What to do with a life where everything he’s worked for is shattered?
A top executive in the family business, Buddy Helms lives and works under the thumb of his powerful father. He’s proved himself time and again to the manipulative patriarch—even saving the company from financial ruin. Yet for six years Buddy’s waited to hear that he’s worthy of his father’s love and respect. Now, after another cold dismissal, Buddy’s slamming the door on everything he’s strived for. When his church counselor recommends a soothing tonic for his disillusionment, frustration, and rage, he goes for it: the solitude of Moondust Lake, a retreat just outside Miramar Bay, is just what he needs.
Believing in others comes easily—it’s believing in herself that’s a risk . . .
Kimberly Sturgiss is a professional psychotherapist whose tragic past has granted her a rare ability to gently release her patients from their self-made prisons. She’s well acquainted with the Helms family and the dark burdens that come with them. But the most intriguing challenge of all is Buddy. He and Kimberly share more than she’s prepared to admit—the same emotional cage, the guarded heart, and the broken trusts that come with being alive. Maybe it’s finally time that Kimberly finds herself, too—by reaching out to the man who’s reaching out to her.
“Fans of Nicholas Sparks and inspirational fiction will enjoy Bunn’s latest novel.”
“Bunn brings family and friendships to the forefront of this gracefully and skillfully written story. . . . Full of strong female characters and an excellent plotline. Fans of Nicholas Sparks and Karen Kingsbury will be drawn to this feel-good story.”
About the Author
Davis Bunn is an internationally bestselling author with more than seven million books in print in twenty-one languages. Originally from North Carolina, he draws on his international experience to craft award-winning novels. Davis has been honored with four Christy Awards for excellence in fiction, among other accolades. He serves as Writer in Residence at Regent’s Park College, Oxford University. Davis and his wife, Isabella, divide their time between the English countryside and the coast of Florida. Visit Davis at www.davisbunn.com.
Read an Excerpt
Buddy Helms ran through a pewter dawn. The sky was gray and wrapped in clouds like shredded yarn. The sidewalk was old and pitted and unbalanced. It had rained in the night, the drops drumming hard enough to wake him twice. There was no telling how deep the puddles were, so he ran around them in uneven, jerky steps. His breathing was as out of synch as his pace. All the other Sunday-morning joggers stayed on the other side of the street. The newer sidewalk was smooth as the growing light. Buddy was the only one running over here. He liked the solitude and he liked the challenge. That was as good a motto for his life as he could come up with today.
He always ran over here when he was on his own, beneath the ancient California cottonwoods. The road skirted one of San Luis Obispo's earliest neighborhoods, and all the houses on this side were over a century old. On the other side stretched four new town-house developments. The last one was a victim of the recession, the entrance a raw mouth of glistening clay. A new billboard had been planted that week, making the rain-slick announcement that the buildings would rise under new management, that the bad times were over. California's central coast was shrugging off the forest fires and deluges and mudslides. San Luis Obispo was back on track — pushing and growing and claiming the future that everybody wanted to call golden.
Buddy preferred this side of the road because there was so little left of the old town. Besides which, Buddy had to break his stride over there as well. He was different from other folks, even here, when runners puffed early morning greetings. He was not out here to jog. From the instant Buddy emerged from his glistening new town house, Buddy Helms ran.
His phone buzzed in the pocket of his felt vest. Buddy did not check the readout because he didn't need to. One of his friends was either up early or making a final call before the postdawn collapse, wanting to know why he hadn't shown up. Again. Buddy had no interest in divulging the truth — at least, not yet and not to them.
After months of struggle and worry, he had finally landed a deal on Friday. The deal. The clincher. The one he had been hunting for three long years. Ever since the most recent downturn had brought his father's company to its knees.
Other firms might call theirs a family concern. But the Helms Group was his father's. Make no mistake. And Buddy's new deal meant a return to profit. Finally. After a long, nightmarish struggle that had cost them dearly. Buddy most of all.
That Friday, when the deal had closed and the ink dried, Buddy had dropped the contract by his parents' house, then had driven home in a stupor. He had slept sixteen hours straight, and woken so groggy he could barely make a delayed meal, much less think about joining his pals.
Soon he left the city behind and entered the tougher phase of his seventeen-mile run. Buddy Helms had four circuits laid out with his home as a starting point. This one took him southwest, into the hills separating his hometown from Avila Beach. The trail was dangerous in the dry season, when rattlesnakes hid in shadows, and coyotes came down from the high ground in search of food. There was a different risk now, with every storm bringing the threat of further mudslides. Even so, Buddy loved the empty miles, the throwback to an era when this section of California was known as the Wild Coast.
When he arrived back, Buddy stepped onto his veranda and dropped onto the exercise mat. Two hundred sit-ups, two hundred push-ups, then up and onto the bar for a hundred pull-ups. No jerking. Smooth and clean. He returned to the mat and began a kata, a stylized fighting routine that Buddy used as a final stretch.
Midway through, the sliding doors opened across the central pool from his own home, and his newest neighbor stepped onto her veranda. Her kimono-style robe revealed a long expanse of slender legs bare to the cold spring morning. Buddy had noticed her before. There was a lot about this raven-haired beauty to notice. She cradled her steaming mug and eyed him with the cool gaze of a cat studying a bowl of fresh cream. Buddy stepped inside and shut his glass to a temptation he definitely did not need. Especially not today.
Buddy showered and dressed. Brooks Brothers navy suit, starched pale blue shirt, rep tie. Polished black loafers. Out the door, smile a meaningless hello to the raven-haired beauty as she drove past in her Lexus, into his Jeep, and off.
His sister lived in a ground-floor apartment carved from a mock- Victorian home that they both had loved at first sight. Carey's portion had a front parlor with a castellated tower of pale yellow brick. Nobody knew where the color had come from. The bricks had definitely not been fired from the fingernail-red central-coast clay. Some developer had recently decided the two-acre yard would make the perfect site for a fifteen-thousand-square-foot altar to some nouveau riche ego. But Carey and her neighbors had taken their fight to city hall and won.
Carey emerged from the front door before Buddy cut his motor. Which meant the day was not a good one. His assumption was confirmed by how Ricardo slipped from the house behind her. His sister's latest flame was from the Dominican Republic, by way of Los Angeles, a blade-thin mestizo and impossibly handsome. When Buddy had first met the man, he had assumed Ricardo was either gay or an assassin. Instead, he was another in his sister's long line of musician lovers. But there was something about this one that rubbed Buddy wrong. Ricardo leaned on the front banister and smoked, his dark gaze smoldering with his cigarette. Buddy had learned the hard way to keep his opinions to himself, even when Carey slipped into the car and said, "Give me a minute."
They drove in silence, the tires humming the high tune of wet asphalt. Buddy stopped by the Starbucks closest to her home and went in for two coffees. A black Americano for him, hers a hodgepodge of caramel and chocolate and the calories she normally refused herself. When he returned, she took a sip, sighed, then leaned over and kissed his cheek.
"Good morning, brother."
"Mmmm." She sipped again, then asked, "Did you land the deal?"
"They signed on Friday."
She gave his shoulder a mock slap. "Why didn't you call me?"
"Didn't have the strength to lift the receiver."
"Does Pop know?"
"I dropped the contract off around midnight. Went home. Slept forever."
"Did he call?"
"Not a peep."
"He's probably ..." She tried to drown the thought in her cup.
"Still trying to find something to complain about," he finished for her. "But he won't. The deal is solid gold. It doubles the group's income, sis. And returns us to profit."
"Stand back, folks." Her smile was genuine. "The genie is out of the bottle."
He pulled into the church parking lot, waved to a family he'd known all his life, and asked, "Ready?"
Her smile went from open to compressed. "I can't let you face this alone, right?"
* * *
"That's him, there on the church's top step." Preston Sturgiss pointed through the front windshield. "Jack Helms."
The City Community Church was a massive edifice that dominated the intersection. The man that Preston pointed to looked pretty much as her cousin had described, stern and unbending. Kimberly asked, "If you dislike him so, why are you having lunch with them?"
"I told you. Beth asked me."
"His wife," Kimberly recalled.
"The driving force behind our new counseling center," Preston confirmed. "In her own quiet, sweet way this lady is a mover and a shaker."
"And Beth Helms asked you to set up an appointment with me. A woman she's never met. Before I've even shown up for my first day."
"Right. That's her standing beside him."
Jack Helms stood on the church's high veranda, showing all newcomers the granite exterior of a man who lived to judge. Beth Helms was a slender woman with a serene expression and a smile for everyone who passed. "What is she like?"
"She'd have to be, if the husband is as bad as you say."
"The one time I met Jack Helms, he declared that he had been against the counseling project from the very outset." Preston leaned forward and squinted at the stern old man, like he was taking aim. "He said their church had no business doing anything with Catholics, much less go into the counseling business."
Preston's family members were Catholics and had been for generations beyond count. Kimberly had always assumed she would live out her days within the very same community. Until her world had been upended, and so many of her assumptions had been stripped away. "You could go into private practice," she pointed out. "It's not too late."
"Yes, it is." Preston gave her the smile that had carried her through so much. The one that said he understood everything she was not saying. "You're going to be fine, Kimberly. This is a great place. And so are the people. Most of them, anyway." He rose from the car and pointed across the intersection. "The Catholic church I attend is on the other side of that park."
Kimberly said, "You don't need to stay with me."
"I want to introduce you around." As they started for the steps, he stopped abruptly and said softly, "Here come two of the Helms children. Buddy and Carey. There's a third, a daughter. But she hasn't been home in forever. Beth goes out to see her once a year."
"Should you be telling me this?"
"I explained all that. Beth would prefer to work with a female counselor. I told her about you. She's requested an appointment."
"Preston, I'm still not certain ..."
She stopped then. It felt to Kimberly as though she had been arrested. Just gripped by the heart and jerked to silence. The son of Jack Helms passed in front of where they stood. Buddy Helms carried himself like an athlete, a bounce to his stride and a rawboned strength that emanated from him like an animal scent. Kimberly had always liked that sense of unrefined power in a man. Which was a pity, really, since it had led to so much pain.
Buddy Helms was also intensely handsome. A number of the other women noticed as well. Many of the female churchgoers glanced his way. She doubted Buddy ever noticed. There was something about the way he carried himself that left Kimberly fairly certain he was unaware of his looks. She knew from experience that some men discounted their ability to draw female attention. Such rare males had always belonged to other, more fortunate women.
Buddy passed so close she could see a small indentation below his left eye, probably the result of some childhood injury. He had big hands and massive shoulders and short-cropped dark hair. There was a jewel-like quality to his gray gaze, like precious stones had been wrapped in a towel and shattered with furious blows. And there on the top stair stood the man with the hammer. Of that, Kimberly had no doubt.
But that was not why she went silent. Kimberly found herself gripped by a sudden thought, one so powerful it might as well have been scripted across the gray shield of clouds overhead. Had the impression been any less formidable, she would have laughed out loud. The thought was, You are going to marry this man.
Preston said something and led her up the stairs. Beth Helms saw their approach and came down to meet them. Preston introduced them, and Kimberly heard herself give some sort of response. But it was all she could do to keep herself from gaping across the veranda at Buddy Helms.
Then a hand touched her arm, drawing her back to where she stood. Beth Helms gave her such a knowing gaze Kimberly felt herself flush. But all that the woman said to her was "Can I come see you Tuesday?"
She heard herself say, "I'm sure that will be fine."
Beth thanked her and rejoined the family. Preston held back a moment longer, then led Kimberly inside.
She did not hear a word of the service. She was too busy arguing with whatever absurd force had insisted upon shattering her Sunday by planting such a ridiculous notion in her brain.
Preston's family had taken Kimberly home the night her own parents had died in the crash. She had been eleven at the time. Gradually it had sunk in that she had not come there for a night, but for life. Her favorite aunt and uncle and cousin had become the only family she had left. Preston's mother had always considered Kimberly the daughter she was unable to have. Kimberly had been saved from the worst agony of loss by people who had nurtured and sheltered and brought her into womanhood with love.
As a teen Kimberly had fostered vague notions of going into medicine, then happily cast them aside during her final year at university when she fell in love. She and Jason wed the week after they graduated. Their marriage lasted a week less than two years. The morning after she announced that she was pregnant, the love of her young life did not come home from work. Gradually a waking nightmare drew its cruel cloak over her world. First had come the revelation that he had not been faithful. Then four months into the pregnancy Kimberly lost the child. Then she was served with divorce papers. And through the veiled chatter of supposed friends, she learned that her husband was living with Kimberly's college roommate and former best friend. Whom he now claimed he had loved all along.
The divorce final, her home a wasteland, Kimberly had moved back in with Preston's parents, who by this point were her own as well. Preston had urged her to put her sympathetic nature to good use, and Kimberly had returned to school for a degree in counseling. To her surprise, she proved remarkably adept at drawing out much-needed confessions from her patients. She suspected it was because nothing about human nature had the power to surprise her any longer.
With a start Kimberly realized the church service had ended and people were leaving. Preston gave her the knowing look for a second time that morning and asked, "Everything okay?"
"I'm still wondering if I'm doing the right thing. Coming down here and taking this job."
"Will you trust me if I say that you are?"
She liked the concern in his gaze. And the need. For he was almost as lonely as she was. "I'll try."
"Good girl. Shall I drive you back?"
"I'd rather walk."
"There's food in the fridge. And you'll pass a supermarket on your way —"
"I'm a big girl, Preston. I won't starve."
As they proceeded up the central aisle, she found herself only a few people removed from Buddy Helms. Kimberly repressed a shudder. The very idea of becoming involved with anyone repulsed her. The last thing she needed was another reason to run away.CHAPTER 2
As usual, Buddy's exercise routine blanketed him in an endorphin-induced peace so strong he could ignore his father's cold dismissal. For the past nine years this had been Jack Helms's standard Sunday face. Buddy's father stood on the upper stair and showed the arriving parishioners his Mount Rushmore expression. Stony and unbending. The face of the conservative Evangelical, the guardian of the doors. No hint of wrongness would ever be permitted to enter. Nowadays Jack Helms served as the church's righteous judge. The man who lived to find fault and condemn.
Okay. So it did hurt.
Eight months of work and worry, and the deal was done. Even here at church the old man might at least have welcomed him with a "job well done." Buddy had hoped for the call that had never woken him the day before. He should not have expected anything different now.
Buddy emerged into the pale wash of a March noon, stood beside his mother and shook hands, then trooped back to the car with his sister. He had a lot of experience at ignoring slights. He should have been prepared.
When they pulled up in front of the house, Carey demanded, "What's the matter?"
"You know he wouldn't say anything at church."
"He didn't call yesterday."
He opened his door. "It's fine."
Only it wasn't, and it didn't get better. For once, the dawn workout failed him. Buddy helped his mother set the table and felt the ache stab him every time his father came into view. Jack Helms sat in the front parlor with the head of the new counseling service that several local churches were jointly sponsoring. Buddy wondered how Preston Sturgiss had gotten hooked into joining them. Jack often dragged somebody home from church. It gave him a fresh audience. Over lunch his sister mouthed the same words that had made Buddy smile ever since Jack had undergone his grim transformation.
Carey was mild and caring like their mother, but somehow a secret trace of mayhem had crept into her genes. She would never confront her father openly. But behind his back, safe from his wrath, she lived a peculiar and secret rebellion. Her latest Caribbean lover was one example. Or the way she silently framed the words around her spoon, or down at her plate, never actually looking at Buddy, knowing he saw her whisper, the Washington rant, the Democrat rant, the liberal-media rant, the gay rant.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Moondust Lake"
Copyright © 2019 Davis Bunn.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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