The Starter Wife


By Nina Laurin

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From the bestselling author of Girl Last Seen comes “a spine-tingler” (Booklist) of a psychological suspense, perfect for fans of Lisa Jewell and Jessica Knoll.

Local police have announced that they’re closing the investigation of the suspected drowning of 37-year-old painter Colleen Westcott. She disappeared on April 11, 2010, and her car was found parked near the waterfront in Cleveland two days later, but her body has never been found. The chief of police has stated that no concrete evidence of foul play has been discovered in the probe.

close the online search window, annoyed. These articles never have enough detail. They think my husband’s first wife disappeared or they think she is dead. There’s a big difference.

My phone rings, jarring me away from my thoughts, and when I pick it up, it’s an unknown number. The only answer to my slightly breathless hello is empty static.

When the voice does finally come, it’s female, low, muffled somehow. “Where is it, Claire? What did you do with it? Tell me where it is.”

A woman. A real flesh-and-blood woman on the other end of the phone. She’s not just in my head.

A wave of panic spreads under my skin like ice water. It’s Colleen.

“Laurin knows how to ratchet up the suspense.” — Publishers Weekly


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Part One



Last night, I saw you, with the wifey. In the restaurant where I wait tables. You didn't see me, and neither did she, but that's normal because I wear a uniform that matches the walls, as if I'm meant by design to blend in, be furniture. That restaurant isn't fancy, hardly a place where you'd want to bring your date—not if you plan on getting laid afterwards. But for you two, it was a delicious joke you shared along with your popcorn shrimp appetizer. A little moment of kitsch, like going to ride the Ferris wheel at the town fair.

I thought it was an extraordinary coincidence. A sign from the stars. Surely you had no idea I'd be here—and I hadn't planned on seeing you. I panicked when I saw you two walk in, her first, because you held the door for her like a gentleman. My palms went clammy instantly, and I wiped them on the sides of my polyester shirt. In my cowardice, I even prayed that Lizzie the hostess wouldn't sit you in my section, but then again, I knew she would. The place was empty that night, and everyone there knew I needed the tips because I could only work weekends, no school nights. She was being nice to me because she, like everyone there, felt sorry for me, the youngest, least skilled waitress in the place.

But there you were, so I pulled myself together and went to give you menus, and even when I rattled off the specials (I didn't once screw up or give myself away in any way, of which I'm still proud), you didn't glance away from your wife's face and look at me. You both looked so flushed and happy, like you were popping in for a greasy snack after rolling in bed all afternoon. You only had eyes for each other.

It would have been just another ordinary night—you eat, you pay, you tip, and you leave, to go back to bed, maybe. But then a miracle happened, a miracle that sent my whole world spinning off its orbit. A true sign from above.

After I cleared away your plates and put in the order for your dessert (cherry pie with ice cream—two spoons, of course), I found myself overwhelmed, needing a moment alone. I raced to the bathroom and locked myself in a stall to catch my breath—okay, to slip my hand inside the elastic waist of my uniform pants and touch myself. But no matter how furiously I rubbed myself through my panties, it just wasn't happening—I hovered on the brink, frustration growing and threatening to crest into something uglier. That's when I heard the door open, and froze. If anyone caught me hiding out in the bathroom, I might get in trouble. I pulled my legs up onto the toilet seat so they couldn't see me.

Your wifey's sneakered feet shuffled past. I couldn't have missed these sneakers, hot pink edged in fluorescent yellow, the kind rich ladies wear to their workouts and to run weekend errands. My own work sneakers were once plain white but turned gray, a generic brand, bought on sale. I stared at their toes the whole time she was there, in the stall next to mine. She knelt on the floor, ignoring the scattered bits of tissue, black yoga pants strained at her hips, and the unmistakable sounds of retching followed almost immediately.

I'll never know whether she was making herself puke, like those girls at school. It's not important. I remember watching her get up, and then one foot came off the floor, and the toilet flushed. The door of the stall clacked open; the rush of tap water followed, and after it, the cacophony of the hand dryer. At last, the door squeaked softly closed behind her. I burst out of the stall, a mess of relief and giddiness, and then I saw it. The miracle.

Sitting there, on the edge of the sink, in a little puddle of soapy water, was her engagement ring. Old looking, an antique or heirloom—I imagined your mother giving it to you, passed down from some great-great-grandmother, to be given to the woman of your heart someday. A big emerald glimmered darkly in a setting of tiny diamonds and platinum leaves.

And she left it in the bathroom of a shitty chain restaurant, thoughtlessly slid it off her soapy finger and plunked it down on the cracked porcelain like it was a cheap bit of costume jewelry. That's when I knew. I knew she didn't deserve you. And I knew I could—would—take you away from her, no matter what it took. A higher being was on my side, and he sent me the ring as an omen.

I snatched it off the sink and put it in a place where no one would find it, even if—when—she noticed and raised a stink, and in case the manager wanted to search all of us.

But I knew it wouldn't happen.

Fate was on my side.


Byron let me sleep in this morning.

There. That way, it sounds nicer than "my husband snuck out of the house while I was still asleep." Because that's exactly what happened and what's been happening every day of the week so far, and we're at Thursday.

This morning, the balmy September sun finally gave way to rain, and with the bedroom windows facing north, it's still kind of dark when I wake up. It could have been just dawn breaking, around seven a.m. Except Byron's side of the bed is empty and there are no footsteps downstairs in the kitchen, no water running in the bathroom.

I get up, grab the imitation ring from the nightstand, and put it on the ring finger of my left hand, where it settles into the groove it has made in the skin. He just presented me with it one day, and I didn't press the issue further. He never actually told me whether the stones were real. I decided to let it go and never asked.

It's ten thirty. I run my fingers through my hair, which is tangled and matted with sweat, and eye the digital clock in mild dismay. Yesterday it was ten ten. The day before, on Monday, it was nine fifty. Byron gets up at seven every morning like clockwork—to go running in good weather and to hit the gym at the college in bad. If he goes running, he comes back to take a shower before changing to go to work.

September has been beautiful this year, dry and sun filled. He hasn't gone running once, as far as I can tell.

At the start, I'd get up at six fifty and have breakfast ready for him: French toast and cheese omelet, with a glass of orange juice and coffee with cream. Now I'm wondering if he ate all that fatty food to be polite, because these days his breakfast is an energy bar. And I guess I can't complain—I see other men his age at university events when he takes me. By forty, they have paunches and double chins while Byron, at forty-seven, has the body of someone half his age. He's also one of the lucky ones who has his hair, all of it—except with age, the points of the M of his hairline have sharpened a little, and the blond color has grown bleak with gray hairs. When I met him, it was easier to forget the twenty-year age difference.

And that name. The name caught my attention even before he did, took me back to high school English lit where the teacher made us pick poems apart to the bare bones. I hated it—it ruined their beauty, made the magic evaporate.

Ironically, the original Byron never had a romance that wasn't thoroughly dysfunctional—ranging from mildly unhealthy to downright unhinged. Back when he was courting me, it didn't raise any red flags.

Then again, neither did the first wife.

I make my way downstairs and start the espresso machine. Byron is particular about his coffee beans while I could drink any swill from a filter—the way he puts it. The truth is I find the fancy espresso too bitter, too sour, like sandpaper on the palate. But today I'm feeling especially foggy so the caffeine buzz seems worth the tongue torture. And those exotic beans do deliver the buzz—can't complain about that.

While the machine hisses, I get my laptop from the little office Byron set up for me upstairs, the one I almost never use. Whenever I can, I sit outside or down in the living room in front of the giant bay window, basking in the natural light. That's what I do now, pulling up my pajama-clad legs and balancing the sleek Mac on my knee. I check both my email accounts, the personal one and the one I use for writing-related contacts, even though no one ever emails me on either. My friends, the few who still keep in touch, prefer to text, and the last batch of queries I sent dates back months. Some agents still have my manuscript but let's face it—it's not going to happen.

The cliché should make me sad. I admit I cringed a little all these months ago when I first wrote my bio for emailing literary agents. Back then, I was full of optimism and hope, with Byron leaning over my shoulder to peek at the screen and then kissing my temple and working his way down to my neck. Here's what it says, in clunky third person that's apparently industry standard: Claire Westcott has a degree in English and creative writing from Ohio State University. Her work has appeared in the campus newspaper as well as several small literary publications. Presently, Claire writes full-time. She lives with her husband, a professor of literature at Mansfield Liberal Arts College in Ohio.

This is a fancy way of saying I'm one of those women. Those girls my evolved, progressive classmates at Ohio State sneered at: the boring white women who married a man who can support them while they write their irrelevant little stories. I know I'm not exactly in the zeitgeist, but Byron loved to tease me about it, calling himself the Leonard to my future Virginia Woolf, a man destined to fade in his famous writer wife's shadow.

I didn't remind him how that story ended. I wasn't thinking about it at all in happier times.

Now, as I open the second inbox, it dings, a sound that now fills me with dread rather than anticipation. Looks like one of my queries has netted a response, months later. I scan the form letter shallowly when the ding repeats itself. Two in one day? But the ding is from my personal inbox this time.

There's no subject line, and the address is gibberish. I really shouldn't click on it—it's probably a virus—but my hands are faster than my mind today. As I rush to hit the Back button, the image downloads, and my hand freezes over the touch pad. It knocks the wind out of me. I stare at it, my eyes drinking in every pixel, but there is no explanation.

I'm looking at a close-up of the emerald in my ring. My replacement ring? The real thing? But it's…impossible.

Then I see the name of the sender, and it takes everything I have not to slam the laptop shut and hurl it away from me, as far as possible, like it's a venomous spider nestled in my lap.



Colleen may have died but she never left.

The fact that we live in her house is hard to forget. Just like the fact that we live off her sizable savings, which went to her husband when she died since she had no other family. Byron never directly said so, but I know that's how he's able to support his future Virginia Woolf while maintaining our lifestyle, all on his generous but not exactly millionaire's salary at the college.

I haven't worked in two years but I get new clothes every season, and every eight weeks, I get my roots bleached and carefully toned to a perfect wheat blond and then streaked with corn-silk highlights. I drive an hour to the good salon in Columbus while everyone I know goes to the local place, run by a middle-aged woman with a bouffant hairdo who charges about a third of what the Columbus place does. Sadly, she's also a firm believer in wedge cuts for anyone over twenty-two.

So I drive and sit in that chair for hours, holding my head straight and smiling while my hair is pulled and tugged and slathered with chemicals, and then I hand over the family credit card. Another three hundred of Colleen's dollars, plus tip, changes hands invisibly. No crass cash.

I try to convince myself there's no reason to feel guilty. It's not like he left her for a younger woman or threw her out on the street or dumped her with three kids and no alimony, or any such sordid story, all too common in this town. She died. He grieved but then moved on. Selling that monolith of a house, in such a market, would have been insane. So would moving away from a perfectly good job with the prospect of tenure looming on the horizon. Byron repeated that to me hundreds of times. Everything makes sense.

Rationally, that is. What I feel is anything but.

Some days, after a not-so-great day in the Westcott household, I drive to the local mall and buy things I don't need, hideous clothes I'll never wear, tacky pink makeup. I tell myself it's my petty revenge against Byron, but really it's my revenge against Colleen, as if wasting some of her money can make up for the thousand little humiliations I suffer.

Eventually, I know the savings will run out, and I don't plan to make Byron support me forever. My novel is pretty much dead in the water. The next novel, the one I'm supposed to be writing while my husband is at work, is clearly never happening. So now I'm looking for work—starting to. I've set up profiles on the big job-search sites and made a separate email address. I haven't sent out any CVs yet.

That's what I was going to do when I got the email from Colleen.

That, of course, is utterly insane. Every part of it: that Colleen is alive, that Colleen has my ring, and that Colleen just sent me an email from a dummy address. If that email wasn't sitting right there in my inbox, I'd think I was going out of my mind.

I put my laptop aside carefully and get up. There's no sun flooding in through the bay window today. The glass is speckled with rain, droplets and silvery streaks. I peer through them with mistrust, convinced—my skin crawling with the feeling—that someone on the other side is watching me, observing me like a fish in an aquarium.

Then I go back to the kitchen where the cup of coffee sits under the little tap of the machine, still steaming, but just barely. I've lost all taste for coffee. Adrenaline woke me up better than espresso could, and the thought of gulping down that gritty, bitter nonsense makes me shudder. I dump it in the sink and then go have a shower. I wash my hair, blow-dry it with the round brush, and put on makeup—the good stuff for special occasions, the expensive foundation and mascara, hoping that, if I look like me, I'll feel like me. Tough. I feel like the same jittery mess, but with makeup on.

From here, I decide to tackle it head-on. There are ways of figuring out where an email came from. IP address and such. I can google it. At least I could try. To get my real, rightful ring back, of course. Only to get my ring back from whoever stole it.

Not because I think it could actually be…her.

With a decisive intake of breath, I sit on the living room couch, back straight, knees together like I'm in elementary school, and open my laptop. I don't look at the email…yet. I google how to find out where an email comes from and spend another ten minutes blinking helplessly at walls of text studded with unfamiliar terms.

Okay, then. I'll just do it step by step, figuring it out as I go. I click on my inbox, realize it's the wrong one—still open on my form rejection. I just didn't connect…

With an impatient sigh, I click the red cross, and the writerly inbox disappears. I'm looking at my personal email now.

A message from Byron sits at the top, dated back three weeks. Below it, one from my sister, from three months ago. I'd promised myself I'd reply. I really did. But then I dreaded it, put it off, then forgot, and then gave up altogether because it would just be even more awkward after all this time. Below that, a couple of generic messages from those discount sites for Columbus that I keep track of, as if we really needed 48 percent off a meal at a restaurant chain or a knockoff Apple Watch for $199. Byron hates those sites, despises the very idea.

Frustrated, I scroll through the emails. They're going back six months now, seven, ten. Back to the top—nothing. I check the other folders. Nothing. Nothing in Trash or Spam.

It's gone like it was never there.

A little laugh bubbles out of me. Clearly, I'm going crazy. Ha ha. Imagining emails that never were.

My thoughts churn. I should have taken a screenshot, I should have saved the image—should have, should have, should have. How do I retrieve a lost email? Google has plenty of answers but they all apply only to emails that ostensibly existed.

Remembering that I have a phone, I run to get it from the charger in the bedroom. No new notifications. I write a quick text to Byron, who should be on his lunch hour by now: Bon appetit! Love, xoxoxoxo and a couple of emojis. It's cheesy but right now all I want is to hear from him, even if it's just a two-word text.

It's better than asking, Hey, by the way, are you absolutely sure your first wife is dead?


Are you absolutely sure your first wife is dead?

Once you've been inside our house, the question doesn't sound as crazy.

Here's what I know about Colleen Westcott.

Her favorite color was lilac—because the entire first floor is painted pale lilac with gray accents. Why change it? Byron would say if I asked him. It's tasteful and makes the rooms look airier. As if the rooms, with their twelve-foot ceilings and lingering echoes in the corners, needed to feel any bigger.

She liked to cook—hence, the state-of-the-art equipped kitchen and a full set of Le Creuset cookware stashed away in its cream-colored cabinets. When I saw how much these things cost, on a trip to Williams Sonoma, I choked on my iced coffee. She was definitely the cook because I've yet to see Byron use the kitchen to make anything more complex than cereal or, on the odd occasion, pasta with canned sauce. The Le Creuset dishes gather sticky dust on their once-shiny enameled lids.

She was the coffee enthusiast too, because her books on coffee—heavy, glossy photo volumes—are stacked on a shelf in the dining room, right next to her cookbook collection. If the cookbooks are to be believed, she was fond of Mediterranean cuisine with an occasional foray into the Middle East. All the books are inscribed with her name on the flyleaf in silver, needle-thin Sharpie. She wrote in cursive. She must have had an elegant hand because…

…because the worst part. The paintings.

Colleen was a painter, an accomplished one as far as painters in the twenty-first century go. She taught at the same liberal arts college where Byron still teaches, something no one fails to remind me every time I go to a function with my husband. Did you know Colleen used to teach in the Fine Arts Department? Students loved her. And what do you do?

Claire is a writer, Byron would say, stepping in pointedly.

Really, now? Makes sense—our Byron always goes for the artsy types, doesn't he?

But back to the paintings.

Colleen's famous paintings—landscapes, faces, strange blurred figures, all big giant things in smeared colors—are everywhere. Yes, I guess I am an "artsy type" but I'm a writer, raised on printed words, and for the life of me, I just don't understand the appeal. I'm not going to say, "A three-year-old could have painted that mess"—oh no, since my husband is a lecturer at a liberal arts college, I know better than that—but when it's not even a beautiful mess, what's the point?

Perhaps I'm just bitter. Perhaps in another context, I would have stood in front of one of those paintings in a trendy gallery in Cleveland or Columbus, tilted my head, and tried to see a deeper meaning. Noted how the colors seemed to flow together while at the same time were perfect in their integrity. Noticed the rich texture and thickness of the glossy paint.

But when I see them on the walls of my house, all I can see is Colleen.

Her paints, her easel, her kit of pricey, soft brushes made of real fur or hair or I don't know what—all has been moved to the storage room in the basement, reverently and with reluctance. The room she used as a studio is now my office.

But it's the paintings themselves. They're all over the house. Over the staircase, her sketches (études—I read in an art book once they're called études) hang behind glass, in tasteful, skinny frames of dark mahogany. Banal things in reddish-brown chalk that remind me of rust or dried blood. Some buckets piled up in the grass, next to a barely sketched-out shed. The faceless silhouette of a woman, naked and unselfconscious, her doughy thighs and rounded belly on proud display (not Colleen herself—she was wiry, thin not from workouts but thanks to a fast metabolism). A sketch of Byron's profile in the middle of an expanse of pristine untouched paper. I've inspected that sketch many times, noting all the little discrepancies between the drawing and real-life Byron yet never able to quite pinpoint why it looked so different from the face I see every day.

In the dining room: a quaint beach, almost monochrome in sienna and ochre. Someplace on Lake Erie? The hastily smeared copse of trees, the shabby little boat moored to a root, it doesn't look like something from the Caribbean—not that Colleen and Byron were the type to go sunning in an all-inclusive resort with the kinds of people Colleen would have probably found as bland and boring as my university classmates found me. They went to Peru for their honeymoon, which Byron reluctantly admitted to me when I pressed him about the origins of a mask that hung in the hallway upstairs. But as far as I know, Colleen didn't paint Peru. Found the subject matter too predictable, maybe.

And then the living room. That giant sprawling canvas of the house itself. The house sits in the middle of a murky sfumato like an island lost at sea. The whole thing is in tones of burgundy, raw and rusty, and it makes the house appear sinister. Maybe she painted it that way to make a nice flashy contrast with the lilac walls and cream-colored couch. But Colleen was above painting decorative things. Colleen made true art, whatever that means.

All that without counting the other paintings, smaller ones, scattered throughout the hallways and in the kitchen and upstairs and in Byron's office. So far, in the two years we've been married, I have only succeeded in getting rid of the one in the bedroom. I was going to find something else to put up in its place but abandoned the idea—whatever I chose, it would inevitably fall short by comparison.

The paintings are worth something, which is unusual, I suppose, in an era when hardly anyone bothers to spend money on unique art—let alone serious money. I looked it up furtively, erasing my search history afterward; that hideous bedroom one could keep our bills paid for months. But my attempts to suggest we sell even one have hit a wall.

It all frustrates me to no end, and then I get angry at Byron, and then I feel guilty and down on myself for being angry, for being resentful and petty. What else is it but pettiness, to feel jealous of a dead woman?

When I met Byron, that undercurrent of tragedy drew me like a magnet; when I learned the truth, I was only more enthralled. Anyone else may have been apprehensive and chosen to fall back and keep her options open: surely a reasonably pretty girl in her early twenties can do better than a guy almost twice her age, with a dead wife you just know he will never truly get over. But instead, it made me love him even more.

Boys my age knew nothing of true loss and pain and grief—they smacked gum and swiped their phone screens, scrolling through profile after profile on the latest dating app, always in search of the next bigger, flashier thing. For them, everything and everyone was replaceable, and replaceable things have no value. Or maybe it was the writer in me who became drawn to so much raw feeling concentrated in one person. I still can't be sure.

Maybe if she'd had the courtesy to divorce him or to run off with some long-haired hipster from one of her college workshops, he'd at least be able to let go. But Colleen had to go and die. And who can blame Byron for going off the rails a little when his first wife committed suicide?


When Byron told me, I did the only thing anyone of my generation would do: I looked it up online. I found an obituary. Colleen, as it turned out, painted under her maiden name—truth be told, I don't know whether she ever legally changed it to Westcott.

Colleen May, esteemed artist, passed away on April 11, 2010. She leaves behind grieving colleagues and friends as well as her husband, Byron Westcott.


  • "This addicting thriller rachets up the suspense until the very last page."—Woman's World
  • "Laurin, with her knack for psychological suspense, here portrays the effects of obsession in chilling detail as the facts of Claire's life are revealed. A spine-tingler."—Booklist
  • "Laurin knows how to rachet up the suspense."—Publishers Weekly
  • "The Starter Wife will give you chills thanks to the heart-pounding suspense laid out by author Nina Laurin."—
  • "The Starter Wife reminded me of the powerful novel Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins."—The Missourian
  • "Nina Laurin's psychological suspense thrill ride will have you ripping through its pages at warp speed..."— on What My Sister Knew
  • "Every good thriller has a shocking plot twist. Girl Last Seen has many. Author Nina Laurin's eerie novel will stay with you for days, months, even years to come."—
  • "A twisty, mind-bending thriller that will keep you on the edge of your seat..."— on What My Sister Knew
  • "Girl Last Seen by Nina Laurin is a chilling suspense about two missing girls whose stories intertwine -- perfect for Paula Hawkins fans."
  • "Fast-paced and hard-edged, it is a heart-stopping thriller that had me guessing to the very end."—Heather Gudenkauf, New York Times bestselling author on Girl Last Seen
  • "Psychological suspense doesn't come much grittier or more packed with satisfying twists and turns."—Meg Gardiner, Edgar Award-winning author on Girl Last Seen
  • "The Starter Wife is a page turner and will leave you second guessing everything you thought you knew until the very end."—

On Sale
Jun 11, 2019
Page Count
352 pages

Nina Laurin

About the Author

Nina Laurin studied Creative Writing at Concordia University in Montreal, where she currently lives. She arrived there when she was just twelve years old, and she speaks and reads in Russian, French, and English but writes her novels in English. She wrote her first novel while getting her writing degree, and Girl Last Seen was a bestseller a year later in 2017.

Nina is fascinated by the darker side of mundane things, and she’s always on the lookout for her next twisted book idea. Learn more at

Learn more about this author