On Sale: July 11th
From the acclaimed New York Times bestselling author of The Idea of Love and Driftwood Summer comes a story about women who spent their childhood summers in a small southern town that harbors secrets as lush as the marshes surrounding it…
Where a tidal river meets the ocean sits the house that shaped Bonny Blankenship’s most treasured memories—of the summers spent with her best friend, Lainey McKay. Known as the Summer Sisters, they read, swam and wished for happy-ever-afters amid the sand dunes and oak trees draped with Spanish moss. . . until the night that changed everything, the night that Lainey’s mother disappeared.
Now, in her early fifties, Bonny is desperate to clear her head after a tragic mistake threatens her career as an emergency room doctor, and her marriage crumbles around her. With her troubled teenage daughter, Piper, in tow, she goes back to the beloved river house, where she is soon joined by Lainey and her two young children. During lazy summer days and magical nights, they reunite with bookshop owner Mimi, who is tangled with the past and its mysteries. As the three women cling to a fragile peace, buried secrets and long-ago loves return like the tide.
After you read this exclusive excerpt, enter to win an advanced readers edition of The Bookshop at Water's End!
Mimi the Bookseller
We are defined by the moods and whims of a wild tidal river surrounding our small town, cradling us in its curved basin. We don’t shape it; it shapes us. The gray-blue water brings us what it will and only when it desires. One sweltering, languid afternoon as I shelved dusty paperbacks, I looked up to see a ghost. The girl was the spitting image of a woman I knew years ago—too many summers ago to count. It could have been another whim of the river.
Just when it seemed things were settled and placid in Watersend, South Carolina, in breezed the daughter of a Summer Sister. I should have been expecting her because of course I’d heard that Bonny Blankenship had returned to the old Moreland family house. It’s that kind of town; I hear everything. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t a bit of a shock seeing her walk through my door.
A young girl, I guessed on the brink of her twenties, stood in my bookshop, a daughter of the past who walked in all wide-eyed and exhaling like she’d finally found what she was looking for. It was a look I knew well. So glad to be in a cozy bookshop, in air-conditioned comfort, surrounded by stories, and to find that in the chaos of the world there was still a place like this. A place where books were piled to the ceiling and tables were crowded with the paraphernalia of reading: bookmarks, reading lights, stationery, pens and framed quotes to inspire. I’m no dummy. I keep the air conditioner set to frigid. I know I’m luring customers and some might call it bribery, but whatever works, works. I lost my store once, and now that I have it again, I’ll do pretty much anything to keep it alive.
Her blond ponytail pulled at the skin around her heart-shaped face, moist at the hairline and cheeks flushed pink. Her round eyes, almost disproportionate to her other tiny features, were wide open to wonder as she looked around the store. She possessed an ephemeral quality one can’t buy with plastic surgery or proper training. Her mother had been the same, almost floating through childhood with her best friend, Lainey. They came in here for the same reasons—cold air and escape. Two little girls who were so close it seemed that they’d been sewn together by the seams of their flowered sundresses. History, they say, repeats itself. But I surely hope not.
Was she like her mother, Bonny, all fire and no ice? Older than her years and too young to know better is how I once described her to a customer. The years blended together, but those three summers in the late 1970s stood out like a beacon in the fog of my memory.
I welcomed this ghost into the store but then walked away, and allowed her to roam at her leisure. Thirty minutes later, she chose a poetry book and set it on the counter. I approached her with a smile. “Did you find what you were looking for?”
She held a cell phone in her hand, and it appeared permanently attached, just as it did to all the young ones who came in here. Cells are an appendage now, I’d told my book club.
“I did find exactly what I was looking for. This is a great bookshop.” The girl sounded like her mother, too. A certain lilt to her voice like she was about to break into song and then changed her mind. How do I remember all these small details from so long ago when I can’t remember where I put my car keys or glasses? I know why, of course—for reasons I’ve never told a soul.
“Thank you. I’m Mimi. The owner of this messy store. Welcome. Are you visiting Watersend?” I kept my voice light, but I wasn’t much good at pretending.
“Yes,” the girl said. “I’m here on vacation.” She caught my gaze. It took my breath away; so familiar and yet completely foreign. “My name’s Piper,” she said and brushed at a wayward hair falling into her eyes.
“Well, Piper. I’m glad to meet you. I hope you’ll come back while you’re in town.”
“Oh, I will,” she said. “I’m glad I found this on my first day.”
“Me, too. And if you’re here for the summer, there are plenty of summer book clubs that you can join.” I handed her a sheet of paper that listed the clubs and dates and times. “There’s even a poetry one.”
“Thanks,” Piper said. “I might stop by. But I’m going to be . . . busy.”
“Well, busy is something for sure,” I said.
Piper laughed, but it sounded rusty with disuse. “What do you mean?” she asked.
“I mean, busy is something to be but maybe not the best thing to be?” I took off my glasses and they dangled from the purple string that held them there so I wouldn’t lose them. I smiled to let her know that my advice was harmless, just an old woman rambling along. I didn’t want to scare her off. I rang up the book and placed it in a brown paper bag with our book logo stamped onto it with my favorite quote, “Books may well be the only true magic. Alice Hoffman.” And then handed it to Piper.
She smiled in a sad way. I wanted to tell her how much she looked like her mother, but she didn’t seem to be the kind of young woman who would want to hear such a thing. There she was trying to carve out her own place in the world with her little nose stud, like a sparkling freckle, and black eyeliner smudged around her dark blue eyes like dark curtains.
“Well. Anyhow, Watersend is a great place to be for the summer. I think you’ll like it. What brings you?” I already knew the answer: the river. But she would believe it was her mother, or the house.
Piper exhaled and rolled her eyes in that perfect way all teenagers do. “I’m here to help my mom and babysit her best friend’s kids. They used to spend their summers here and my mom fixed the old house and . . .” She trailed off like she’d forgotten why she’d arrived at all.
“That sounds like a better job than most get in the summer,” I said, straightening some papers on the counter that didn’t need straightening.
“You’re probably right,” Piper said, “but I just didn’t imagine spending my first college summer with my mom and her friend and little kids.”
“You say they’ve been here before. Do I know them?” I looked away with my false questions, feeling slightly ashamed for prodding into what I already knew.
“I don’t know. Maybe. My mom is Bonny. Her maiden name was Moreland. Her friend is Lainey.”
“The Summer Sisters.” I smiled. “For gravy’s sake, who could forget them?”
“You know them?” Piper leaned forward conspiratorially. “And isn’t that the stupidest name? Summer Sisters.”
“Not such a bad name if you knew them then.”
“It sounds ridiculous to me.”
“Ah. I’m sure it does.”
She nodded, this young girl, and she looked at me the way the young can and do when the aged baffle them, when they don’t believe that they will ever be the older ones.
“Well, ʼleast tell your mother I said hello.”
“I will.” Piper held up her book, now wrapped in a paper bag. “And thanks for this.”
“You’re welcome. Come anytime and make your escape.”
I sidled out from around the counter and walked Piper to the front of the store, struggling for something to say, anything. But nothing seemed right. She hesitated at the entrance and then asked, “Did they have other friends or was it just the two of them?”
“I forget, dear. It was so, so long ago.”
Piper pushed open the door and let herself out without another word.
Now, everyone knows I believe in stories being told. Why else would I own a bookshop? I also know that some stories should stay crouched in the dusty corners of the past. It had been a record-breaking hot summer the last time those Summer Sisters were here with their boozy, somnolent parents who paid the children no mind, almost forty years ago now. The town had loved those girls: silly and full of sass, buzzing around town pretending to be Nancy Drew, solving mysteries that should have never been solved.
That night, at our monthly poker game over bourbon and pound cake with Loretta and Ella and my beau, Harrington, I would say, “You will not believe who walked into the store today.” And they would guess until they couldn’t anymore and I would say, “A Summer Sister’s daughter.”
I walked outside and watched Piper as she headed toward the market, her poetry book in a paper bag and dragging one of those wagons that announces, “I’m a vacationer”: rolling carts that people tug around full of towels and toys, groceries and kids.
Heat wavered off the brick sidewalk like Watersend was one large coffee mug. Posters hung in store windows to announce the summer concert series on the square, and the new market awning was bright yellow and garish against a sky where gray clouds gathered into thunderheads. But instead of a young girl with a cell phone and a nose stud, I saw her mother, Bonny, a wildflower of a child, walking along the same street sure as punch that nothing could ever go wrong.
Overhead, clouds gathered into an afternoon congregation—a reminder that once the past begins to nudge itself into the present, the future changes. Soon the thunder would begin and yes, indeed, a summer storm was coming.
It wouldn’t be a secret much longer.
Behind the locked exam room door I held the phone to my ear with the particular thrill and sense of finishing a job well done. All the planning, all the night shifts and research papers and grueling interviews had finally led to this job offer as the new emergency room director at Emory Hospital in Atlanta. It wasn’t that I didn’t love my job as an ER doc in Charleston; I actually did. It was that I needed to leave Charleston. If I was going to leave my husband, then I needed to leave the city where his family was as entrenched as Fort Sumter.
No one knew about this change or move, except of course the administrator on the other end of the line.
“Let me ask you something,” she said. “I’m just curious. When did you know you wanted to be a doctor? Your path has been as straightforward and unwavering as I’ve ever seen.”
“I knew when I was eight years old.” I fiddled with the oxygen gauge on the wall, straightened the tissue paper covering the exam table. How very many times I’d been here saving a life, or calming a woman who believed her husband was having a heart attack when he was experiencing a panic attack. I’d inserted IVs, administered CPR, stitched and set and soothed. I’d diagnosed correctly and incorrectly, and spent my hours untangling confusing symptoms in this room—the same room where I was accepting my new job.
“Well, your dedication has paid off. Congratulations, Dr. Blankenship.”
“Thank you so much,” I said. “I’m thrilled for this new chapter in my life.” I spoke in a low voice, almost a whisper. “Will you please allow me a couple days to inform my hospital before you announce it there?”
“Of course. You just let us know when you’re ready and we’ll get things rolling on our end. We look forward to seeing you in thirty days.”
“Absolutely,” I said, this time louder. “I will see you then, and I’ll be in touch.”
I hung up with an irresistible need to let out a joyful “yes!” but instead I returned to the emergency room to do my job. I would quietly fulfill my duties while inside I celebrated the last accomplishment before I left my husband and this city.
Make sure Piper was off to college. Done.
Fix the old family river house in South Carolina to sell. Almost done.
Get a new job out of town. Check.
The ER at Medical University of South Carolina, affectionately called MUSC, was as familiar to me as my own home, maybe even more so. There was the squeak of shoes on the linoleum, the beeping of machines and the harsh ringing of phones. The soft swish-hush of the doorways opening and closing, the antiseptic aroma sometimes mixed with the metallic smell of blood and sweat. The nurses and doctors here were like family. I’d spent long hours with them in the intimate confines of small rooms and cramped hallways, but soon I would give them up as I would so many other things—the cost of being free to start a new life without Lucas.
When had I known I wanted to be a doctor? The administrator’s question echoed in my mind. There were insights I’ve known slowly, like the need to leave Lucas. And there were others that happened in a flash, like wanting to become a doctor.
When I was eight years old I saw a toddler drown. The lifeguard pulled a lifeless three-year-old body from the deep end’s faraway bottom under the high dive and then screamed for a doctor. A woman, another child’s mother in a pink and green Lilly bathing suit cover-up, appeared and kneeled before the body. She then breathed and pumped life back into the little girl. When the child sputtered and coughed and cried for her mama, the dead risen to life, a true-world Lazarus from Sunday school lessons in a little girl’s body, I knew what and who I would become. I never learned that mom’s name, but I think of her often—a doctor and a mom. In that moment, all the world flowered open with possibility. There was no either/or. There was anything and everything.
From that point on, while others had photos of John Travolta and Stevie Nicks on their walls, I’d had anatomy posters labeling the muscles and veins and organs. A full-size plastic skeleton I’d begged my dad to buy me from a flea market in downtown Atlanta stood sentinel on a metal pole in the corner of my childhood room.
I became a doctor for the same reasons I imagined others became astronauts—to explore an unknown that spreads into infinity. The body is something that can never be fully discovered, its intricacies astounding and its mysteries boundless. Just when science understands what one organ or cell does—a liver or a stem cell—we are wrong, or partly wrong, and there’s more, always more.
I’d never wavered or turned back from the desire.
That particular unseasonably warm May afternoon, the air crackled with lightning and the emergency room felt overcharged and electric. I’d filled in an extra shift for another doctor, not only for the extra padding in my paycheck, but also for the itchy need to be away from home as much as possible. The house felt empty and lifeless without Piper in it. Loneliness echoed along the hallways and through the rooms of my immaculate house. But I tasted a new life waiting for me. It was time. I’d been patient and I’d been meticulous.
I went from exam room to exam room, writing orders on charts, listening to patients and writing prescriptions with both skill and intuition. Just before sunset, I sat in a cubicle stitching the forefinger of a young mother who had cut herself in the most mundane of ways—slicing carrots. Just one more patient. Just one more shift.
Exhaustion held tight to me, even as I poured another cup of bitter coffee from the break station and splashed cold water on my face in the doctors’ locker room. The months of double shifts, the many sleepless nights and the low thrum of constant worry had taken their toll. My sympathetic nervous system was on high alert, the fight-or-flight adrenaline pushing me forward against my will. Secret keeping depleted me, as if each withheld word and admission rotted the life out of me. Fatigue and blurry-mindedness were the prices I paid for finding my way out of my marriage.
But in a breath, the evening shifted. A multicar wreck and a kite-boarding accident blew through the double doors within minutes of one another. Screams, slamming doors and sirens arrived as the accouterments of emergency.
Time bends and slows for me in emergency situations; I don’t feel the fear until it’s over. I see with acute vision and can tell everyone what to do and when and how. I know the reasons for this are chemical—adrenaline from the adrenals, serotonin from my neurotransmitters—but I also know it’s what I’m meant to do.
The first stretcher came through: a man with dark, windswept hair and an arm twisted at such an odd angle that for a moment there was an illusion of two people on the same gurney because that would be the only way that arm would make sense. He was silent, his jaw clenched as he bit down, teeth on teeth—a controlled pain until it wrenched free in a groan.
I ran to his side and I felt the world tilting beneath my feet. My heart pulsed high into my throat and my arms tingled. I couldn’t make sense of his face here in my ER—so familiar and in pain—but the electric shock under my ribs told me what I knew before my mind could piece things together. Time warped and stood still, moved backward and then forward.
Owen McKay. This was the man who held both my childhood and my heart in his wild hands. My best friend Lainey’s brother.
Until he rolled in on a stretcher, I hadn’t seen Owen McKay in over twenty years, since the night before my wedding to Lucas. Why was he here? Wasn’t he somewhere with wilderness and cliffs and silence?
“Bee.” He opened his eyes. They were the same deep brown, but filmed with pain.
“What are you doing here?” I asked as if I’d run into him in a bar or on the street, a casual old friend.
“Kite boarding.” A low groan escaped as he tried to speak. “The wind took me. I . . .”
“Doc,” the paramedic shouted at me. “What room?”
“I got this.” I grabbed the stretcher’s cold metal edge, rolling it into the cubicle with two other nurses. The paramedic rattled off the facts of his injuries: broken collarbone, possible internal bleeding, probable water in his lungs, dislocated shoulder and possibly more.
I went into automatic mode and activated trauma protocol: I ordered the ultrasounds, the IV line, the vital signs and the fluids. Owen faded in and out, and the paramedics professed another fact: he’d almost drowned. A surfer on the beach had administered CPR. I hollered orders, desperate to keep him alive. It’s this way with every patient, but I’m not in love with every patient.
Past and present blended. He was flat on the stretcher with his eyes closed; he was flat on a splintered warm dock in South Carolina, holding my hand and stargazing. He was calling my name in pain; he was whispering my name to jump into the river. He was holding his arm above his head with a broken bone; he was waving at me across the beach. He was old and he was young and we had all our life ahead of us and then none at all. I would have to tell Lainey, call her. She’d be devastated and worried, because that’s what she did—worried about Owen. But first, very first, I would have to save him.
Later, maybe ten minutes, another doctor, Marie, called for me. Owen had been wheeled into surgery, and I rushed off to the next urgent need: in cubicle C was one of the victims of the multicar crash. Others were being treated in separate rooms, doctors and nurses on call from all parts of the hospital to pick up the load. This patient was older, his hair gone gray but wavy and thick, like a young man’s. This patient’s heart rate was high and erratic; his blood pressure was dropping and his pupils were dilated. Same course of action: trauma protocol, and immediately he had two large-bore IV needles in his veins and Lactated Ringer’s coursing through the tubes to his body. I ordered a fast exam ultrasound that showed abdominal bleeding. He needed to go straight to the OR. No CAT scans, no X-rays. “Oxygen sat low. Restless. Blood pressure dropping. We have stage three shock and he needs to get to the OR stat,” I called out.
This man screamed, blind in his pain, his gaze searching for help. I didn’t check his chart, but drew a dosage of Dilaudid, the same dosage I’d just given Owen, and pushed it into his IV, relief only moments away as it coursed through his blood and dulled the agony.
Then his eyes flew open, and his gaze fixed on mine. He reached his hand out, bloody and mangled from the car where he’d been trapped; they’d released him with the Jaws of Life. Fear surrounded him like wavering fog.
“If I’m dying,” he said in a voice strangled with pain, “tell my wife and kids I have never loved anyone as I love them. Tell them.”
I’d been here before with patients who’ve said the same thing. It’s a natural instinct—don’t let me leave this world and let those I love have any doubt that I love them. Love—it’s the final word of so many and ultimately all that remains.
Not very often do humans get to see all that truly matters, but I often do. Those fearful of death don’t say, “Tell my wife to check my bank account.” Or “Do I look okay?” They talk of love and making sure those around them know of their love. Mostly.
“Stay with me,” I said to him, motioning to the nurse to grab the end of the stretcher. “You can tell them.”
He winced as the nurse and orderly prepared to move toward the OR, but he didn’t release my hand. Sometimes patients don’t realize they’re holding on to me as they hold on to life.
He closed his eyes and spoke on an exhale. “God, please let me live. I haven’t done the one thing I meant to do.”
“What?” I asked as we ran down the hallway. The surgical suite doors swished open and we pushed his gurney inside. I bent over and he focused directly on my eyes, steady.
I’ve seen people die before, many times. I’ve seen the light fade slowly or sometimes in an instant, how the body becomes only that—a body, a vessel, which once held animation or spirit. And he was fading.
“Tell me about your one thing. What is it?” I needed to keep him talking, let him find a reason to live. “Tell me.”
But this was not a slow fade; it was instant, immediate and final. He was gone. Completely. His pupils dilated, filling the blueness of his eyes with darkness. He exhaled without inhale. His mouth slackened and his limbs fell free to dangle from the sides of the stretcher.
“Code blue,” I screamed.
They arrived quickly—the nurses and the other doctor, Marie, with the paddles and the intubation tubes, but I knew it was no use. You come to know these things. This would be one of those times when I would grope my way through the darkness and into the waiting room to gather the family. I wasn’t up for it. I wasn’t ever up for it. I needed to save, not lose.
His wife ran into the emergency room; she’d come after she received a call from the police. In the consulting room with her, I was so detached and alert it was as if I’d left my body with the gray-haired man on the stretcher. Her name was Tory, and she wore cropped white pants and a pale blue button-down; her long white hair was pulled back in a tortoiseshell barrette.
“His wounds were too traumatic. He didn’t make it,” I said. “We’ll know more after an examination, but we did everything we could. Everything. He was on his way to the OR when he died.”
Already, even as I spoke to her in the robotic words I’d had to say before to others, I felt the hum of something amiss. What med had I ordered? Had I done it for Owen or for the gray-haired man or both? It was a vertiginous feeling, as if I were jumping from the cliffs of the Grand Tetons with Owen, where I’d last known him to be, but without the wings or the parachute. Nausea rose and I clenched down on my throat to talk to Tory.
“No,” she said quietly. “No.”
I was silent and untethered. Owen was still in surgery; the night, elongating and spreading out like an oil stain, already changing my life.
“Did he say anything? Was he in pain? Did he . . .” She dropped her head into her hands and the wracking sobs began. “He’s my world.”
“He did,” I managed. “He did say something.”
“What?” She lifted her gaze as if this might change everything, maybe whatever he said would bring him back to life.
“He said to make sure that you and your kids knew how much he loved you. That he had never loved anyone as he did all of you. Those were his last words.” It was a partial truth.
The next sob seemed to tear her into two, and she fell to her knees. She shook her head so violently that her barrette fell loose, clattering to the floor.
I dropped my hand onto the back of her head, felt the warmth of life and the living. “I’m sorry.”
The overhead speaker bellowed my name over and over. Dr. Blankenship. Dr. Blankenship.
“Someone will be in shortly to help you.” This was where the nurses and social workers and chaplains took over; this was where I exited.
For all my training, despite all I knew, all I could know, I couldn’t save a gray-haired man who bled and suffered. It seemed the simplest thing in fact—car wreck; internal injuries; broken bones—but it wasn’t ever simple. I hobbled back to the exam room where he’d been and flipped his chart open: he’d been given the same dose of pain medicine in the ambulance. I hadn’t checked and they hadn’t told me. A slow tingle of panic began in my fingertips and worked its way to my lungs, where it stole the air. Had I given him an overdose of pain med?
Later that night, almost into morning, I stood in the parking lot of the hospital, the sky folding over me, and I bent over to be sick. The wracking heaves felt like food poisoning or flu, but I knew it was neither—this was fear and its minions of shame and desperation. Maybe, for the first time, I’d contributed to death instead of life. But I knew that if I’d been given a choice in that moment, if someone had said, “You can save only one of these men,” I would have chosen Owen. There wasn’t a heartbeat’s hesitation.
But no one had asked. A choice hadn’t been offered. In fact, there’d never been a choice; I’d done my best for both. Yet still a dark cloak of fear fell over me: Oh, dear God, did I make a mistake?