The Castaways

A Novel


By Elin Hilderbrand

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"The perfect summer read" (Booklist) from New York Times bestselling author Elin Hilderbrand: an intense tale of love and loyalty set against the backdrop of endless summer island life.
With rumors of infidelity straining Greg and Tess MacAvoy's marriage, the couple head out on their sailboat one early summer day to celebrate their wedding anniversary, hoping the roughest waters are behind them. But in an accident off Nantucket, they mysteriously drown, leaving behind two small children as well as three couples who have long been their closest friends. Tragedy brings to the surface long-simmering conflicts and emotions, and the MacAvoys' six grieving friends find themselves unprepared for the revelation of secret upon secret as they struggle to answer the question: What happened to Greg and Tess?

The Castaways probes the boundaries of friendship and forgiveness as it tells a page-turning story of passion, betrayal, and suspense, filled with the perfect details of summer island life that have made Elin Hilderbrand's novels beloved bestsellers. 


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Table of Contents

Reading Group Guide

A Preview of Here’s to Us

A Preview of The Island


Copyright Page

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For my twin brother, Eric Hilderbrand,

my oldest and truest friend


Because the accident occurred out on the water and not on the land that fell under his jurisdiction, it was unusual that the Chief was the first one to find out. But that was the benefit of an official position: he was a lightning rod for information, a conduit. Everything went through him first.

Dickson, his best sergeant, came into the office without his usual peppermint breeze of self-confidence. Was he sick? His skin was the color of frostbite, even though it was the first day of summer. In the seconds immediately before Dickson shuffled in, the Chief had been thinking of Greg with envy. The wind was strong; you couldn't ask for a better day to sail. Greg planned to go all the way to the Vineyard, and if he caught the gusts, he would be there in five minutes. Tess would hate it; she would be clinging to the mast or down below in the cramped head, her face as green as a bowl of pea soup.

"What's up?" the Chief said. Dickson, who had the broadest shoulders the Chief had ever seen on a human being, was hunched over. He looked like he was going to upchuck right there on the Chief's desk. He had gotten a haircut that morning, too, his summer buzz, which made his head seem square and strange, his scalp vulnerable.

"The Coast Guard just called," Dickson said. "There's been an accident on the water."

"Hmmm," the Chief said. This was the stuff of his days: accidents, crime, people fucking up in big ways and small. Mostly small, he had come to realize after seventeen years on the force.

"Chief?" Dickson said. "The MacAvoys are dead."

The Chief would have called himself impossible to faze. Even on an island as privileged and idyllic as Nantucket, he had seen it all: an eight-year-old boy shot in the face by his father's hunting rifle, a woman stabbed fifty-one times by a jealous ex-boyfriend, heroin overdoses, a Bulgarian prostitution ring, cocaine, ecstasy, moonshine, high school kids stealing diamond rings from beach cabanas, gangs, and a host of domestic disputes, including a man who broke a chair over his wife's head. As it turned out, the Chief was right, he was impossible to faze, because when Dickson said, The MacAvoys are dead—the MacAvoys being Tess, Andrea's cousin, and Greg, the closest thing to a brother or a best friend the Chief had ever had—the Chief coughed dryly into his hand. That was the extent of his initial reaction—one raspy cough.

"What?" the Chief said. His voice was barely a whisper. What? What are you telling me? His hands were cold and numb, and he stared at his phone. It was not reasonable, at this point, to panic, because there might have been a mistake. So many times there were mistakes, messages got crossed, people jumped to conclusions; so many times things weren't as bad as they seemed. He could not call Andrea until he spoke to the Coast Guard and found out exactly what had happened. It was four-thirty now. Andrea would be… where? At the beach still, he supposed. The kids, finally, both had summer jobs, and by Memorial Day weekend Andrea had embarked on what she called "the Summer of Me." She had been good to her word, too, doing her power walking every morning and spending the afternoons on the south shore, swimming like the Olympic Trials qualifier that she was. She was getting fit, getting tan, and exercising her mind by reading all those thought-provoking novels. She tried to talk to the Chief about the novels when they climbed into bed at night, but the Chief's life was its own novel and he didn't have room in his mind for any more characters. Just yesterday he had heard Andrea on the phone with Tess, talking about her book. He had overheard words like ambivalence and disenchantment, words he had no use for.

The Chief could not raise his eyes to Dickson's about-to-puke face. He could not call his wife and drop the bomb that would destroy the landscape of her life. Her first cousin, her closest friend—a person Andrea held dearer, possibly, than himself—Tess MacAvoy, was dead.


"I don't know what happened," Dickson said. The Chief couldn't look at him or the haircut so short it looked painful. "They just called to say there was an accident. And the MacAvoys are dead."


Addison Wheeler was having cocktails at the Galley with clients. It was a celebration, and Addison had ordered a bottle of Cristal. A purchase-and-sale agreement had just been signed for a $9.2 million waterfront home on Polpis Harbor. But even as Addison was sipping champagne, even as he was mentally spending his whopping commission, his eyes scanned the whitecaps that frosted Nantucket Sound. The restaurant had plastic siding to protect diners from the wind, which was driving out of the north. There were boats out on the water, a lot of boats, despite the six- to eight-foot seas. Was one of them Greg and Tess? They would have made it to the Vineyard by one or two, and now would be returning home. Unless, of course, they had decided to spend the night. Addison would have said he was beyond this kind of jealousy, this kind of obsession, but he was feeling both things, jealousy and a panicky obsession. If Tess and Greg stayed on the Vineyard, in a room at the Charlotte Inn, would they make love? Addison sipped his champagne. Of course they would. Today was their twelfth anniversary.

He had tried to call her no fewer than five times before she left, but she didn't answer.

There were many indications that the day was special. They were taking champagne and a picnic that Andrea had prepared for them as a gift. Greg was bringing his guitar. He had stopped by Addison's office that morning on his way to the dock.

"Your guitar?" Addison said.

"I'm a better singer than I am a sailor," Greg said. He shook his head to get his floppy bangs out of his face, a gesture that made Addison shudder. "I wrote her a song."

Wrote her a song. He would play the troubadour, try to win Tess back. After all that had happened last fall, Greg needed to make Tess trust him again.

"Good luck with that," Addison said.

The final time Addison called Tess, he left a message. Are you going to tell him? Are you going to tell him you love me? The question was met with electronic silence.

The maître d' caught his eye. Addison tilted his head. His clients were talking between themselves now, awkwardly, about the quality of the champagne, and about the water, the impressive wind. It would sweep Greg and Tess to the Vineyard, but they would have to come back in the teeth of it. Would they risk it? If they spent the night at the Charlotte Inn, Addison would lose his mind. The place was too romantic, with its pencil post bed, white grand piano, towel warmer, silver buckets filled with blooming roses. Addison had stayed at the Charlotte Inn with his first wife twenty years ago, and he remembered that the hotel had had the magical power to improve their relationship, for the nights they stayed there, certainly, and for several days afterward. Addison did not want Greg and Tess to stay there, because what if they experienced the same balm? He reached into his pocket to touch the heart Tess had given him on his birthday. She had cut the heart out of red felt, using child's scissors. Addison treated it like a talisman, though he was far too old and reasonable to believe in such things. He fingered the heart—now grotty and pilled and dangerously close to ripping—and wondered if Tess was thinking about him. Would she have the courage to tell Greg? Addison could hope all he wanted, but he knew the answer was no. Never in a million years.

The wife of the client couple asked Addison a question, but he didn't hear it. He was dropping the ball conversationally; he had to get back into the game, $9.2 million, and his office had the listing as well as the buyer. This was the biggest deal of the year so far. But something was going on at the front of the restaurant. Was the maître d' signaling him? He wanted Addison's attention?

"Excuse me," Addison said. He stood up, forced a smile. "I'll be right back."

Phoebe was in the parking lot. It was Phoebe, right? There was her car, the red Triumph Spitfire, and there was a woman Phoebe's shape and size with the shining blond hair—but her face was pink and crumpled like a dropped handkerchief, her cheeks were streaked with makeup, she was keening, hiccupping, freaking out. Losing her shit, here in public! This was not his wife. His wife, Phoebe Wheeler, rarely cracked a smile or shed a tear. Addison grabbed her by the shoulders. Was it really her? Yes, those eyes, blue fire. She was emotionally absent, a woman made of ice, steel, chalk, plastic, stone, rubber, clay, straw, but her eyes revealed a spark, and that was one reason Addison hung in there. He was convinced she would return to him one day.

"Phoebe?" he said.

She pushed him away. She was making noises like an animal; her beautiful hair fell into her face. She was trying to speak, but she could not form any coherent words. Well, there was one word, over and over again, like a hiss: Tess.

"Tess?" Addison said. Did Phoebe know, then? She'd found out? This was impossible, because no one knew and there was not one scrap of evidence that would betray them. The cell phone bill, maybe, but only if Phoebe had gone through it with a fine-tooth comb and seen the calls that Addison had made to Tess while he was visiting his daughter two weeks ago in California. Yes, that must be it. Addison's heart cracked and sizzled like an egg on the hot griddle of the parking lot. He could explain away the phone calls; he and Tess were, after all, friends. He could come up with a plausible reason for the calls.

"Honey, you have to get ahold of yourself," Addison said. He could not believe his marriage was going to explode here, now, when he was completely unprepared—but a part of him was intrigued by Phoebe's unbridled reaction. She was hysterical. He couldn't believe it. He would have said that when Phoebe found out about Tess, she would do nothing more than roll over and sneeze.

Just like that, her meds kicked in. She reined in the horses that were running away with her. She stopped crying; she sniffed. Addison had seen her crumble like this only one other time—September 11. Her twin brother, Reed, had worked on the hundred and first floor of the second tower. He had jumped.

"Tess," Phoebe said. "And Greg. Tess and Greg are dead."


The third week of June had a smell, and that smell was strawberries. Strawberry season normally only lasted about five minutes, but this year the spring had been warm, punctuated by just enough steady, soaking rain, and voilà! The strawberries responded. Jeffrey flew the strawberry flag at the beginning of the week, and people came in droves for pick-your-own, seven dollars a quart. These strawberries were red and juicy all the way through, the sweetest things you ever tasted, tiny bits of heaven pulled off the vine. The air over Seascape Farm practically shimmered pink. They were living in a miasma of strawberries.

At the end of the day, Jeffrey was getting the tractor back to the shed after fertilizing his cash crops—the corn, the herbs, the flowers, the beets, cucumbers, and summer squash—when he spied his wife's silver Rubicon in the parking lot. Delilah had brought the kids up to pick berries.

He and Delilah had started the day off on the wrong foot. Delilah had stayed late at the Begonia and had had "a few drinks" with Thom and Faith, the owners, and Greg, who had been playing guitar last night. "A few drinks" with those three was nearly always a slasher film. Thom and Faith were professional vodka drinkers and Greg was a certified booze bully, ordering up shots of tequila and Jim Beam for everyone, especially when Thom and Faith were footing the bill. Then, as if to soften the treachery of the drinks, Greg would pull out his guitar and play "Sunshine, Go Away Today," and "Carolina on My Mind," and everyone would sing along in slurred tones. When Delilah would look at the clock and see it was three in the morning, she couldn't believe it.

Delilah had stumbled home just as the sun was coming up, which was when Jeffrey usually rose for the day. He liked to have the watering finished by six, and the market opened for business at seven.

He and Delilah had crossed paths in the bathroom. She was on her knees, retching into the toilet.

"Good morning," he whispered. He tried to keep his voice light and playful, because Delilah's recurring complaint was that he was stern and judgmental, he was no fun, he acted more like her father than her husband.

And I ran away from my father, she said.

It was true that Jeffrey did not approve of her staying out until all hours; he did not approve of the restaurant life in general—there was drug use and drinking—and even though Delilah promised him she steered clear of everything except a postshift glass of wine, enough to clear her head while she rested her feet, he didn't believe her. Two or three nights a week she came home absurdly late, smelling of marijuana smoke, and ended up like this: head in the toilet, vomiting.

What are the boys going to think? Jeffrey would ask her.

I make them a hot breakfast, Delilah would snap back. I get them to school in clean clothes, on time. I pack them healthy lunches. I engage with them more than you do.

She was correct: no matter how late she came in, no matter how many postshift drinks she indulged in, she was up with the kids, flipping pancakes, pouring juice, checking homework. He couldn't give her parenting anything less than his full endorsement.

You want me to be a farmer's wife, Delilah said. You want me in braids and an apron.

Their arguments were all the same, so alike that it was as if they simply rewound the tape and pushed Play.

You should be glad I'm independent, I have my own life, a job, friends, a supplementary income. The kids understand this, they respect it.

Jeffrey did not begrudge his wife her own life—he just wished it coincided more neatly with his life as a farmer. He got out of bed at five; he liked to be in bed at nine, and many times he fell asleep reading to the kids. What he craved was time in front of the fire, just the four of them, he did want a roast with potatoes and carrots cooking in the oven. But Delilah needed a crowd. Always she invited the group over—Greg and Tess and their twins, the Chief and Andrea, Addison and Phoebe—and she mixed martinis and pressed sandwiches and opened chips and turned on the Patriots or pulled out the Parcheesi or badgered Greg into playing every Cat Stevens song he knew. There was no downtime with Delilah. It was always a party, and it was exhausting.

This morning she had been in a particularly foul mood, despite his chummy, nonjudgmental Good morning! She was retching and crying. He couldn't decide whether or not to ask her what was wrong. Sometimes when he asked she told him to mind his own business, but if he didn't ask, she accused him of not caring. If he were to be very honest with himself, he would admit that he didn't always care what was troubling Delilah. She had dramas constantly spooling around and out, and Jeffrey couldn't keep track. That was why she had Phoebe. God, Phoebe could listen for hours.

As Jeffrey was buttoning his shirt, Delilah approached him, sniffling.

"It's Greg and Tess's anniversary," she said.

"Is it?" he said. Then he remembered. It had been strawberry season when they got married. He had attended that wedding alone. Andrea had been the matron of honor; she had looked shockingly beautiful. Many times in the years since they'd split, he'd been filled with regret, but on the day Greg and Tess got married, the pangs had been unbearable. Andrea wore a dusty pink satin dress that showed off her shoulders; her hair was in a sleek twist, her smile lit up the church. At the reception, he had asked her to dance, and she'd said yes, and as they danced, she talked about how happy she was for Greg and Tess, while Jeffrey tried not to notice the Chief eyeing them from his post at the bar.

Delilah said, "So I'm taking the twins today. Greg and Tess are sailing to the Vineyard."

"That's nice," Jeffrey said.

"It is nice," Delilah said. "They're taking a picnic." She burst into tears.

See? He just didn't get it.

"What's wrong?" he asked.

"We never do things like that!" she said.

Now Jeffrey went to hunt down his wife in the strawberry fields. She was the kind of mother who was always doing things with the boys. Today, he knew, had started off with a nature walk; then they had picked up sandwiches in town and gone fishing on the south side of the pond, out of the wind, with Delilah tirelessly hooking and rehooking their lures. Often the day would end with an ice cream or a movie, but today it was strawberry-picking. The boys were eight and six; they both had energy like Delilah's—they never stopped, they never tired. Their life was one long adventure with their mother, punctuated by treats. She rarely said no to them. But four evenings a week, when she left for the restaurant, Jeffrey took over and reality closed in. He made them eat vegetables, he made them bathe, he made them rest. He wasn't as exciting as their mother, but they needed him.

He spotted Delilah right away in a white flowing sundress and a wide-brimmed straw hat that she wore every year when she went strawberry-picking. Because of the wind, her skirt kept flying up and her hat was threatening to blow off down the rows. Jeffrey smiled in spite of himself. Delilah was a beautiful woman, and the four kids—their own sons, Drew and Barney, and Tess and Greg's twins, Chloe and Finn—were happy and laughing, alternately dropping strawberries into the green quart baskets and stuffing them in their mouths.

"Hey," Jeffrey said.

Delilah looked up, but she was not happy to see him. Was she still miffed about this morning? If he understood her, she was upset because it was Greg and Tess's anniversary and they were sailing to the Vineyard. Jeffrey had spent the better part of the day trying to dream up something—an excursion, a surprise—that would match this in Delilah's mind. We never do things like that! Jeffrey couldn't argue with her there. They were slaves to the insanity of their schedule: Jeffrey worked all day, Delilah worked four nights a week. Tonight she was home, though. They could get a sitter and go out for dinner. Would that be exotic enough? It was too windy to eat at the beach, but they could pick up sandwiches and a bottle of wine and spread a blanket between the corn rows. The corn was waist-high already; no one would see them. They could make love in the fields. They used to do this before they were married, before they had a home together, before kids—but now the fields, and Jeffrey's absurdly long hours tending them, were a sore spot, and it was hard to imagine them feeling romantic about the farm the way they used to.

It was a full moon tonight. The wind was due to die down; it would be clear and beautiful. He would suggest a picnic in the fields and see what she said.

At that second, there was a buzzing in his pocket. His phone. He checked the display. It was the Chief.

"Okay," Delilah said, smoothing down her skirt and straightening her hat. "We have enough berries to last us the rest of our lives. Let's go home and make jam."

"Jam!" the kids cried.

Jeffrey opened his phone. "Hello?" he said.

Jeffrey was a farmer's farmer. He was methodical and straitlaced; he was sober, Delilah said, even when he was drunk. He had the posture of a minister—upright, straight, broad. He believed in process, he believed in cycles—the moon, the tides, the seasons. He respected the many complexities of nature, from a spiderweb to a bolt of lightning. He, Jeffrey Drake, could handle anything—blight, hurricane, famine, the apocalypse. Or so he thought.

Jeffrey and the Chief were friends, but there had always been something blocking the path between them, and that something was Andrea. Andrea had been Jeffrey's girlfriend first. They had dated for seven months, and then they had lived together in the tiny cottage on the farm property for another year and a half. That Andrea was now married to the Chief and had been for years, that they were all part of the same tight-knit group of eight, was weird and uncomfortable, but probably only for Jeffrey. It didn't seem to bother Andrea or the Chief at all; they treated him like a member of their family.

The Chief did not bother with hello. He never did. "Does Delilah have the twins?" he asked.

Strange question. The Chief was so humorless, he made Jeffrey feel like Jay Leno.

"Affirmative," Jeffrey said. He considered making some staticky walkie-talkie noise, but he wasn't funny enough to pull it off. No wonder Delilah found him tiresome. "Yes, Chief, she does. They are here at the farm as we speak, absconding with five quarts of strawberries."

"They're headed home?"

"Yes, sir. Home to make jam."

"Okay," the Chief said. "Keep them there. I'll be over in… God, I don't know. A little while. See that they sit tight, okay?"

"Roger Dodger," Jeffrey said. This mock-cop shtick was the best way to negotiate small talk with the Chief, but today it seemed to be falling flat. "Is something going on?"

The Chief took a breath and then made some indistinguishable noise. A laugh? A guffaw? (It was safe to say the Chief had never guffawed in all his life.) A sob?

"I don't know how to say this. God, I just can't say it."

Now Jeffrey was worried. "What?" he said. But no sooner had the word left his mouth than he knew. "Jesus, don't tell me."

"They're dead," the Chief said. "They drowned."

Jeffrey and the Chief were cut from the same cloth. Everyone said so. Jeffrey had never been able to decide if he was flattered by this or bothered by it. They were both serious and steady. Jeffrey knew the Chief expected him to take this news like a man. They were to figure things out, make a plan. But Jeffrey found himself gutted. He had been shot once, by a hunter's stray bullet; he had caught buckshot in the side that felled him from his plow. Receiving this news—They're dead. They drowned—was like that, but worse. He was breathless. He could not respond.

The Chief said, "I know it's hard."

Jeffrey almost said, Fuck you, don't patronize me. Let me wrap my mind around it, let me draw a breath, Ed, for Chrissakes. Suddenly Jeffrey wanted to sock the Chief in the mouth. He realized with those words—I know it's hard—that he'd wanted to sock Ed Kapenash in the mouth for twenty years.

He was saved from a grossly inappropriate response by the sight of the twins, Chloe and Finn, proudly carrying their quart containers. Their mouths were smeared with red and Chloe's white blouse had red stains on it that looked like blood. Your parents are dead, Jeffrey thought. They were happy kids, seven years old; they were well behaved, the closest friends of his own kids; the four of them were like siblings. The twins called him Uncle Jeff and they called Delilah Auntie Dee. He could not tell them their parents were dead; he could not tell Delilah either. The Chief served people up with horrible news every day; it was his occupational hazard. But it was not Jeffrey's.

He realized he still hadn't said anything.

"We'll come to your house… in a little while," the Chief said.

"Okay," Jeffrey said. And then he thought, Andrea. "Does Andrea know?"

The Chief cleared his throat. "Not yet. I'm going to find her. Tell her in person."

Jeffrey and Delilah had been friends with the Chief and Andrea—and Tess and Greg and Phoebe and Addison—for years and years. They hung out every weekend, they checked in, they helped out, lending a hand with the everyday stuff—Would you drop me off at Nantucket Auto Body so I can get my car? Can I borrow your deep fryer?


On Sale
Mar 29, 2022
Page Count
416 pages

Elin Hilderbrand

About the Author

Elin Hilderbrand is the proud mother of three, a dedicated Peloton rider, an aspiring book influencer, and an enthusiastic at-home cook (follow her on Instagram @elinhilderbrand to watch her Cringe Cooking Show). She is also a grateful seven-year breast cancer survivor. GOLDEN GIRL is her 27th novel.

Learn more about this author