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Authors: Gail Sattler

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BOOK: Secret Admirer
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“You were great,” he said as she returned to her seat and shuffled in beside him.

“Thanks.” Joy radiated from Shannon as she smiled ear to ear. It made Todd hope that one day she would smile like that for him.

They sat quietly for the rest of the service. At the close, everyone stood and joined with the choir in a rousing rendition of the “Hallelujah Chorus.”

They talked with several people as they all made their way out of the building.

When one of the elderly ladies who had been sniffling in the back row stopped Shannon at the door, Todd said good-bye and walked out to the parking lot to his car.

As he pointed the key toward the lock, he paused. Something felt wrong—as if he were too high.

He looked at the front tire. It was completely flat and sitting on the rim. The back tire was the same. He noticed that the car beside his had a flattened tire as well, but at least it was only one. Todd walked around to the other side of his car. Fortunately, that side was untouched.

He sucked in a deep breath and checked inside, making sure his stereo was still intact, which it was.

He walked back to the driver's side and rested his fists on his hips. He couldn't tell if someone had let the air out of the tires or if the tires had been punctured. He certainly wasn't going to have the car towed, if all he had to do was reinflate the tires. He had a spare, but with two tires flattened, one spare wouldn't do him a lot of good.

A few unkind words tumbled through his mind, but he stopped himself before he said them out loud. He returned to the church, where he found Shannon still talking to the same lady. She looked as if she wanted to get away, and fortunately, Todd could help her.

“Excuse me, Shan—may I talk to you? There's something wrong with my car.”

The lady, whose name he couldn't remember, waved her hand, smiled, and walked away to stop some other people who also looked as if they were trying to leave.

“What's wrong? Or were you just being a hero and rescuing me?”

He ran his fingers through his hair. “I wish I were being gallant, but it looks as if someone let the air out of a couple of my tires. I have a portable compressor, but it's at home. Can you give me a ride? You have to go sort of past my place anyway.”

“Someone flattened your tires!?” She raised her hands to cover her mouth. “Here? At church?”

“It's a sick world we live in, Shan. Nothing is safe.” That was an early lesson he learned. Nowhere was a safe haven, not even home, which should have been one of the first places a person could go.

“Of course I'll give you a ride home. Let's go.”

He followed Shannon to her car, and soon, they were on the way to his apartment.

“I really appreciate this. Would you mind picking me up on the way to church, too? I can leave the car in the lot overnight and then pump the tires back up after the service is over.”

“No problem. But if you want to go back and do it now, I don't mind. It's still earl—”

Shannon gasped and slammed on the brakes. The tires screeched. Todd lurched forward but avoided smacking his face into the windshield only by the seatbelt locking and holding him in place. The car jerked with the bump of a small impact. A big black dog bounced slightly off the front right fender and landed on the road beside the car. Before Todd could think of what to do, the dog scrambled up and bounded away.

“I hit him,” Shannon whimpered. “I just hit a dog.”

Todd watched the dog disappear between a couple of houses. “Yeah, but he couldn't be hurt too bad. He's running away.”

A horn honked behind them. Shannon started moving forward but far below the speed limit.

He turned toward her. All the color had drained from her face. She was gripping the steering wheel so tight her knuckles had turned white. Even from the side, he could see her eyes were glassy.

“Maybe you should pull over.”

She shook her head. “I can't. There's nowhere to stop here.”

“We're only a few blocks from my place. Maybe you should come inside with me and settle down a bit before you go home.”

She nodded tightly. “Maybe I will.”

He directed her to the visitor parking, since the control for the underground security parking area was still attached to the visor of his own car.

“I'm sure the dog is okay,” he said as he punched in the code to open the front door. “After all, it ran away. But I know it's a shock to hit something. I once hit a deer when I was in the mountains. It was pretty scary. The deer ran away, too, but I had to pull over for awhile.”

All she did was nod.

Todd guided her up the elevator and to his apartment. Once inside, he left her at the door and hurried into the kitchen ahead of her. He picked up the rhyming dictionary from the table and shoved it into the nearest drawer. Shannon appeared behind him just as he opened the cupboard above the stove. After he started working at Kwiki Kouriers, he'd bought a box of Shannon's favorite tea in the faint hope that one day she would come for a visit. He was happy to have it on hand, although these weren't the circumstances under which he had wanted to give it to her.

He started pouring water into the kettle. “If you want, I can ask around the neighborhood and see if anyone knows who owns the dog and maybe check up on it for you.”

Shannon's voice wavered as she spoke. “Yes, that would be nice.” Her lower lip quivered. Tears started to stream down her cheeks. Todd set the kettle aside, took a few steps toward her, and extended his arms. “Come here,” he said softly.

Without saying a word, Shannon stepped into the cradle of his arms. As he closed his arms around her, she cried even more. Her whole body shook.

“It's okay,” he murmured as he stroked her hair with one hand. “He didn't appear to be limping. I watched him run away.” Despite his words, he knew that as soon as Shannon left, he was going to take a flashlight and walk to the spot and check to make sure there was no blood. Only then would he be satisfied the dog probably wasn't seriously hurt, but he wasn't going to tell her that until after he'd confirmed it.

After a few minutes, she stopped crying, but Todd didn't let her go. Since she made no effort to move away from him, he kept his arms around her, holding her close to his heart.

In the car, he had considered hinting to her that he was the writer of the notes. He'd been praying for a sign to show him when the time was right to tell her he was her Secret Admirer. Even though he didn't appreciate the flat tires, it did create a situation he could have used to his advantage.

That had now changed, though. He couldn't tell her he loved her when she was so upset over hitting a dog. But, in holding her, he was more certain he wanted to do this forever. He wanted to be there for Shannon when she needed someone. He wanted her trust, and he wanted her to know he would do anything for her.

With her leaning into his hug with no hesitation, he wanted to know the same thing could happen again, only next time not in trying circumstances. He wanted to be able to hold her in good times and in bad. In sickness and in health, until death parted them.

He loved her so much he wanted to marry her.

But he couldn't ask her such a thing yet. He didn't know how she would respond when he told her he was her Secret Admirer.

She shuffled in his arms but didn't back up or indicate she wanted him to release her. Her words sounded muffled as she spoke against his chest. In a way, he liked the vibration of her voice against him. It was a tangible reminder of how close she was and that she wasn't backing away. “I'm so sorry for acting like such a ninny and crying like that. I know the dog ran away, but I couldn't stop myself.”

Todd lowered his head so his cheek pressed against her temple. Her skin was soft, and her hair smelled almost as good as it had earlier. He meant to speak clearly, but his voice came out in only a hoarse croak. “It's okay. Don't worry about it.”

Slowly, Todd lowered his head a little more, just enough to brush his lips against the soft skin of her cheek. He could taste the saltiness of her tears against his lips.

The sensation drove him over the edge. He couldn't stop himself. Or rather, he probably could have stopped, but he didn't want to. Ever so gently, he brushed a light kiss on her cheek in that spot. He brushed another soft kiss a little farther down, closer to her mouth. When she sighed, he stopped. His cheek was against hers, and their lips so close he could almost taste her. In slow motion, Todd slid one hand up her back then over her shoulders, until he touched her chin with the tip of his index finger. He guided her chin up, closed his eyes, and kissed her mouth—lightly, gently, and only for a second.

His heart raced. He wanted to kiss her again, only longer and fully.

Again, he guided her chin with his finger, just to tip her chin up a little more.

Suddenly, Shannon stiffened and stepped backward.

Todd let his arms drop. He would never hold her against her will. He knew she would never have expected him to kiss her, but he hadn't thought about her reaction until it happened. All he knew was that he wanted to do it again and do it right—he wanted to kiss her well and good, only stopping for breath long enough to tell her he loved her and to hear she loved him, too.

“I think I should go. I'll see you tomorrow morning. 'Bye.”

The door closed before he had a chance to say a word.

Eight

Shannon set her mug on the corner of her desk, then slid into her chair. She grasped the handle of her drawer but didn't open it.

If the Secret Admirer wasn't perplexing enough, now she had Todd to think about, too.

Todd.

Because she was at work, Shannon fought the urge to cover her face with her hands.

Again Todd Sanders was driving her insane.

When she picked him up for church Sunday morning, it was as if everything were normal, but things would never be
normal again. Actually, where Todd was concerned, she did
n't know what normal was.

He'd been his usual bright, cheery self on the way to church. When they arrived, he tossed a black case into the trunk of his car, and they went into the service together. To be safe, she'd immediately gone to sit with her parents. Taking it for granted he was welcome, Todd had followed right along with her, and they'd all sat together.

To make matters worse, her parents invited her for lunch at the close of the service. After she accepted, they also invited Todd. Of course, he accepted, too.

The last time she'd stayed for a meal at her parents' house when Todd was present had been two years ago, before she moved out. Todd and Craig had been in rare form that day. They'd been out fishing together, and neither of them had taken a shower before coming to the table. The stench of sweaty men, fish, and diesel fuel turned her stomach so bad she asked them to move and sit near an open window. Neither Todd nor Craig moved, but Todd teased her relentlessly for making the request.

Then, while they were eating, Todd expressed his frustration to her mother about the problems he had gutting the fish he'd caught that morning, including a detailed portrayal of the procedure he'd used. Her mother had listened intently, giving Todd some suggestions on how to get a clean cut next time, including another vivid description of the various body parts of a dead fish, while Shannon struggled to keep her stomach settled.

The final straw came when Todd pulled some kind of huge dead bug out of his pocket, claiming he was going to make a fishing lure to look exactly like it.

Everyone had thought he was funny. Except Shannon. She thought he'd been rude and obnoxious, which was typical for Todd.

On Sunday, he'd been so polite and well mannered the whole day, she wouldn't have known he was the same man. Since she hadn't known what to do or say, she'd said little and listened to Todd talk. Even if he wasn't a scholar, he had certainly been a gentleman.

Something was wrong, but she couldn't figure out what.

At the sound of a thud echoing from the lunchroom, Shannon returned her thoughts to where she was and opened the drawer. She pulled out the note of the day, but instead of reading it, she held it in her hand.

So far she could handle the Secret Admirer. The notes were flattering and sweet, even sensitive and kind. No one had ever told her she was special before, and especially not in such an old-fashioned and romantic manner. If she allowed herself the fantasy, she could have called the writing love sonnets, rather than bad poetry. She was enjoying the attention and anticipated coming to work so she could read the new note.

She grasped the end of the ribbon, about to tug it open, when Todd's laughter rang out from the lunchroom.

Her hand froze, and she shut her eyes.

Todd.

He'd been so sweet to her Saturday night that it seemed almost natural when he kissed her.

Shannon had to force herself to breathe. Todd Sanders had kissed her.

He'd kissed her once before. She'd been seventeen, and it had been the day of her high school graduation. When she arrived home from the ceremony, diploma in hand, ready to change for the dinner celebration, she'd found Todd and Craig in the living room. Todd had smiled and held his arms open, and she'd gone to him with stars in her eyes. When he asked if he could give her a celebratory kiss, she thought she had died and gone to heaven. Just like a schoolgirl, which of course she was at the time, her heart pounded out of control, and she could barely breathe as he bent down. His lips brushed her ear, setting her all a-quiver. Then he whispered “woof” in her ear and licked up the side of her face. He was across the room before she could lift her arm fast enough to smack him.

But on Saturday, when he kissed her so gently and sweetly, she'd stood very still. She had even wanted him to kiss her again. He'd definitely improved on his kissing skills, which wasn't what she should have been thinking about.

Surely she was going insane.

Just as she had told Todd before, she was a big girl now. And Todd was now a grown man. He'd been a great comfort to her and done the right things while she cried so much after the shock of hitting the dog, who may not have been hurt after all. She supposed she'd even made it easy for him. Any man in that situation probably would have done the same.

But this wasn't any man. It was Todd Sanders. She shouldn't have wanted more.

So she'd acted like the grown-up woman she was. She ran away. And now she was simply going to pretend it hadn't happened.

“Hey, Shan. Top 'o the morning to ya,” Todd quipped in a bad, fake Irish accent as he passed by, coffee in hand, before he disappeared into the dispatch office.

Behind him, Faye giggled.

Shannon gagged.

When Todd disappeared from sight, Faye sighed. “Are you coming tonight? I have a seat reserved for you.”

“Tonight?”

“Did you forget? We're all going out for Rick's birthday. To that steak place a few blocks away.”

“I remember, now that you mention it. Yes, of course I'm going.”

Faye nodded and sat down at her desk. Shannon didn't want to think about the fact that Todd might go, but she wouldn't stay away just because he would be there. She refused to let him control her life, even if it was in an indirect way.

For now, Shannon wanted to read the newest note. Faye already knew about them, and so did Todd, but he didn't count. She'd waited too long, though, and other staff had started to arrive in the office. She didn't want to wait until the end of the day when the office would once again be empty, so she picked up the note, shoved it into her pocket, and ran into the washroom.

She tried to tell herself that reading it in the washroom didn't lessen the romanticism of the situation.

Dearest Shannon,

Again I am glad the weekend is finished

Because my love for you has not diminished.

Monday has come, and I get to see you once more

And tuck another note and a kiss in your drawer.

Your Secret Admirer

Shannon smiled as she reread the note. The poetry might be getting worse, but the words still warmed her heart. She popped the kiss into her mouth, savoring it until the last morsel had dissolved, then returned to her desk and began her work for the day.

The whole day, she eagerly anticipated the coming dinner, not that the occasion was extraordinary.

But maybe, just maybe,
He
would be there.

❧

Todd walked into the dimly lit restaurant. He was with Rick and Bryan, but soon he would be with Shannon.

The atmosphere was happy and informal, just a bunch of people who didn't necessarily know each other well getting together for a fun evening. Since more than twenty-five people were attending, a small room had been reserved for their group. It was a private gathering so everyone would be free to sit down, eat, or mingle as they wished. It would be more of a party atmosphere than a formal dinner gathering, and people could leave early or stay until the restaurant closed.

The scenario was perfect for Todd. If he spent most of his time with Shannon, no one would notice or care.

Shannon stood near the front of the room, talking to Faye. Just as Todd was about to join Shannon, Gary appeared beside Rick.

Without preamble, Rick elbowed Gary in the ribs and made a crude comment about Shannon's figure. Gary responded in like manner. Todd's mouth nearly dropped open in shock, but he struggled to compose himself. What they were saying was nothing he hadn't thought himself before he became a Christian. He'd even said a few of the same things out loud to Shannon years ago. Suddenly, he felt ashamed.

He had an almost uncontrollable urge to go and stand between the men and Shannon, so they wouldn't be able to look at her. Of course, that would provide only a temporary solution. His actions would simply stall their observations and discussion for a short time.

But any time was better than no time.

He turned to Gary. “Excuse me. I just remembered something.”

Todd forced himself to walk, not run, as he crossed the room to join Shannon and Faye.

“Good evening, ladies.” He smiled first at Faye, then more at Shannon, hoping he wasn't being too obvious. “Mind if I join you?”

Faye wrapped her fingers around his arm. “Please do! We could use some manly company, right, Shan?”

Shannon glanced from side to side, then back to Todd. “I guess.”

Todd shuffled a few inches to block Gary's view of Shannon. “This is a great idea. By the way, who's collecting the money?”

Faye stuck out her hand. “Me. This month only Rick is having a birthday, so everyone else pays for just one meal. One dollar, please.”

Todd gave her the dollar. For the person or persons having a birthday that month, everyone else contributed enough
money to cover their meals. Between so many people, it was
n't a large expense, and everyone always had a good time. This was his first dinner since he'd started, and he'd been looking forward to it.

Todd grinned and leaned closer to Faye, but he still spoke loud enough for Shannon to hear. “My birthday is coming up, you know. My last birthday. I'm going to be twenty-nine forevermore.”

Shannon rolled her eyes. “Then we'll only have to pay for one dinner—and no more for the rest of your life. It would serve you right. I think I'm going to sit down. Everyone's here, so we're going to get settled and order soon.”

“I have a few more people to collect from. I'll catch you guys later,” Faye said and headed across the room.

Todd followed Shannon to one of the tables and sat beside her. She glanced to the other dispatchers and Gary, then back to Todd. She raised an eyebrow. She didn't say a word, but her question was obvious.

“It's okay if I sit with you, isn't it?” Todd tried to calm his heart from going into overdrive as he asked his next question. “We can be friends, can't we?”

She paused, as if she had to think about it. “Yes, I guess so. It just feels strange, that's all.”

His gut clenched. The room was filled with people milling about, but for a limited time, they were alone in their own small corner. It wasn't exactly ideal, but he'd made a bit of progress, and he couldn't let the opportunity lapse. He had too much he wanted to say.

“I can only guess how you feel about sitting with me, and I can't blame you. I know words are inadequate, but I don't know what I can do except say I'm sorry for everything I've done to you.” For all the good being sorry did. His mother had been sorry for twenty years. She continued to be sorry, but still nothing had changed except he'd become smarter and wiser, he hoped.

“It's okay, Todd. I've been thinking a lot about stuff lately. It's really okay. Since we've been working together, you've been different. I'm working to put everything behind me.”

Once again, her unselfish grace washed over him like a cleansing balm. He'd never felt so unworthy beside another person or so undeserving. And he'd never loved her more. “Shan, I know this is going to sound strange, but would you like to go—”

“Hi, Shannon. Todd.” Gary's voice interrupted Todd's words.

Todd gritted his teeth. He was about to ask Shannon if she would go out to dinner with him the next day, just the two of them, so they could talk, like a real date. He wasn't going to tell her how much he cared in the middle of a work-related outing. He wanted to show her, in private, away from the hustle and bustle of anything work or church related.

Gary and Rick pulled out chairs and joined them at their table for four. “I brought the birthday boy.”

Todd smiled politely, but the last people he felt like sitting with were Gary and Rick, especially after what he'd heard them say. However, since Shannon had no idea what
they'd said behind her back, he had no good reason to sug
gest they move.

Todd nodded and responded when appropriate as they ordered their food. When they received their meals, he did the same as Shannon and bowed his head in silence for a couple of seconds to give thanks to the Lord. He thanked God first for the meal, then for the reason for being with everyone out in a restaurant—his good job.

To enjoy the evening, Todd pushed the crude comments out of his head. When they finished eating, he stood and mingled, as did everyone else. He wanted to spend every minute he could with Shannon, but he knew it would look strange if he never left her side.

Still, the second dessert tray arrived, he made a beeline for his seat before anyone else could sit beside Shannon. As he knew she would, she selected a slice of triple chocolate cake while he chose a hearty piece of peach pie.

He hadn't finished his first bite when Gary reappeared, this time without Rick, but with a chocolate dessert.

Gary lowered himself into the chair. “I see you also picked chocolate. A woman after my own heart.”

Todd stiffened.

Shannon smiled at Gary. “I've had this here before. It's the best I've ever had.” She turned back to Todd. “There's one at the bookstore that runs a close second, though.”

BOOK: Secret Admirer
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