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Authors: Gail Sattler

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BOOK: Secret Admirer
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Gary continued to look solely at Shannon, ignoring Todd. “That may be so. But nothing beats pure chocolate. Like, for example, a chocolate kiss.”

Shannon dropped her fork.

Todd nearly choked at Gary's mention of a chocolate kiss. He'd wondered if Gary had seen the note with the kiss attached the day he went into Shannon's drawer. Now, after hearing his roundabout reference to it, he knew he had.

Gary smiled and leaned slightly closer to Shannon. “I love chocolate, too.”

Todd's stomach took a nosedive into his shoes. Unless he was mistaken, Gary had just intimated he was somehow connected to the chocolate kisses Todd had been leaving for Shannon every day.

Todd cleared his throat, hoping his voice would come out sounding casual. “I think most people like chocolate, Gary.”

Gary's expression turned smug as he watched Shannon take a shaky sip of her coffee. “Probably. Just some people think chocolate is more special than others. Sometimes it even carries a message.”

Shannon started coughing in the middle of her sip. She set the cup down in the saucer so fast she spilled some, while she pressed her other fist into the center of her chest.

Todd narrowed his eyes. Gary was slick; there was no doubt about it. He'd seen hints of that characteristic while working with him. Now he saw the trait extended into Gary's personal life and thoughts as well, which shouldn't have been a surprise.

He opened his mouth to counter, even though he hadn't yet put his thoughts together to make a coherent sentence. Before he could get a word out, Faye slid into the empty chair.

“Hi, Gary. You still owe me a dollar.”

Gary leaned sideways in the chair to retrieve his wallet from his back pocket. “Of course. Is everyone having fun?”

Faye nodded. “As always. What about you, Todd? This is your first time.”

All he could think about was the new complication to his Secret Admirer plan. Shannon had asked him to listen to the talk around him, to see if he could help her discover who was leaving the kisses. She never actually told him about the notes, and he didn't know if she'd done that on purpose or by simple omission. Even though Gary wouldn't know what was in the notes, it would have been an easy guess. The point was that he knew, and he'd mentioned the kisses to Shannon.

Todd didn't know if Shannon had told any of the other women, but he did know he was the only male she'd confided in. The only reason for that was his unique position in what he could now call, with caution, an old friend.

Being in transition from nemesis to friend wasn't the time to tell Shannon he was her Secret Admirer. Despite her forgiveness, he had to prove himself. He could tell she was still being cautious around him. He had to earn her trust and, if he could, a little affection, before it was time to reveal himself to her.

Gary's sudden appearance in the scenario complicated things. He couldn't tell Shannon that Gary wasn't her Secret Admirer. To know he wasn't, Todd would have to know who was, and he couldn't say so yet.

But just as Shannon didn't know the Secret Admirer was Todd, neither did Gary. He also didn't realize Todd knew there was a Secret Admirer, which probably explained why Gary had the nerve to mention “a message” in front of him.

Todd didn't know what Gary had in mind, but he planned to find out.

He turned to smile at Faye. “I'm having a great time. This is a good way to get to know people away from work.”

Faye rested her hand on his arm, and her smile turned sappy. “I'm so glad you feel that way.”

Todd patted her hand, while desperately thinking of a way to remove it without being too obvious. He knew Faye had a crush on him. He hoped that, like the other women who had developed a fast crush on him because of his smile and his ability to tell a good joke, her crush would fade as quickly as it started. He didn't want to hurt Faye. He liked her, but only as a friend at work.

He turned toward Faye's plate, which contained a half-eaten piece of cake. “That looks good. I got the peach pie. It tastes good, too.”

Faye looked at his dessert then and saw he'd eaten only one bite. She blushed and released his arm. He immediately began to eat, openly savoring every bite. His acting caused everyone at the table to smile, including Shannon, and they all resumed eating their own desserts.

With Faye's arrival, Gary made no more personal references.

Since it was only Monday evening, no one stayed much longer after the desserts were finished. Todd became caught up in a conversation with one of his coworkers, so he stayed longer than he had intended. In so doing, he found himself walking out to the parking lot at the same time as Gary.

“You said before that you've known Shannon for a long time.”

Todd stiffened. “Yes. I'm good friends with her brother.”

“I know you don't have anything on now, but have you ever gone out with her?”

Todd didn't know what to say. He didn't know Gary well, but he did know he had a reputation as a playboy and was proud of it.

Todd considered the time he'd spent with Shannon at the bookstore the closest thing to a date he'd ever had with her. The way things were going now, it would be the closest he'd get for a long time. “No,” he mumbled. “Never did.”

Gary jingled his keys in his pocket as they walked. “But you've known her for a long time, so that's close enough. Tell me what she likes and doesn't like.”

A list of Shannon's favorite things flooded his mind. Books, especially Christian romance fiction. Apple-scented shampoo. The emergence of spring. Animals in general, but especially big dogs of no particular heritage. The color green. Classical music with lots of strings. Tall trees.

He shook his head. He had no intention of helping Gary date Shannon. Since he didn't know what Gary expected to hear, he decided to be vague.

“She likes chocolate,” he muttered.

“Anything else? I need more. I want to see what progress I can make with her. You can help your boss, can't you?”

Todd nearly tripped over his own feet. He didn't want to think Gary would use his authority to hire and fire to obtain the information he wanted, in something that had nothing to do with work—and everything to do with Todd's heart.

Fortunately, they had arrived at Todd's car, saving him from having to say too much, but Gary stopped beside him.

Todd opened the door and slid in. He reached to close the door, but Gary stepped forward, preventing Todd from moving it without hitting him and forcing him to reply. Todd remained with his arm outstretched, his hand gripping the handle. “Do you have a cat?”

“No, but my sister does. Does she like cats?”

“Not particularly. Focus on that.”

“Great. I trust you'll tell me what I need to know?”

“Sure.”

Gary stepped back, finally allowing Todd to close the door.

The dinner Todd had paid good money for threatened to surface. He didn't like the position Gary was putting him in with Shannon. He had no intention of helping Gary try to seduce Shannon. But Gary's veiled threat hung over him. He expected him to provide insider information on Shannon.

If Todd didn't need the job so bad, he would have quit right there. But he couldn't do that. Not only did he need the job, but for years, he'd wanted this particular job. Being a city dispatcher was the dream of a lifetime for him. He didn't have enough experience, but Gary told him when he was hired that he would take the chance, hire him anyway, and let him prove himself. So far, he was exceeding expectations, but he hadn't passed his initial three-month probationary period yet.

The job also paid decent money, something else Todd couldn't make light of. Along with supporting himself, he still had to pay off a few of his mother's debts plus a number of ongoing expenses for her.

He couldn't jeopardize the job, or he'd be out on the street. But he refused to let Gary seduce Shannon or be any part of the man's efforts.

Shannon's faith was solid. He knew she wouldn't date someone like Gary. At least, he hoped she wouldn't.

The first thing Todd did when he arrived at home was to go into the kitchen and page through his rhyming dictionary.

Somehow he had to show Shannon that Gary was not the man behind the notes, but he didn't know what to say that wouldn't also show he was the one. For lack of anything to say, Todd simply wrote from his heart.

Dearest Shannon,

Your words are kind, and your thoughts are tender.

My love to you I completely surrender.

When comes the day I can reveal my name

I hope and pray you will feel the same.

Your Secret Admirer

Once he had rolled and tied the note and attached a kiss, Todd changed into his pajamas. It wasn't his bedtime for hours, but he had a lot of praying to do, and he was going to do it in the dark, where he would have no distractions.

Then maybe tomorrow would be a better day.

Nine

Shannon read the newest note a third time. Something was different, but she couldn't figure out what. Finally she told herself it was that the pentameter matched this time. She rose, unlocked her filing cabinet, and tucked the note into the newest envelope.

She smiled as she closed the drawer and pushed in the locking button. Rather than leaving the notes where anyone could gain access to them when she wasn't at her desk, she had been storing them in a safe and secure location. She took each envelope home on Friday, then spent a good portion of every Friday night reading the notes, studying them, and trying to figure out who wrote them.

Her smile faded when she realized she was no closer to discovering the identity of the man than when the notes started appearing. Trying to analyze and compare the handwriting had turned up nothing. No one wrote anything by hand anymore. Everything was sent via the company computer, either e-mailed or printed out for everyone to initial if necessary. She'd used a few signatures to eliminate some people, but the signatures weren't enough to determine a match, as most people's didn't correspond with their normal handwriting.

Her only lead was Gary's mention of the chocolate kisses, but his words were by no means conclusive. She'd been working at Kwiki Kouriers enough years with the same people that it was no surprise for someone to know she loved chocolate, especially chocolate that wasn't mixed with caramel or nuts or common fillers. Still, Gary's reference to chocolate kisses had been bugging her for days. She'd prayed about the Secret Admirer more times than she could count. Over the last couple of days, she'd also prayed about Gary, not that he would be the Secret Admirer—she just wanted to know if he was or wasn't. She hadn't received an answer.

A thud echoed from the kitchen, followed by a grumble.

Shannon smiled. Todd arrived his usual ten minutes after she did. His first stop was the lunchroom. He would pour his coffee, then begin his trek through the office toward the dispatch area. At least twice a week, he overfilled his mug, causing him to spill some coffee on the floor. He then had to go back into the lunchroom for a paper towel to wipe up his mess. She had his routine clocked almost to the minute.

This time she stopped him.

“Todd, I need to talk to you.”

He smiled so vividly she could see the little crow's feet at the corners of his eyes from where he stood. He lowered his voice. “By the way, I meant to tell you—that dog was all right. I went back and checked. No sign of anything.”

She let out her breath. “Thanks for doing that.”

“So, what's up?”

“This Secret Admirer thing has me completely stumped. I've studied the handwriting, I've listened around, I've asked questions, and I've watched to see if anyone looks at me a little more than they should. Everything comes up blank. Have you heard anything?”

“No, Shan, I haven't heard a thing. Sorry.”

She glanced from side to side, to be sure they were alone in the office. “What about Gary? You heard what he said at the restaurant.”

“You mean about the chocolate kiss? I think he heard that from Kathy.”

Shannon's stomach clenched. She'd tried so hard to keep the Secret Admirer secret. She didn't know word was floating around the office. “You mean Kathy knows? Who else knows?”

“I don't think anyone knows anything specific. The same day you asked me if I'd heard anything, Kathy came into the dispatch office and asked Bryan if he had chocolate kisses. Kathy said Nanci had asked her for one because Faye asked Nanci, and she was wondering if someone had given them out and she'd missed one.”

Shannon gritted her teeth. Faye knowing something was going on would be her downfall, but it was too late to do anything about it now. “I guess it's a relief then that I know the source of the information. I won't have to take Gary seriously.”

Todd shrugged his shoulders. “I wouldn't. Besides, you know what he's like. He's broken a few hearts around here. Jody, for one. Gary eats women like you for breakfast. He's not your type anyway.”

She folded her hands in front of her on the desk. “And how do you know what my type is?”

He grinned and winked. “I just know. He's not your type.”

She tipped her head to study Todd. Over the years he'd seen every male she'd dated. She wouldn't have wanted Todd to pick what kind of man would be her type for her life's mate; yet, she could certainly trust his judgment on who wasn't. From the time she was old enough to date, whenever she started to get serious about a boyfriend, along came Todd, telling her at least one major character flaw, usually in a belittling manner and at the worst possible moment. The trouble was, even though it hurt, Todd was always right in his assessment.

This time, though, Todd hadn't put her in a state of emotional upheaval, telling her what a loser her current boyfriend was. She knew Gary was a charmer and not a Christian. Of course, he was likable and intelligent, but that didn't make him suitable, at least not for her. But she wasn't going to tell Todd that once again he was right.

She shrugged. “I'll be the judge of that. By the way, I was talking to Mom last night. Since she knows we see each other every day, she asked me how your mother was doing.”

All traces of Todd's grin disappeared. “About the same,” he mumbled. “I should get in there before the phones start going crazy.”

Before she had a chance to say another word, Todd hustled into the dispatch office.

Shannon suddenly regretted bringing up a tender subject. She didn't know what the problem was between Todd and his mother; she only knew it had existed before she met him. When she'd asked Craig, Craig wouldn't tell her anything. At first it annoyed her, because they never kept any secrets from one another until Todd came along. But, when she became a teen, she realized she didn't have to be privy to all Craig's inner thoughts and knowledge, especially about his friends. Nor had she wanted to share all her thoughts with Craig anymore.

Just before she moved out, at the height of her frustration with Todd, she'd seen him come over for a visit. Because she didn't want Todd to drive her to the edge of insanity, she'd ducked into the kitchen, meaning to go out the back door instead of the front. Before she left, she'd overheard Craig ask Todd if his mother did “it” again. But all she heard in reply was muffled sobs.

She didn't know men did that. She'd heard women cry, but never a man. Until that day, she hadn't considered that Todd's problems at home could be so serious. She knew a social worker was involved with the family, but she'd always assumed it had something to do with social assistance, since he had no father and his mother never seemed to hold down a job.

Regardless of his mother's employment history, Shannon figured out then that Todd must have been living in a dysfunctional environment if one question about his mother could cause him to break down like that. From that day on, whenever Todd did something to hurt or embarrass her, she told herself he was acting like a wounded puppy, striking back at her for whatever was striking at him. It didn't make it any less painful for her, nor did it make it right, but it did provide an excuse.

That was also the day that despite how much he tormented her, Shannon had begun to pray for Todd, although not as regularly as she felt she should have.

Faye and Brenda's arrival in the office turned Shannon's thoughts to her upcoming payroll deadline. Right on schedule, Gary appeared with the drivers' time sheets.

“Hi, Shannon,” he said, dropping them in her basket.

“Thanks, Gary,” she muttered as she finished her current calculation.

He leaned forward. “Anything else I can do for you?”

Shannon slid a piece of paper across the desk and handed him her pencil. “Yes. Can you write something for me?”

He grinned and returned the pencil. “Sorry. I won't let you catch me. Nice try, though. Maybe we can go out for coffee or dinner one night and discuss what's going on.”

In your dreams,
she thought. “Maybe,” she said.

“Great. It's a date then.”

Before she could refute him, he turned around.

Shannon sighed as Gary walked away. She'd done a lot of thinking about every man she came in close contact with at work, Gary included. Not only was Gary intelligent, he had control issues, and he was also cagey. Being second only to the terminal manager, Gary had access to the building any time he pleased—days, nights, and weekends. Even if Gary wasn't the Secret Admirer, he had access to her desk when no one else was around, and he could easily have seen a note left for her, even if he didn't put it there. She could see him trying to lead her on, to get what he thought he could from another man's work. She'd seen him do such things professionally; she had no doubts he would do them personally.

But she wasn't positive he wasn't the Secret Admirer. If he was, she thought she might faint.

She doubted he was, though. The notes had an emotional flare she couldn't pin down. She was sure they sometimes didn't come out quite right because the Secret Admirer was working so hard at rhyming, but the message was clear. Someone had a crush on her, and he meant every word he said.

Gary wasn't the type to be poetic. He had a sharp wit
and an analytical mind. If he turned to poetry, she was
sure Gary's poetry would be more trendy and stylish, and he
would certainly use more flare and alliteration in his
choice of words.

Todd, on the other hand, might write like this, except she knew he wasn't capable of rhyming any words with
more than a single syllable. The Secret Admirer used
words she would never have dreamed of rhyming; yet they did.

Shannon looked toward the dispatch office.

She was sorry she'd put Todd in an awkward position, bringing up something that disturbed him when he should have been concentrating on his work. She knew he had some kind of difficulty with his mother, even as an adult. Craig told her Todd had started to change after he'd moved out and into his own place, just before Shannon moved out on her own. According to Craig, Todd became a Christian shortly after that. Now that she'd been working with him for a few months, she could see he was a changed man, not just because of his Christianity, but something else, too. She would never have thought Todd would mature, but he had.

But becoming a Christian didn't mean his struggles with his family would end. She'd known it was a sensitive subject, and she never should have asked him such a thing at work. For the first time, Shannon owed Todd an apology.

Until the opportunity arose to talk to him, Shannon resumed her work. Before she knew it, Faye was standing in front of her desk, and her stomach was starting to rumble.

“Faye, if you don't mind, I'm going to wait for half an hour and take my lunch break with Todd. There's something I have to talk to him about. Do you mind?”

Faye's eyes widened. “What did he do?”

Shannon smiled. “He didn't do anything. I just have to talk to him about something.”

Faye's cheerful demeanor sagged. “Oh. Well, have fun.”

Shannon couldn't help but feel sorry for Faye. She knew Faye had a crush on Todd, and it was a big one. But the more she thought about Todd—and Faye—the more she thought Faye needed someone more solid and grounded in their faith.

Like her brother Craig. . .

Shannon brightened. “I'm not going to have fun. It's something I have to talk to him about. I'll catch you at coffee time.”

The next half hour was the slowest of her life, second only to the half hour she once spent trying to find a clear stream as a suitable habitat for a poor, displaced frog on death's doorstep.

As soon as Todd exited the dispatch room, Shannon hit
save
on her computer and followed him into the lunchroom.

He walked straight for the fridge and removed his lunch. When he turned around and saw her, his eyes widened. “What are you doing here?”

Shannon grinned, reached around him, and removed her own lunch. “I work here, and it's lunchtime. Mind if I share your table?”

His eyes widened even more. “Not at all.”

Before they ate, they paused for a word of thanks.
Shannon thought it special that for once, she wasn't the only one to pray out loud softly at work, as she always did with Faye. Today Todd prayed. He wasn't eloquent, and his words didn't flow smoothly, but they came from his heart, and that was what counted.

While Shannon sprinkled dressing on her salad, she replayed his prayer in her mind. The more time she spent with Todd, the more she saw that Craig was right. Todd had changed, in many ways. She hadn't given him enough credit, and she felt guilty.

“I was wondering—have you ever been to any other church besides the one you attend now?”

Todd took a big bite of his sandwich. “Nope.”

She started to nibble her carrot sticks. “You might enjoy going to a smaller service, one where there's more interaction and more opportunity to ask questions. I have an idea. Why don't you come to my church with me next Sunday? I think you'll like it.”

“You're asking me to go to church with you?”

Suddenly, Shannon realized that was what she had done. “I guess I am.”

His whole face brightened. “Sure. I think I'd like that. Is that why you wanted to have lunch with me?”

Shannon felt her cheeks heat up. “Not really. I think that was a spur-of-the-moment thing. Not that I'm going to change my mind. I wanted to apologize for this morning.”

Todd started to cough and gulped down his mouthful, almost choking. “Apologize? To me? For what?”

BOOK: Secret Admirer
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