Authors: Jillian Hart
More Than Words
We all have the power to effect change—we just need to find the strength to harness it. With every good deed done and helping hand offered, we are making the world a better place. The dedicated women selected as this year’s recipients of Harlequin’s More Than Words award have changed many lives for the better, through their compassionate hearts and unshakable commitment. To celebrate their accomplishments, bestselling authors have written stories inspired by these real-life heroines.
In this book, Jillian Hart honors the work of Mary Byberg, a committed volunteer for Nellie’s Shelter for Women and Children in Toronto, Ontario.
We hope More Than Words inspires you to look inside your heart and get in touch with the heroine inside you.
For many years Harlequin has been a leader in supporting and promoting women’s charitable efforts. Through Harlequin More Than Words, each year we celebrate three women who make extraordinary differences in the lives of others, and Harlequin donates $15,000 each to their chosen causes.
We are proud to highlight the current Harlequin More Than Words recipients with the help of some of the biggest names in women’s fiction, Harlequin authors, who created fictional stories inspired by these women and the charities they support. Within the following pages you will find a touching story written by Jillian Hart—one of three ebooks available at www.HarlequinMoreThanWords.com. Be sure to look for Michele Hauf’s
, and Betina Krahn’s
—also available online. A book with three additional stories, written by Debbie Macomber, Brenda Novak and Meryl Sawyer, can be found on the shelves of your favorite bookstore in
More Than Words, Stories of the Heart
. All six of these stories are beautiful tributes to the Harlequin More Than Words recipients and we hope they will ignite the real-life heroine in you.
Thank you for your support; all proceeds from the sale of the print edition will be returned to the Harlequin More Than Words program. For more information on how you can get involved, please visit our website at www.HarlequinMoreThanWords.com.
Together we can make a difference!
Publisher and CEO
How Mary inspires others:
At some point, nearly everyone experiences a moment when one decision changes their future forever. For Mary Byberg, that moment came in January 1992, when she left her abusive husband.
Emotionally exhausted from feeling as though she was walking on eggshells around him, and even more frightened that the latest assault would be her last, Mary grabbed her two young daughters and fled to the local women’s shelter in Barrie, Ontario, a small city north of Toronto. She didn’t have money. She didn’t have extra clothes. All she had was the knowledge that it was finally time to escape the physical and emotional turmoil she’d been living with for years.
Mary had left before, but like so many women in similar circumstances, she always went home again, hoping that life would change. Yet there was something different about this latest altercation that made her stay away for good.
“I really saw that there was a chance I wouldn’t make it out of the relationship alive,” she says.
Today, Mary is more than simply alive, she’s living and thriving. She’s now juggling a full-time career in the legal field with her responsibilities as a mother, grandmother and committed volunteer for Nellie’s Shelter for Women and Children in Toronto.
Respect for all
Since 1973, Nellie’s has been at the front lines helping to rebuild the lives of more than 15,000 women and their children who have felt the impact of violence, poverty, homelessness and oppression. The organization, which is named for Nellie McClung, a feminist pioneer who worked to change the system so that women could vote in Canada, provides emergency shelter and protection for women and kids, with the ultimate goal of securing long-term, independent and affordable housing. Nellie’s staff also offer programs, services and advocacy to improve the conditions of women’s lives.
Although Mary used another shelter when she herself was in need, organizations such as Nellie’s are vital. According to some oft-quoted statistics, almost half of all women experience abuse and violence in their lifetime. It’s little wonder then that Nellie’s operates at full capacity all year, filling its thirty-six beds each night.
Back in 2004, after years spent in law school and practicing law, Mary felt a need, as well—to give back to her community. When she stumbled across a posting on Charity Village, a website that links charity organizations with volunteers, she immediately knew she wanted to contact Nellie’s and lend a hand.
“The rest, as they say, is herstory,” she jokes now.
In fact, Mary’s path from abused wife and mom to law school graduate and advocate was not nearly that simplistic. After leaving her husband, she spent seven weeks at a shelter learning to feel good again and to parent her girls on her own. She also needed housing, a job and child care. Amazingly, within weeks, a housing counselor found Mary subsidized housing, another contact hooked her up with a receptionist job at a not-for-profit agency, and she even received subsidized support for her children’s day care.
Today she’s still amazed that with proper funding, helpful people and a little luck, the social system worked so well. She was able to move on to the next stage of her life: law school, a goal she’d set for herself years before, after watching her younger sister graduate.
“It was something I needed to do,” Mary says. “It just took me a very long time to get there.”
Working toward a better life
Having lived through her experiences, and knowing how difficult the journey can be, Mary was motivated to volunteer at Nellie’s to do what she could to help women and their children who were fleeing violence. In 2004 she joined as a volunteer member of Nellie’s board of directors, and served as the treasurer for six years.
Even when she was up to her elbows in wedding planning with her two daughters, she made time for Nellie’s, spending hundreds of hours fulfilling her volunteer duties. And when her grandmother, who had raised her, passed away, Mary put aside her grief and mourning to finish the annual treasurer’s report on time. She has spent countless hours fund-raising, working on a capital campaign to raise money for a new shelter space with fifty beds, and speaking to groups about her experience and how their donations can give Nellie’s what it needs to support and feed its families.
“As a survivor of violence, Mary inspires all women,” says Wendy Sung-Aad, manager of development for Nellie’s. “She is an ordinary woman giving extraordinary hope to other women affected by violence. Mary’s story and voice is one of strength, perseverance and giving back to the community to help others.”
Mary, who has since stepped down from the board after serving the maximum three two-year terms, points out that many women in her position have gone on to be successful and give back.
“That’s great if someone thinks my life can be an inspiration for other women, but I have met dozens of women who I think are just as inspirational,” she maintains. Still, she’s happy to be a face for Nellie’s if it means more women and children will be given the same opportunities she and her daughters were offered.
Although Mary is quick to point out that she’s not a crisis counselor, she’s more than willing to guide women in the right direction if they come to her with abuse stories of their own. Her advice? Talk to someone in a shelter or call a woman-abuse hotline. Trained staff members are available to help create a plan for leaving safely, she says. They’ll also discuss the documents needed and where to go to stay safe.
Reaching out for help changed Mary’s life forever, and she’s passionate about helping others find a way out of fear.
“When I left, it finally offered me the opportunity to see how far I could stretch my life,” she says. “If you can find the courage, have the courage. There is a better life waiting for you out here.”
No One But You
Jillian Hart grew up on her family’s homestead, where she helped raise cattle, rode horses and scribbled stories in her spare time. After earning her English degree from Whitman College, she worked in travel and advertising before selling her first novel. When Jillian isn’t working on her next story, she can be found puttering in her rose garden, curled up with a good book or spending quiet evenings at home with her family.
“Mariah Evans. Is that you?” The deep baritone rumbled above the noise of the crowd, drawing her out of her thoughts.
Strange, the power that one voice had out of the many rising around her. Recognition streaked down her spine and kicked up her pulse as a tall, powerful man broke away from the crowd. Although it had been nearly eighteen years since high school, Mariah knew the confident gait, the always-in-charge manner and deep blue eyes that touched her heart.
Wyatt Royce. Her old boyfriend. Shock rocked her back on her heels. She blinked, but he kept coming, weaving coolly around the volunteers hurrying to take donations of cash, checks and diapers from the cars driving up. He was a calm island in a sea of activity. When his dazzling gaze latched on to hers, the banner flapping in the March wind advertising the diaper drive, the bustle and noise of a local television crew setting up, and the squeal of kids running to the booth ahead of their parents all faded into the background.
Run? Panic? Escape? Why was that her first instinct? Probably because things hadn’t ended well between her and Wyatt in their high school days. What a shock to see him again. “I’m Mariah Duncan now. What are you doing in Buffalo?”
“Working.” He approached the booth like the calm in a storm, poised, masculine, impeccable in a tailored suit.
“On a Saturday afternoon?” She nodded toward his attire, definitely out of place at this casual event. “Why am I not surprised you’re a workaholic?”
“Type A personality. That’s me. I guess some things don’t change.” His grin hadn’t changed, either. Wide and open and honest, it softened the rugged planes of his face and reminded her of the high school boy who’d asked her out on her first date. That smile could still make her fingertips tingle.
Not that she was letting it. She would never be interested in a man like Wyatt. They’d broken up for a reason.
“You certainly haven’t changed.” He pulled a checkbook out of his jacket pocket. “You’re still pretty. Let me guess. You’re in charge here?”
“I’m the executive director.”
“Oh, I saw your name on the shelter’s letterhead, but I had no idea you were that Mariah.” Wyatt clicked a pen—an expensive one. When he bent forward to fill out his check, dark locks of hair fell over his forehead, just like they had in those innocent days when she’d been in love with him.
How trusting she’d been before marriage changed her. She sighed, remembering. She’d never known true sadness or loneliness before those dark days as Jasper Duncan’s wife. If Wyatt knew about her past, would he pity her? Or had he simply been a Jasper in the making? And what was he talking about? “Where exactly have you seen my name? I don’t understand.”
“You and I have been sort of corresponding. How’s that for irony?” He signed the check with a flourish and handed it over.
“Corresponding? You and me? No way.” She would have recognized his name. She could never forget the man who’d given her her first kiss and first heartbreak. “You and I haven’t—“
“We have.” Amusement drew dimples beside his mouth and mellowed the chiseled angles of his face, and her heart caught again. Just like old times. All her experience and hard learned lessons vanished like fog in the sun as he splayed his hands on the booth’s counter. “I’m Flagstone Properties.”
. She couldn’t believe it. That was a hugely successful company worth billions. Flagstone Properties owned several impressive buildings in downtown Buffalo, as well as a chunk of Manhattan real estate. The organization was so wealthy it could afford to give property away. “I deal with Ella Jean there. She’s handling the final paperwork on the land the company is donating for our new shelter site.”
“Ella Jean works for me. I’m the ‘W.R.’ in the cc line of every letter and email she’s sent you. You wrote her about your fund-raiser today and that’s why I dropped by.” He shook his head, scattering that thick dark hair, so good-looking that her volunteers and employees were starting to notice. Who wouldn’t? He was a striking man.
“Take over for me, Sunni. Please.” Mariah handed Wyatt’s five-figure check—her knees buckled when she noticed the amount—to her coworker.
“Gladly.” The Asian woman flashed a knowing smile. “So nice to meet you, Mr. Royce.”
“Good to meet you.” Wyatt nodded politely. When he stepped back, he didn’t seem aware of the half-dozen women who watched him. He cut a fine figure in his perfectly fitted suit. Personally, Mariah didn’t notice the bunch and ripple of his muscles beneath the cloth as she slipped out of the booth and into the spring sunshine.
“You’re sure this is really a coincidence?” She narrowed her eyes. Honestly, she didn’t know what to think. “You must have researched our organization before Ella Jean chose us.”
“It was her project, not mine. She’s in charge. I just approved her decision.” His brow furrowed. “Why? You aren’t going to change your mind about accepting the property, are you? Let’s face it, things didn’t end well between us.”
“That was a long time ago, and besides, the shelter has outgrown our building. With this new property, Mary’s Place can finally be what the board and I have imagined it. I’m very grateful for your donation, Wyatt.”
“I’m glad we can make a difference.” Wyatt shrugged, caught between wanting to know more about her and wanting to walk away. She’d been his first failed relationship. “You run an impressive organization. After seeing your shelter through this expansion, you could have your pick of executive positions.”
“I would never leave. Mary’s Place is my heart and soul. I’m not looking for advancement and stock options.” Her expression grew shuttered. “You’re still the same Wyatt, trying to plan my life, aren’t you?”
“Not planning, just suggesting. I’m trying to make conversation and obviously failing badly.” He was terrible at relationships. Always had been. “I’m rattled. I never thought I’d see you again.”
“I know exactly how you feel.” Her eyes, as verdant as a spring meadow, glimmered as she glanced at him. There was guarded, as if she’d known great sadness, but in them the compassion shining in them was undeniable. What he’d always loved about Mariah was her big heart.
At least he wasn’t alone in his nervousness now. He cleared his throat, relaxing a little. “I should have apologized back then. I didn’t mean to make you unhappy when we were together.”
“Perhaps we were young and just too much alike.”
“No, there were differences. I wasn’t pretty, for one thing. I didn’t wear my hair in curls.” He chose humor because it was safer. Feelings weren’t his forte. Intimacy wasn’t his strength. “I never tried out for the dance team.”
“Funny, but I was talking about being stubborn. Headstrong.”
“I’ll admit to those traits. For what it’s worth, I am sorry.”
“Me, too. I’m glad to see you’ve done well, Wyatt. Success looks good on you.”
“Not as good as it does on you.” He couldn’t help noticing the gold ring glinting on her right hand. No ring on her left. Had she divorced, too? He winced, knowing that pain. He still bore the scars. He squared his shoulders, trying to figure out the best way to end this and walk away before she figured out his history. Say “nice to see you, good luck with the shelter, hope the donation helps.”
“Mom!” A strapping teenager trotted in their direction. He had Mariah’s cinnamon-brown hair and shimmering green eyes.
Mariah, a mother? Wyatt couldn’t say why that threw him. He took a step back. “It was good seeing you, Mariah.”
“Wait, don’t go. Not until you meet my son.” Pride lit her up. “Wyatt, this is Jake.”
“Hey, I know you.” The kid in jeans and a gray sweatshirt with Mary’s Place emblazoned across it had to be in his midteens. A tall, athletic looking boy, he almost matched Wyatt’s six-three.
Hard to believe Mariah had a teenager. She must have married young, right out of high school.
“You’re the dude in the pictures.”
“What pictures?” Okay, call him curious, Wyatt had to know. Did Mariah keep any evidence from their old days?
“The pics in her yearbook.” The kid danced, light on his feet, like a basketball player waiting for an opening. “Plus there’s that old photo in her desk drawer. You
him. My mom’s old boyfriend.”
“I apologize, Wyatt. I’m not responsible for the way he turned out.” Mariah rolled her eyes, amused. She might be making excuses, but love for her son shone on her beautiful face. It was unmistakable. “Now off with you, kid. Whatever it is, I’ll be there in a minute.”
“The TV crew is set up and wants an interview. They’re already taping and stuff.” Jake’s smile was like Mariah’s, too, wide, generous and flashing. “So, what was my mom like when she was my age? Trouble, right?”
“Lots of trouble. Always in and out of detention. The principal threw up his hands. Didn’t know what to do with her.”
it. Mom’s no different now.”
“Hey. Enough tall tales.” Mariah interrupted before their teasing could go any farther. She’d never been in detention in her life. “Off you go, troublemaker. I’ll deal with you later.”
“Her threats don’t scare me.” Laughter flickered in Jake’s eyes. “So, you live in Buffalo now?”
“Just moved from Manhattan. I’ve got properties and an office here, but I’m still hunting for a house. Been thinking about coming back for a while. It’s nice to be here.” Attractive, manly crinkles creased the corners of his eyes, adding character to his face. “These days, I’m trying to dial things down, take life a little easier.”
“Cool. Hey, I saw your old team picture.” Jake focused the power of his easy grin on Wyatt. “Do you still play basketball?”
“I used to. A few years ago I was on a gym league in the city. A bunch of friends and I burned up the court.”
“Awesome. I’m on my school team, but I’m in another league, too. We have a game tonight. I’m trying to learn as much as I can.”
“Good for you. You never know. It might lean to an athletic scholarship when you need it.”
Exactly when had she been left out of the conversation? Honestly. Mariah couldn’t believe it. If she waved her hands for attention, would either of them notice?
“I already thought of that. I want to be a veterinarian, so I’m hoping for at least a partial scholarship.” Excited to find someone new to talk over his plans with, Jake didn’t pause for breath. “I’m keeping my grades up, too. Maybe I’ll get something academic, but in this economy—“
“There are no guarantees,” Wyatt finished. “Sounds like you’re doing everything right. You’re covering both bases, athletic and academic. Mariah, you’ve got a smart son.”
“So I hear. Jake, please go tell Sally and her crew I’m ready for the interview I promised her.”
“Sure. Mr. Royce? If you’re looking for a team, there’s a league at the Lake Shore Community Center you might want to check out. You know, if you’re interested.” Jake skipped backward, as if reluctant to end things with his new buddy.
“Thanks. I’ll look into it.” Wyatt’s chuckle rumbled, warm and pleasant, as he watched her son dash off. True kindness deepened the flecks of dark blue in his eyes. Something in Mariah’s chest fluttered, against her will. She had a soft spot for the man, and his kindness to her son only made it worse.
Hadn’t that been the real problem when she’d been dating Wyatt all those years ago? He’d been incredibly decent. Bossy, but decent. Just too irresistible. Good thing she wasn’t tempted now.
“That’s quite a kid you have there.” Emotion crossed his face. It looked like sorrow. “He’s you.”
“Me? No, he’s smart and funny and fantastic. He was born that way.”
“Like I said, he’s you.” The hint of sorrow faded as Wyatt braced his hands on his hips, looking powerful once again. “A friend of mine used to be a pro ballplayer. He runs a basketball camp in the summers. It would be a great experience for Jake. I can try to get him in.”
Why did her guard go up? Wyatt was only being Wyatt. “Thanks, but no.”
“Well, think about it. And when it comes to college, I’m a Harvard alum. I can put in a good word for him. If he wants to get into a top vet school, he’ll want the best undergrad education he can get.”
“Wyatt.” Her stomach bunched up into one tight, impossible bunch. “I’ve got it covered.”
“Sure, but I’m just trying to help. Throw out ideas.”
“I don’t need help.” She softened the words as much as she could, hoping he would understand. The tangled knot in her stomach expanded until it filled her entire middle.
“You mean you don’t want
help.” A muscle ticked in his square jaw. This man was used to running a successful company, and he looked the part, with his polish and authority.
But she didn’t need any man’s authority. Not back in high school, not in her marriage and not now. He’d crossed a boundary she wasn’t comfortable with. “I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but I can handle it.”
“I didn’t mean to take over.” The muscle in his jaw bunched again with tension. Apology pinched the corners of his eyes—along with sincerity. That was another reason why it was easy to like Wyatt. He took a breath and eased back a bit. “Sorry. Didn’t mean to overstep. It was good seeing you, Mariah. I’ve always wanted the best for you.”
“Me, too—for you.” Her throat closed as she watched him walk away. Even his gait posture of his strength—shoulders squared, back straight, his dark suit a shadow among the bright colors of the crowd.
Shadows clung to her too, ones she’d thought she’d banished with counseling, determination and the new life she’d built. Wyatt had stirred up memories of Jasper’s control issues and temper. Times best forgotten.
“What a nice man.” Sunni sidled up to her, turning to watch Wyatt in the crowd. “I can’t believe you went to school with Wyatt Royce.
“It was a lifetime ago.”
“I think he likes you. Did you see the way his eyes lit up when he looked at you?”
“It must have been a trick of the light. Honestly.” She squeezed her friend’s hand, glad for Sunni’s friendship. Wyatt was the past. But this day, this moment? It was a gift, and Mariah was deeply grateful to Nellie’s for it. The women’s shelter in Toronto was full of wonderful people who had been there when she and Jake needed them desperately. The shelter she’d founded and ran here in Buffalo was fashioned after Nellie’s. Thanks to Wyatt, her dreams for expanding Mary’s Place were coming true.