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Authors: Robyn Carr

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Sheltering Hearts

BOOK: Sheltering Hearts
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Dear Reader,

Harlequin has long been a steadfast supporter of causes that are of concern to women. It is our commitment to this principle that led us to establish the
Harlequin More Than Words
program in 2004. As our primary philanthropic initiative, the More Than Words program celebrates and rewards women who make outstanding contributions to their community.

One such woman is
Rhonda Clemons
, founder of
Zoë Institute
in Tahlequah, Oklahoma and a recipient of a Harlequin More Than Words award. Her selfless desire to help other single mothers facing adversity provided the inspiration for this novella,
Sheltering Hearts
, by
New York Times
bestselling author Robyn Carr. Ms. Carr donated her time and creative talents to this project, and I think you’ll agree, it’s a heartwarming tribute to Rhonda and her work.

Some of our most celebrated authors—Joan Johnston, Christina Skye, Rochelle Alers and Maureen Child—have also contributed to the Harlequin More Than Words program this year. Their stories, inspired by our other Harlequin More Than Words award recipients, are available, along with Ms. Carr’s, in
More Than Words, Volume 6
wherever books are sold. All proceeds from the sale of the book will be reinvested in the Harlequin More Than Words program, further supporting causes that are of concern to women.

Please visit
www.HarlequinMoreThanWords.com
for more information, or to submit a nomination for next year’s awards.

Now, it is my great pleasure to present
Sheltering Hearts
; I hope it warms your heart and inspires the real-life heroine in you!

Sincerely,

Donna Hayes

Publisher and CEO

Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.

Sheltering Hearts
Robyn Carr

New York Times
bestselling author Robyn Carr takes readers back to her beloved Virgin River country in this heartwarming tribute to Rhonda Clemons, founder of Zoë Institute and a winner of a Harlequin More Than Words award.

By discovering a seed of compassion and nurturing it to effect real change, the dedicated women selected as Harlequin More Than Words award recipients make our world a better place. To celebrate their accomplishments, bestselling authors have honored the winners by writing short stories inspired by their lives and work.

This special eBook is yours at no charge because Harlequin is committed to celebrating women’s efforts and supporting the causes that are meaningful to them. By sharing Rhonda Clemons’ story, we hope to turn awareness into action and mobilize others to make a difference.

To find out more or to nominate a woman you know, please visit www.HarlequinMoreThanWords.com.

RHONDA CLEMONS

ZOË INSTITUTE

Until April 1997 Rhonda Clemons enjoyed the perfect life in Warner, Oklahoma. She had a master’s degree, a good job, three children and a happy marriage. She had a strong support network of friends and a rich spiritual life. Then one day Rhonda’s husband, Michael, came home with tragic news. During a regular exam his dentist had discovered a small sore on the side of his tongue, and it had turned out to be cancer.

Nothing was ever the same again.

Yet amid the chaos and pain of the diagnosis, and the chemotherapy and radiation treatments, Rhonda and Michael received incredible—some would say miraculous—news. Rhonda was pregnant again with the couple’s fourth child. As Michael’s strength waned, Rhonda’s pregnancy blossomed. But despite aggressive treatments and Michael’s own strength, he died a mere eleven months after learning he had the disease. Less than three weeks later, Rhonda delivered their youngest son, Noah Benjamin.

Suddenly Rhonda was a single mother with four children to care for, nurture and feed. And although Rhonda is blessed with a natural can-do attitude and energy to burn, she was not prepared for life as a solo parent.

“I had a master’s degree and a career. I was in church and I had a good family. I was treated well, and we had life insurance. I had this pile of advantages and it was still so difficult for me,” she says today.

Through the haze of sleepless nights caring for a newborn and grief over her loss, Rhonda turned to her friends, family and faith for support. Still, she was exhausted and overwhelmed. So in a flash of inspiration fueled by desperation, Rhonda found babysitting for her children and booked a weekend alone at a cabin in the woods. She needed time to heal, write in her journal and think about what she would do with the rest of her life.

It was in that cabin that an idea came to her that would change not only her own life, but also the lives of countless other single mothers facing hardship. The idea manifested itself as
Zoë Institute
, a faith-based, long-term support agency for single women and their kids.

“Half of our families are trying to raise children as single moms with none of the advantages I had. They’ve never been treated well in a relationship, they have no education and no career, and I’m thinking, ‘How in the world do they do it?’” she says.

The Greek word
zoë
means “life,” and it’s that concept that steers everything Rhonda does.

“It’s what I want to be,” says Rhonda. “I don’t want to be a Band-Aid. I want a place where these women can come long-term and find out they are valuable, where they can be educated, mentored, encouraged and supported as they become the best family possible.”

 

Inspiration and dedication for single moms

 

Rhonda first expected Zoë, established in 2004, to run as a part-time side project to accompany her paying work as a professional grant writer. The original goal was to help 100 single-mom families that first year. But after the organization’s big, splashy launch—a well-attended conference on Valentine’s Day weekend for single moms and their kids—word spread. Soon 200 to 300 women per month were contacting Zoë for help and guidance. Today that number has increased to between 300 and 400 families per month.

Although the main concept has remained the same—offering single mothers a place to visit and connect with other single mothers, while receiving professional and personal guidance—the number of services has grown.

Today Zoë Institute offers educational programs through support groups to help women kick negative relationship patterns with abusive spouses and boyfriends and choose healthy relationships down the road. Trained volunteers give
classes
in parenting, boundary setting and life skills. Zoë also gives women one-on-one mentoring opportunities with positive role models. Finally, Zoë Institute operates the
“Hands of Grace” warehouse
, which distributes diapers, clothing, shoes, toys, furniture, appliances and hygiene products to struggling families in the area.

Under Rhonda’s leadership, Zoë’s success stories abound. For example, Zoë Institute once reached out to a local homeless family living under a bridge. They now have a house to call their own.

In another case a couple of years ago, a woman came to Rhonda clutching a two-year-old toddler and a five-week-old baby, desperate for any help she could receive. She had just left her abusive
husband, who had belittled and abused her physically for years. Rhonda’s voice softens as she describes the meeting.

“She came into my office and couldn’t even look at me. She was so beaten down, all she could do was cry,” says Rhonda. “This lady told me horrible stories of abuse. Her ex-husband even regulated the number of toilet paper squares she could use every day.”

Rhonda hooked the woman up with emergency supplies and support groups to help guide her through feelings of despair and inadequacy. The charity also steered her into the Habitat for Humanity network.

Today the woman is a new person. She divorced her husband, terminated his parental rights and now lives in a new home with her children.

“She’s graduating college in a few weeks,” says Rhonda, sounding enthusiastic. “Women get into this victim mentality, but with good education, good information and a support system, they can make it.”

 

Working together with a mission

 

Ask Rhonda what most surprises her about these past few years since Zoë got off the ground and she’s quick to point to her sixty volunteers. Rhonda herself takes a very small salary for her work at Zoë Institute, but her volunteers are involved in everything, including running workshops, teaching Celebrate Recovery addiction groups in local detention centers and picking up, sorting and cleaning community drop-off items. She says she continues to be amazed by their dedication.

“I didn’t know people would just work for you day after day and not get paid. I didn’t know people actually did that kind of stuff,” she says.

But they do, particularly when funds are tight, as they are for
Zoë Institute. Still, Rhonda is a true motivator. Often out of the house by 6:30 a.m. and back again after 9:00 p.m., she’s a whirlwind of activity and nerve.

“I have a lot of energy. I’m just one of those people who hits the ground running at 5:00 a.m. and go, go, go,” she says, laughing and mentioning that she might like to hit the motivational-speaker circuit someday. “I’m like a tornado. People are either sucked in and they get as excited about life as I do—or they’re scared away!”

In reality, Rhonda remains humble, relying on her staff, volunteers, children and her faith to keep herself grounded. She says all these elements come together to give her community a place like Zoë Institute.

“It’s not me—I’m just a vessel that God uses,” she says. “I was simply brave enough to step out in faith on this idea—and all of this exploded!”

For more information, visit
www.zoeinstitute.com
or write to Zoë Institute, 1009 S. Muskogee Avenue, Tahlequah, OK, 74464.

R
OBYN
C
ARR

Robyn Carr is a RITA
®
Award-winning,
New York Times
bestselling author of more than thirty novels, including the critically acclaimed Virgin River series. Robyn and her husband live in Las Vegas, Nevada. You can visit Robyn Carr’s Web site at
www.RobynCarr.com
.

CHAPTER ONE

A
s Dory Finn pulled her twelve-year-old Pathfinder up the drive to her little house in the country, she noticed the engine was skipping, and something was making a very ugly noise. She tried to ignore that. She had thought it was the battery because of the way the car wanted to die at stoplights, but this was something new and sounded much more serious.

The battery problem she could handle. She’d spent the past couple of days shifting into Park at stop signs and lights, and revving the engine to keep it going until she could replace the battery. Now it was apparent her problem could be bigger than a battery. “Come on, old girl…” she said to the car. “Come on…” She just didn’t have the money for a major car repair. And even a new used car was out of the question.

The little house that her uncle Joe had left her wasn’t in a regular neighborhood, but on the outskirts of Fortuna, California, in a group of fairly isolated houses. She had very few neighbors,
but there was a new guy just moving in next door. Clay Kennedy. A big moving box balanced on one shoulder, Clay turned toward her noisy car. And he frowned—undoubtedly at the expensive sound the Pathfinder had just made.

She frowned as well, but her attention moved from the noise of a sick car to the shoulders on that man. The Realtor had introduced them a couple of weeks ago when Clay was due to close escrow on his house, which was almost identical to her own little abode. Actually, all the houses on the wide bend in the river were alike, having been vacation homes at one point.

Apparently Clay had lived in the area his entire life. He was a firefighter—thus the wide strong shoulders, flat belly and narrow hips. Seemed like a nice enough guy, but a flirtatious bachelor was exactly what Dory
didn’t
need.

The minute she put the car in Park, the engine quit. She bit back a curse.

“It died again, Mama,” eight-year-old Sophie said.

“Dead as a doorknob,” said six-year-old Austin.

Dory had corrected him once—it was door
nail.
But when she couldn’t explain what a doornail was or why it would be dead, she had given up.

Clay put the box down on his porch and turned toward her. He mopped his brow and neck with a rag, then stuck it in his back pocket. There were big perspiration stains under his arms and around his neck, and Dory asked herself how it was possible that sweat could look so good on a man. And then he came toward her, taking long strides across their wide front yards. She got out of the truck.

“Hey,” he said. “Dory, right?”

“Right,” she said. “And you’re…?”

“Clay Kennedy,” he said, smiling.

Surely he couldn’t have guessed that she’d known his name all along, that she’d remembered it. Nah.

“Um, got a car problem?”

“Not as bad as it sounds, I’m sure. I’ll take care of it,” she said.

“Is there a… Well, is there a husband or boyfriend who can give you a hand with that?” he asked.

“I’ve got it handled,” she said.

He put his hands in his pockets and smiled lazily. “Single?”

“As it happens,” she said.

“Well, what a coincidence,” he said, shoving his hands deeper in his pockets, rocking back on his heels. “So am I.”

“Yes,” she said, “that’s what you told me when we met. Remember?”

“Ah. So you remember that part, huh? Good.” He peered into the car. “They’re awful quiet in there.” He winked at her kids before he straightened. “They always that well behaved?”

“Yes, they’re very good,” she said, but what she thought was—sometimes she wished they weren’t. Kids who came from abusive or dysfunctional homes were often a little too good, walking on eggshells, without realizing they were being overly cautious so as not to set anything off. Although she’d been the sole parent since Austin was two and Sophie four, she worried sometimes that they were still reacting to the craziness of their very early childhood. She opened the back door. “Let’s go, you two. Come on.”

But then they got out of the car like normal kids, grabbing backpacks, racing each other to the house, Austin tripping to go splat and Sophie laughing and making fun, beating him to the front door. That comforted Dory.

She started to follow when Clay said, “Dory?”

She turned. “Hmm?”

“I don’t suppose you’d like to go out sometime?”

“I don’t suppose,” she said, but at least she smiled when she said it. Then she turned again and moved on.

“Why not?” She turned back and saw him pull the neck of his T-shirt away from his body and sniff. “I’ll shower and everything.”

She almost laughed, but in the end she decided it would be better to be firm. “Nothing personal. Just too much on my plate, Clay. Thanks for asking.” She turned back again. “But that shower thing—good idea, before a date.”

She heard his laughter at her back as she went into the house.

It was true—she was too busy to date. With her full-time job at a large grocery store in Fortuna, plus as much overtime as she could wrangle, two kids and involvement in an organization working to support single mothers, there wasn’t much time left over. Certainly none for dating. Why would she date anyway? Not only didn’t she trust her instincts with men, but she had no intention of being the female half of a couple. Her only experience with that had gone very, very badly.

Tonight, after a quick dinner, she had to go to a support group for single moms held in the basement of a local church. All the women took their kids along—they were single moms, often without any backup support. Everyone pitched in to pay one of the mothers’ teenage daughters to keep an eye on the kids in a Sunday school room right down the hall.

Three years ago Dory had gone to one of those support group meetings because
she
needed support. It didn’t take long before she’d been recruited by a couple of women to help them grow the organization into a bona fide nonprofit agency dedicated to helping
single moms and their kids. They’d come a long way—churches, businesses and individuals supported their efforts and they were writing grants all the time. Though the women were always striving to do more, they’d already managed a couple of two-day educational conferences for single mothers, something they planned to do at least every summer. They also now had a house that served as a shelter for victims of abuse, and there was a waiting list to get in! A bank account had recently been set up from which they withdrew money for things like gas chits, utilities deposits, emergencies. Some of the women who hooked up with their group were in desperate need of absolutely everything. Volunteers also carried donated supplies in the backs of their cars—powdered milk and formula, diapers, some canned goods, soap and shampoo, cereal and baby food. One day they planned to have an actual center with an emergency food bank.

When she and the kids got back into the Pathfinder after dinner, Clay was on his front porch, feet up on the rail, drinking a soda. She gave a wave; he gave a wave. And Austin gave an enthusiastic wave. She sometimes felt bad for Austin—he could use a positive male role model in his life. But Dory doubted she’d ever be willing to take that kind of chance.

She started the car, and voilà! No terrible sound! Started right up! Jeez, these old cars with a million miles on ’em could be quite temperamental. She was so happy that she found herself grinning victoriously at Clay from behind the wheel. And he, smiling slightly, raised his can of cola in a toast.

A couple of hours later, returning from the support group, she was almost home when she heard the sound again. But just a little and not for long. She pumped the brakes—at least they worked
well. Whatever it was, she’d ask around at her next single moms’ support group to see if anyone had a friend or brother who’d be willing to just diagnose it for her. That would make her feel better.

When Dory got home from work the next day, her grass was cut. Her grass had been cut? Well, she might’ve let it get a little tall, but it was only April! She always caught up eventually and it wasn’t as if there was a neighborhood association monitoring upkeep out here by the river.

Her new neighbor was at the side of his house, hosing off a shiny new riding lawn mower. Something in her gut clenched and an unwelcome memory surfaced. Her ex-husband, Todd, nicknamed Trip, used to do those kinds of neighborly things. In fact, he was so dang helpful in their little Oklahoma neighborhood, everyone thought he was just the nicest guy….

The kids got out of the car, dragging backpacks. “I’ll be right in,” Dory said to them. And then she walked over to her neighbor’s yard.

He turned off the hose, smiled at her and said, “Hey, Dory. How’s it going?”

“You don’t have to cut my grass,” she said. “I have a lawn mower. I can get it done.”

“It’s no trouble,” he said. “Glad to help.”

“I wish you wouldn’t.”

He frowned at her. “I said I didn’t mind. Why don’t you want my help, anyway?”

She thought for a second. She didn’t want to get reeled in, that’s why. But she said, “Listen, I’m just too busy to be repaying grass-cutting favors.”

“Yeah, I got that—busy. Look, that’s perfectly fine. I didn’t have any kind of repayment in mind.”

“But it’s a pretty big yard!”

“Dory, it’s a riding lawn mower,” he said, throwing an arm wide toward it. “It’s kinda fun, to tell the truth.” Then, for no reason she could immediately figure out, he crouched. “Hey, what’s your name?”

Austin had followed Dory and now stood right behind her. He just stared at Clay for a second until Dory said, “It’s okay.”

“Austin,” he said shyly.

“Well, Austin—want a ride on my new lawn mower?”

“We need to get dinner…” Dory said.

“A very short ride?” Clay asked. Then he stood and looked into her eyes.

“Please, Mom? Just a short ride? Please?” Austin pleaded excitedly.

She sighed. “Please be careful,” she said to Clay.

“I’m very careful,” he said. “Come here, Austin. I’ll drive you over to your front door.”

Austin scrambled excitedly onto Clay’s lap and Clay revved up the lawn mower, lifted the blades off the ground and let Austin put his hands on the steering wheel. Then they started off toward Dory’s house, taking very wide S-turns getting there, making the ride longer. By the time he delivered Austin to the front porch, sweet Sophie was standing there, a very envious light in her eyes. “Well, I bet you’d like a short ride, too. Ask your mom,” Clay said.

Swell, she thought. She’d pretty much shut down the come-on, so was he planning on winning her over by charming her kids first? Sophie was just watching her with large, imploring eyes. “Mr. Kennedy, this is Sophie. Very quick ride, please. We have to get going,” Dory said reluctantly.

“Very quick,” he said. Austin scrambled off, Sophie scrambled on and Dory stood right in front of her little house, watching and
waiting. He made some more of his wide S-turns, stretching out the ride a bit, and she could hear Sophie’s laughter and squees right till they pulled back up in front of the house, and he lifted her down.

“Thanks, Mr. Kennedy,” she said.

“If it’s all right with your mother, I’d like to be called Clay. We’re neighbors,” he said. Then he made a wide turn on his lawn mower, raised a hand and yelled, “Adios!”

And Dory thought,
Oh, man, I have issues. Perfectly nice, helpful man treats me and my kids well and I have problems with it.

 

C
ORSICA
R
IOS WAS
a social worker who had been a single mother to a young son, whom she had raised into a fine man. It went without saying that she was sensitive to the many needs of single moms. Corsica moderated their support group and was the person who had originally recruited Dory to help her and a couple of her friends grow one small community effort into a nonprofit agency with many volunteers.

Dory had learned so much from Corsica in just a few years, including fundraising, writing grants and networking, all so that single moms who found them got what they needed. Being part of such an effort filled a need in Dory, because it hadn’t been very long ago that Dory had found herself suddenly alone in Oklahoma with two little kids, behind in rent, no job, no money. Back then it was an angel named Rhonda, a single mother and founder of the Zoë Institute in Oklahoma, who had helped Dory get back on her feet. A year later Dory’s uncle Joe had died and left her the little house on the river in Fortuna, California, mortgage free. Now it was her turn, with other volunteers, to give back.

When Dory got to her next support group meeting there were
a total of nine women in attendance, five of whom needed shoring up by what the volunteers had named The Single Mother’s Resource Agency. In addition to Dory and Corsica there were a couple of Corsica’s friends from a little town upriver called Virgin River. Paige Middleton had met the group in much the same way Dory had when she sought their help for herself—she had once been a single mother and refugee from a violent first marriage. Mel Sheridan was Virgin River’s nurse practitioner and midwife. Both ladies lent their considerable experience to the cause. The four of them now made up what constituted their organization’s board of directors.

The other five women were new. One was very young, only twenty-three, and already the mother of two, just getting out of her second abusive relationship. There was also a thirty-six-year-old mother of two teenage girls, getting divorced after a long struggle. Though new to the area, she was living with a sister who had a stable home. Another was forty and recently widowed, her teenage children struggling with the loss of their father. Then there was a forty-two-year-old mother of four who had been abandoned by her spouse of twenty-two years and was not only unemployed, but had never worked a day outside her home during her marriage. Finally, there was a thirty-four-year-old mother of two sons—aged ten and twelve—who had been divorced a few years. Her name was Elizabeth.

After an hour of group support dialogue, moods all around were more hopeful. And after group, there was a little hands-on help. Corsica helped one woman go over the catalog of college courses and fill out an application for student aid, while Paige helped another complete the paperwork to qualify for food stamps. Dory went through want ads with a third, while Mel went out to
her truck and pulled out powdered milk, dry soup mix, diapers and canned meat for the fourth. Dory asked who could use gas coupons for free gas and handed out four ten-dollar chits.

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