially the one on the bottom.

Shannon had no such hesitations. She held out both books to him so he could plainly see the covers. “I have a couple of inspirational romance anthologies. I just love Christian fiction, and we have more to choose from now. It's especially great to find them in a store like this. You know how much I love to read. I have to admit I'm a little surprised to see you here. I can't say I've ever seen you with a book in your hand.”

He grinned. For years, he'd teased her about being a bookworm. He'd only meant it as a compliment. He considered her diligence in reading to be a sign of intelligence. She always countered his teasing by calling him illiterate.

Todd cleared his throat and straightened his smile. He pressed his hand to his chest, over his heart and did his best to appear serious. “There're a lot of things about me you don't know. How about if I treat you to a coffee, and I'll tell you about them?”

She glanced at the coffee shop in the back of the store. “I don't know.”

“Come on. It'll be fun.”

She shrugged her shoulders. “Sure. Why not? I don't have anything better to do or anywhere else to go.”

He tried not to let her comment sting, but after the things he'd said to her in the past, he probably had it coming. The important thing was that she had accepted his invitation. For that he had to be happy or at least relieved she wasn't holding a grudge. “How about if you get us a nice table, and I'll be right back. I want to pay for these first.”

“Pay? But—” Once again, she glanced over her shoulder to the coffee shop then back to him. “You don't need to pay first. You're allowed to take unpaid-for books to the tables. That's how lots of people decide whether or not they're going to buy the book.”

“I've already decided, so I want to pay for them first. Then I won't have to worry about forgetting.” Even if he kept the sale book on top of the rhyming dictionary, she might read the title from the spine. After he paid, the dictionary would be tucked inside the bag.

She shrugged her shoulders again. “That doesn't make sense, but if that's what you want, I guess I can pay for mine, too.”

He shook his head frantically. “No, I don't want to rush you. How about if you go look at the desserts and pick something good for both of us. I'll be right back.” Before she could protest, he turned and walked quickly to the checkout, leaving Shannon standing beside the sale table.

Fortunately, there weren't any lines. He soon joined Shannon at the coffee shop, where she was standing in front of the display with the desserts, eyeing a selection labeled “Triple Chocolate Dream.” That didn't surprise him. He almost commented on her choice but bit his tongue. He had promised himself he'd treat her with the respect she deserved and never tease her again. Besides, he didn't want to do anything to associate his knowledge for her love of chocolate to the chocolate kisses he left her every day. One day he would tell her, but only when the time was right, which wasn't now.

Todd selected something else for himself and remained silent when the clerk put their order on a tray. He paid for everything, and they moved to a table.

Shannon sipped her coffee, then nibbled the chocolate piece off the top of her dessert. Todd knew the chocolate wasn't as good a quality as the specialty kisses he'd been buying and wondered if she was comparing them. He held back his smile and drank his coffee slowly so she wouldn't notice.

After she finished the piece, she spoke. “I can't believe we've been working together for nearly a month. The time sure has gone fast, hasn't it?”

Todd nodded. “It sure has. Do you know this is the first time we've had just to sit and talk? It's almost funny we're not at work.”

“I know. But you've seen by now how busy it gets in that lunchroom.”

“Yeah. It's sometimes crowded in there.” He smiled wryly. Even though he didn't sit with her during lunch, they often
sat at the same table at coffee time, as part of a group. It was
n't what he wanted, but it was an improvement over his first week, when she wouldn't go into the lunchroom at all when he was in there.

He had to take comfort in how far they'd come since then. She was now willingly sitting with him, alone, in a friendly, semiprivate atmosphere, although he wished it could have been from something more intimate than bumping into each other at the bookstore.

“I'm actually glad to see you. I've been meaning to talk to you about something. Do you mind?”

Inwardly, he cringed. He had a bad feeling he knew what she was going to ask; only this time he couldn't run away, since
sitting together for coffee was his idea. He forced himself
to smile. “No, go ahead.”

She leaned closer across the table. Her eyes widened, and Todd immediately became lost in their depths. The mixture of olive green and brown in her hazel eyes always fascinated him, although up until now he would never have admitted it.

“Please don't take this the wrong way, but do you know if anyone at work has a crush on me?”

His brain stalled. A little voice called for evasive maneuvers. “You mean, have I heard any of the guys talking?”

She smiled. His heart went into overdrive. “Yes. I know you're fairly new, but, well, you certainly must hear the men talk.”

“I haven't heard anyone say anything about you that isn't work related, but I can try to listen if you want.”

She reached toward him and rested her hand on his forearm. Her touch was gentle, even affectionate, although he knew his interpretation was probably only wishful thinking. Still, the warm contact made him hope he wouldn't break out into a cold sweat.

“That would be great. I know you think it's a strange question, but I have to know.”

He blinked to clear his mind. He didn't think it was strange at all. What he did think strange was that no one else had managed to win her heart already. “Has somebody been making you nervous?”

Shannon shook her head and withdrew her hand. He almost begged her to put it back. “No. Nothing like that.” She grinned and took a sip of her coffee, then spoke over the top of the cup. “Actually, someone is being very sweet. I just wish I knew who it was.”

He opened his mouth, about to blurt out he was the one, but she started talking before he could formulate the words.

“In a way, it reminds me of when I was a kid and Tommy Banks had a crush on me. We were seven years old, and he bought me a chocolate bar out of his allowance; but he ate it on the way to school. Instead he made me a bookmark. I haven't received a special gift from a guy since, except for my birthday and Christmas, of course. But I still have the bookmark. He drew little red and purple hearts all over it. Do you remember Tommy?”

“Can't say that I do.” What stuck in his mind, though, was not the bookmark, but her wistful comment that over the years no one else had given her anything she considered special. He'd met a few of the boys and young men she'd gone out with. He'd openly insulted every one of them, although not to their faces. She'd been angry with him every time, but he did notice that soon after he told her what he thought of her various dates and boyfriends, she broke up with them, probably because he was right. She deserved better.

But the important thing was that not one of them had given her anything she considered special that wasn't also attached to an obligatory occasion. Since she thought receiving the notes and chocolate kisses was sweet, that was reason enough for him to put his own desires aside and keep giving them to her instead of revealing himself so soon.

Before they crossed the line into dangerous territory, where being evasive might transcend into actual lying, Todd changed the subject to the upcoming twenty-fifth anniversary celebration of his church. Craig had told him Shannon would be attending both the open house on Saturday and the service on Sunday, since she'd grown up in that church. He always went to church Sunday morning, but he hadn't made up his mind about the open house Saturday night until he heard she was going. His clothes were already picked out, and he'd even ironed the pants.

He hadn't realized how much time had passed until an announcement echoed over the speakers asking shoppers to take their purchases to the checkout because the store was closing in five minutes.

Todd stood in line with Shannon so she could pay for her books. He didn't feel the least bit contrite when she teased him that he should have waited with his own purchase, since he was now standing in line a second time. In a way he found it oddly satisfying that for once she was teasing him instead of the other way around.

In fact, he couldn't remember the last time he'd enjoyed himself so much or felt so relaxed—once they stopped talking about work.

Outside, he wished he could ask her to do something so they could spend more time together, but he couldn't think of anything open at that hour on a weeknight except for the fast-food restaurants. They'd just spent the last two hours together over coffee and dessert, so she would think he was up to something if he suggested more food. Instead, he could only accompany her to her car, which was across the almost empty parking lot from his car.

He watched as she inserted the key into the lock. The time they'd spent together was the closest thing to a date he'd ever had with Shannon. Every other time they'd been together outside work, they'd traded constant banter, even insults, and were always part of a threesome, with her brother, Craig, present.

She swung the door open, tossed her purse and the bag containing the books onto the passenger seat, and started to step into the car. “I guess I'll see you at work tomorrow. 'Bye, Todd.”

Todd stepped closer as she bent more to get into the car. He didn't know what they could do, but he didn't want to part ways. “Shan! Wait!”

BOOK: Secret Admirer
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