Authors: Pamela Morsi
More Than Words
Each and every one of us has the ability to effect changeâto make our world a better place. The key is to begin in our own backyards, look at needs within our communities and then decide to do something about them. The dedicated women selected as this year's recipients of Harlequin's More Than Words award have changed lives, one good deed at a time. To celebrate their accomplishments, bestselling authors have written stories inspired by these real-life heroines. In this book, Pamela Morsi honors the work of Karen Thomson, Founder of Literature for All of Us.
We hope More Than Words inspires you to get in touch with the real-life heroine living inside of you.
Thank you for your interest in the Harlequin More Than Words program
For many years Harlequin Books has been a leader in supporting and promoting causes that are of concern to women and celebrating ordinary women who make extraordinary differences in the lives of others. Through Harlequin More Than Words, we annually honor women for their compassionate dedication to those that need it most, and donate $10,000 to their chosen causes.
We are proud to highlight our current Harlequin More Than Words award recipients by telling you about them and, with the help of some of the biggest names in women's fiction, creating wonderfully entertaining and moving fictional short stories based on these women and their causes. Within the following pages you will find a heartwarming story written by Pamela Morsiâone of our two free e-books available at www.HarlequinMoreThanWords.com. Be sure to look for Meryl Sawyer's
Worth the Risk
, our second story also available free on-line. Three additional stories written by Carly Phillips, Donna Hill and Jill Shalvis can be found on the bookshelf of your favorite bookstore in
More Than Words, Volume 7
. All five of these stories are beautiful tributes to the Harlequin More Than Words award recipients who inspired them, and we hope they will touch your heart and inspire the real-life heroine in you.
Thank you for your support; all proceeds from the sale of
More Than Words, Volume 7
will be returned to the Harlequin More Than Words program so we can assist more causes of concern to women. And you can help even more by learning about and getting involved with the charities highlighted by Harlequin More Than Words. Together we can make a difference!
Publisher and CEO
Harlequin Enterprises Ltd.
When Karen Thomson opens a book, she is certain of one thing: by turning a page, she is opening herself up to laughter, tragedy, beauty and a profound and deep understanding of how other people think, feel and exist.
She is opening herself up to the world and all of its potential.
Karen is the founder and executive director of Literature for All of Us, a charitable organization that reaches out to between 500 and 600 disadvantaged teens in the Chicago area each year with thought-provoking book groups. Most groups are made up of teen girls struggling with everything including domestic violence, poverty, teen pregnancy and faltering grades.
Karen is convinced that by giving teens a safe place to explore the world and speak their mind about a book they've read, they will gain confidenceâand with confidence comes change.
“I can't tell you what it feels like to look in on a group and see everybody's head buried in a book, because I know what the alternative is,” she says, sounding perpetually energized and excited. “So this is really good.”
Falling in love with her girls
Karen's own path to the present has been paved with fabulous books, thoughtful discussions and two epiphanies.
The first happened while having dinner with friends back in 1979 and musing over whether she would go back to work after staying home with the kids for eight years. Finally, one friend turned to her and asked point-blank what Karen
wanted. She thought for a moment, then answered, “If I could do anything, I want to be a book group leader for women. And you know what? I'm going to do it.”
For the next sixteen years, Karen, who has a B.A. in English Literature from Wheaton College and a Master of Arts in Teaching English from Northwestern University, introduced hundreds of female readers to Virginia Woolf, Kate Chopin and Judy Chicago as her book group business grew by word of mouth. She hosted groups in colleges, retirement homes and in Barnes & Noble bookstores. She ran women's retreats (“We talked intensely about our mothers in the woods,” she says) and would have kept chugging along if it hadn't been for a friend who suggested she branch out to disadvantaged teens. Karen wasn't so sure. She had taught school for a short while before having her own kids and wondered if it would be the right fit.
Karen volunteered to lead a book group for teen mothers at the Illinois Department of Human Services. That first week she walked into the room with some trepidation and a stack of Maya Angelou poetry under her arm. Only one problem: The fifteen girls whizzed through the three poems she'd preparedâand still had over an hour of time to fill. The solution? Have the teens write their own poetry.
“I noticed when they read their poems, their body language changed significantly,” Karen says now. “They were proud of themselves.”
Word got out about the transforming and fun book group and by the next week attendance doubled.
“I fell in love with these girls by the second week,” she says. “I just realized that they enjoyed the group so much and it was exactly what they needed. They were reading and writing. They were creating. It was about them.”
For ten weeks the young women read two books and opened up about their lives. They read parts of the books aloud to keep everyone on the same page and also to increase their reading skills. The teens wrote short pieces about their children's hair and other personal topics and kept a strict “no putdown” policy about each other's reading or writing. As their confidence grew, their disciplinary referrals dropped at school.
That's when epiphany number two hit.
Oh my God. This is the rest of my life,
” says Karen. “I saw it unroll before me.”
She launched Literature for All of Us in 1997 with a mandate to grow a community of readers, poets and critical thinkers.
More to be done
Today, Literature for All of Us has facilitated more than 200 book groups, reaching more than 5,800 young people. It employs five book group leaders, a collection of fabulous young women who see the world as Karen does and keep her mission alive. While Karen fundraises and designs the programs, they head out to Chicago schools to run groups for teen girls and boys. Twenty percent of all book group members are boys now, a program that started after many girls said they wanted their partners and boyfriends to start reading, too.
Members keep the books they read so they can build their own libraries, but just as often they pass them around to friends and family. The organization is also committed to teaching the magic of the written word to young children. Its Children's Literature for Parenting program introduces parents to relevant and award-winning kids books they can read at home.
Karen remembers one young mother she invited to a fundraising event who agreed to talk about the charity.
“I have a son and I never read to him,” the sixteen-year-old told the silent audience. Then she turned to Karen. “But I did what you said and I put him on my lap, with my arms around him, and I read him this book. And guess what? He was good and quiet. I fell in love with him. And I read to him all the time now.”
Years later, that story still reminds Karen that books have power far greater than any one sentence on a page. They transform the soul and encourage readers to embrace the world so they can make a difference, too.
And while she admits that fundraising is always tough, finding the time to take the organization to the next level and tend to her personal life is even more of a challenge some days.
“I'm a reader so I need lots of time to read and write,” she says with a laugh. “But I don't feel that we've fulfilled our whole mission yet. There's more to be done.”
Pamela Morsi is a bestselling, award-winning novelist who finds humor in everyday life and honor in ordinary people. She lives in San Antonio, Texas, with her husband and daughter.
To readers: young, old and everything in-between. May there always be a good story in your future.
Calla stepped off the bus on Canasta Street and made a quick stop at the Korean grocery before walking the three blocks to her home. Typically this time of year she made the walk all bundled up and with her head down against the wind. But this fall was gorgeous in Chicago and the city was, for a brief time at least, a place of bright sunshine and vivid autumn colors. Only the slightest nip in the air foretold of the cold winter to come.
She'd lived on Canasta Street for sixteen years. She and her husband, Mark, had moved into their house when their son was still just a toddler. Now, Nathan was in his last year of high school and had just completed his early action application to attend Northwestern, his first choice for college, next year. Calla smiled to herself. She couldn't help but be proud. She just wished that Mark had lived to see it.
As she approached her block, all the tiredness of the long workday seemed to lift. There was something about a home surrounded by neighbors and friends that just buoyed a person. Every step she took along the well-worn sidewalk was as familiar to her as the back of her hand.
From his porch, old Mr. Whitten waved to her. Next door to him, the Carnaby children, along with their cousins, friends and assorted other stragglers, were noisy and exuberant as they played in their front yard. Two houses past them, Mrs. Gamble sat on her steps, her daughter Eunice at her side.
“You're home early,” the older woman called out.
Calla just smiled. She was home at exactly the same time she was home every day.
“Did you buy something at the store?” Mrs. Gamble asked.
“Just milk,” Calla answered. “And a half dozen apples. You know Mr. Ohng's produce is hard to resist.”
“Come and sit a spell with us,” the older woman said. “We haven't had a good visit with you in ages.”
“Oh, I'd better get home and see what Nathan is up to.”
“He's sure up to nothing at home,” Eunice said with just a hint of superiority in her voice. “He's across the street in 2B with Gerty's wild grandniece.”
Calla kept her expression deliberately blank. Eunice undoubtedly wanted to get a rise from her, but she wasn't about to give the woman the satisfaction.
“Oh, come up and sit,” Mrs. Gamble pleaded. “That way you can see him when he leaves.”
Calla wouldn't have walked across the street to talk with Eunice. But Mrs. Gamble was a genuinely sweet older lady who was trapped all day with the bitter unhappiness of her daughter.
So she opened the gate on the Gambles' chain-link fence and made her way to the porch. Setting her little bag of groceries beside her, Calla tucked the hem of her skirt behind her knees and seated herself on the fourth step, just slightly below Mrs. Gamble and directly across from Eunice.
“How was your job today?” Mrs. Gamble asked.
Calla shrugged. “Fine,” she answered. She knew the woman was eager for details. Calla had been a nurse in Dr. Walker's ear, nose and throat practice for over a decade. Mrs. Gamble loved stories about diseases. Especially ones where the patient had to overcome great odds to recover.
There'd been no such dramatic cases today. With the coming of fall, the office had been full of allergy sufferers fighting off sinus infections. Calla was not sure how entertaining the stories would be when all the characters were blowing into tissues.
“It's been pretty routine at the office the last few days,” Calla told her.
“Well, there's nothing routine about the goings-on around here,” Eunice piped in. “That girl has got her hooks in Nathan and no good is going to come of it.”
Calla couldn't stop herself from casting a nervous glance in the direction of the apartment building across the street. Gerty Cleveland had lived there for twenty years at least. She was about Mrs. Gamble's age and had a large family scattered across the city. Less than a month ago, Jazleenâor Jazzy, as Nathan called herâhad come to live with her. Calla didn't know the whole story, but there were plenty of rumors swirling about.
The girl's mother was on drugs. Or maybe she was in jail. Jazleen herself had been in trouble. Or maybe she just was trouble. Gerty was Jazleen's last chance. Or maybe she was the only chance the teenager had ever had.
Calla had heard what everyone was saying. But what resounded with her louder than all the neighborhood whispering were the words of her son, Nathan.
“She's okay, Mom,” he assured her. “She's a good person.”
Calla trusted her son, but she worried, too. Young men could often be blinded by a pretty face or a good figure. Jazleen was no great beauty, but she had sweet features and the requisite number of teenage curves.
“Once you get to know her,” Nathan said, “you'll like her.”
That was slow going so far. Jazleen had been in their house many times. She was mostly silent and slightly sullen. Those were hardly traits to win the heart.
“I don't think we should jump to conclusions about the girl,” Calla told Eunice. “Nathan says she's nice.”
Eunice sucked her teeth. “Yes, well, I'm sure that's what the boy would tell his mother.”
Calla was very tempted to remind Eunice that since she obviously didn't know one thing about mothers and sons, it might be best if she just kept her opinions to herself.
She was saved from making any comment by the now familiar tap of shiny shoes coming down the sidewalk.
“It's him!” Eunice breathed, barely above a whisper.
Calla didn't need to ask who she meant. Every woman on Canasta Street, single, divorced, married or widowed, like Calla herself, knew the only man who would attract such attention.
Deliberately Calla kept her gaze on Mrs. Gamble. She flatly refused to turn and look, though she could see the man perfectly in her imagination. Landry Sinclair had moved into the house next door to her just weeks ago. He was polite and friendly, but so far no one had really gotten to know him.
What Calla and the other women did know was that he was tall and trim, with a strong jaw, a handsome smile and thick, arched brows. He went to work every morning and returned every evening dressed in impeccably tailored suits. And, so far, there had been no visitors at his place. No wife or girlfriend, not even a one-night-stand. He seemed unattached, which provoked much speculation.
“That is the finest looking man I've ever seen in my life,” Eunice stated in a hushed whisper. “And I think he's just about my age. Don't you think he's probably my age?”
Calla nodded. “More or less,” she agreed. Though she thought the years certainly held up better on him than on Eunice.
“Have you noticed his accent?” Eunice asked.
Of course Calla had noticed. She noticed everything about him.
“I think he's from the South,” Eunice said.
“No, he's not from the South,” Calla replied, shaking her head. “I have relatives from South Carolina and Georgia. He doesn't talk like the South at all.”
“Well, he's not from here,” Eunice insisted.
Calla shrugged agreement. The man clearly was not a local. But he was almost as mysterious as he was good-looking. He wasn't secretive. He answered any question he was asked. But the men on the street seemed satisfied to exchange pleasantries and opinions on sports teams. The women were all too curious but didn't trust themselves to stick to casual questions. So the basic information of where he was from and where he worked remained unknown, as well as the most critical fact to someâwhether there was a woman someplace waiting for him.
“Good afternoon, Mr. Sinclair!” Mrs. Gamble called out as he passed by the gate.
Calla turned to look at him then, as if she'd been unaware of his approach. The man was dressed attractively in a single-breasted brown suit with narrow beige pinstripes. He looked businesslike, successful. She smiled in a way she hoped would appear to be polite disinterest.
“Good afternoon, Mrs. Gamble, ladies.” He doffed his fedora, revealing dark hair that was just beginning to thin on the top. “It's a beautiful afternoon to sit out and enjoy the weather.”
“It surely is,” Mrs. Gamble agreed. “Why don't you come and join us?”
Calla heard Eunice draw a sharp, shocked breath. She couldn't tell if Landry Sinclair had heard it or not.
“I wish that I could,” he answered, smiling broadly. “I sure wish I could.”
He did not give a reason why he couldn't, but for an instant Calla's glance met his. His eyes were deep brown with a sparkle that was as much intelligence as humor. Calla found him completely irresistible.
Which was precisely the reason she had never spoken to him.
That was the last thing in the world she needed, to get all goofy and lovestruck over some man. She'd had her man. They'd had a good marriage and raised a wonderful son. Romantic for her was over and done now. She was a grown-up, sensible woman, not some silly teenager.
It was after six when Nathan got home.
“It's about time you showed up,” Calla said. “Dinner's almost ready.”
“Yeah, I smelled your cooking all the way across the street and came running,” her son teased.
He hurried to the bathroom to wash up as she set the table. Two plates, two forks, two knives, two spoons. It had been just the two of them now for almost five years. But two was an excellent number. She and Nathan were a team and they shared the same goal. Getting him through high school and into a good college. That goal had often seemed so far off that Calla had thought it would never happen. Now their dream was nearing realization. And it was as if all those years of reaching for it had gone by in a flash.
Nathan hurried to the table and took a seat. “Give me a pork chop before I bite into the table leg,” he threatened.
Calla chuckled lightly as she seated herself and passed him the platter of meat. Everyone said that Nathan was just like her. But when she looked at him, she saw so much of her late husband. Nathan was lean and lanky. He had a bubbly humor that charmed everyone he met. But he also had a streak of kindheartedness that was as wide as Lake Michigan. Calla was absolutely certain he hadn't gotten
from her. And she worried where it might lead him.
“I guess you've been over at Mrs. Cleveland's place,” Calla said with deliberate casualness. “Visiting her niece. That's very nice, of course, but you mustn't neglect your other friends.”
Nathan eyed his mother with open amusement. “My other
understand completely why I want to spend time with Jazleen.”
Her son was grinning. Calla didn't like that much.
“She's pretty lonely,” he continued. “It's bad enough to be going through a lot of stuff, but then to spend all your time aloneâthat just makes it worse.”
“Isn't she making friends at school?”
Nathan hesitated slightly. “She's sort of blown school off.”
“What do you mean by that?”
“She pretty much ignored it the last couple of years, and when she showed up this year to enroll, they transferred her to the alternative high school. That ticked her off. She said if she couldn't take classes with me, then there was no point going.”
Calla raised an eyebrow. “That doesn't make any sense at all.”
Nathan shrugged. “She was so far behind, she wasn't going to be able to keep up in my classes anyway,” he said. “But it is kind of worthless to sit around all day watching TV, just waiting for me to get home.”
Calla agreed with that. She was not happy, however, that the girl was planning her life, living her life around Nathan.
“What does Mrs. Cleveland say about her dropping out of school?”
“I don't think she knows, Mom.”
“What do you mean? She must know.”
Nathan shook his head. “Her job is way across town. She leaves to catch her train before seven in the morning and she doesn't get home until after five. She and Jazzy hardly say two words to each other. I seriously doubt they've talked this out together.”
Calla's dinner was suddenly tasteless. “You know I'll have to tell her.”
Her son nodded. “Yeah, I know. Jazzy really needsâ¦she really needs something, someoneâ¦I don't know. Mom, she's clever and smart and doesn't have a lazy bone in her body. But she's justâ¦you knowâ¦drifting without any direction.”
Calla nodded. There were a lot of young people like that.
“I try to talk to her about college and the future and all the things that I'm working for,” Nathan said. “I might as well be telling fairy tales. She doesn't see how any of it could ever apply to her.”
“Well, it probably won't,” Calla said. “If she can't stick it out in high school, then she'll never get a chance at college.”
“But she could stick it out, Mom,” Nathan said. “I know she could.”
Calla wasn't so sure.
Saturday morning dawned sunny with a bright blue sky. Seated at the breakfast table in her robe, Calla lingered over her coffee. It was just laziness, she assured herself, and had nothing to do with the view outside her window. Her kitchen looked directly into Landry Sinclair's backyard, and the man himself was out there, clad in faded jeans and a sweatshirt that clung damply to his muscular torso. His sweat was well earned as he attacked the ground with a shovel and a hoe. He looked very different without his tailored suits. She'd always thought of him as tidy and professional. Not the kind of man to get his hands dirty.
He was certainly getting dirty this morning. And he looked really good doing it. Calla watched him as he worked, allowing herself the secret pleasure of lusting after a man who wasn't hers. She thought she'd left all that nonsense in the past. But somehow, from the moment Landry Sinclair moved into the neighborhood, she'd felt differently.
And she didn't like it one bit. Every woman on the block had already staked a claim. Calla hated to follow along with the crowd. And she despised the kind of mooning over men that a lot of women her age engaged in. It was one thing to be boy crazy at fourteen. It was downright undignified to be that way at forty.