The Replacement Wife
How many wives and girlfriends should disappear before your family notices?
Elisa Wright is a mom and wife, living a nice, quiet life in a nice, quiet town. She’s also convinced her brother-in-law is a murderer. Josh has one dead wife and one missing fiancée, and though he grieved for them he starts dating someone new. Elisa fears for that woman’s safety, and she desperately wants to know what happened to her friend, Josh’s missing fiancée.
Searching for clues means investigating her own family. And she doesn’t like what she finds. A laptop filled with incriminating information. Other women.
But when Elisa becomes friends with Josh’s new girlfriend and starts to question things she thinks are true, Elisa wonders if the memories of a horrible incident a year ago have finally pushed her over the edge and Josh is really innocent. With so much at stake, Elisa fights off panic attacks and a strange illness. Is it a breakdown or something more? The race is on to get to the truth before another disappearance because there’s a killer in the family…or is there?
The Replacement Wife
So much planning went into a scheme like this. It was all about matching the timing to the perfect set of circumstances.Once the details of how and when became clear, most of the other pieces would fall into place. The components mattered as much as the whole. Picking the right moment to move in. Not being too obvious or excited. Not giving anything away until the last second . . . then savoring the fear and panic.
Years, months, weeks. Those were timeline questions and not really relevant. The stinging attack would happen when it was supposed to happen. One little push and the plan would start rolling until it accelerated, racing down the right path, the one purposely set. Saying the right thing. Doing the right thing. Taking control in an explosion of power.
But, for now, it was a matter of knowing when to hold back and when to leap. Developing a stillness that let the body melt into place, blend into the background.
Now? Or what about now? Is it time yet? Satisfaction waited just out of reach. One stretch too far.
Unlike so many things that happened in life—buying a house, switching jobs—this was not the kind of thing to plot out with strict deadlines. But just winging it didn’t work either.
In or out. Commit or don’t. Give into the need.
Not today, but soon. Very soon . . .
Another family dinner. This one on a random Thursday evening in mid-September. Same kitchen. Same table with the wobbly leg. Same people. One husband. One seven-year-old boy who hated anything that wasn’t a chicken nugget. One brother-in-law who might be a killer.
Not a that was a horrible accident type of killer either. No. A person who killed over and over, targeting and wiping out the women closest to him.
Elisa Wright looked across the table, over the pile of mashed potatoes and stack of homemade dinner rolls, at Josh. She couldn’t shake the now familiar anxious churning. With every forkful of food, every joke, every smile he gifted them, the word murderer flashed in her mind.
She closed her eyes but the bright kitchen lights wouldn’t blink out. The truth gnawed and pricked at her. Exploded in her head and shot through her while she assessed and dissected every word he said, looking for clues.
The big problem? She was the only one who questioned him. Everyone loved Josh. He was attractive, but not too much. Successful, but not too much. With brown eyes and brown hair that curled at the ends, he looked like an older version of that cute guy in your college history class who faded into memory long before he messaged you on social media two decades later with an overly familiar and slightly inappropriate greeting.
Charming, great at conversation, and really unlucky in love. The description fit Josh. That and, if her instincts were right, so did killer.
On the surface, he loved hard and grieved the loss of love even harder. He was not a guy who liked being alone. He craved stability and a relationship. He never gave off a playboy vibe. He’d spent most nights and weekends during the last seven months at their house, where Elisa fed and mothered him. Cleaned up after him and laughed with him.Now, after years of knowing him, she feared him. Questioned every move and every explanation.
Josh knocked on the table right next to her hand. “Hey, sis.”
She jerked back at the mental interruption but didn’t say a word.
Nathan, secure in his place in the world and enraptured by his uncle’s antics, as usual, snorted. “She’s not really your sister.”
“Close enough,” Josh said with a wink.
Fair because she’d considered Josh family from the day they met nine years ago. She’d been dating Harris, his brother, and heard all about Josh’s love of hiking and the years he spent spinning out of control. Harris basically raised Josh.
Only seven years separated them, but the number didn’t reflect the reality of sleepless nights and rounds of money worries that had haunted Harris as he’d done all he could to save and support Josh all those years ago. That made them close, more like father and son in some ways. The idea used to fill her with pride. She’d listened to the stories and could imagine her brilliant husband balancing his dreams and the hard work of veterinary school with raising a flailing brother still haunted by the unexpected loss of
She’d spent years admiring Harris for shouldering more than his share growing up. As an only child, she’d been more than a little envious of the brothers’ tight relationship. Now she wanted Josh out of her house. Out of their lives. Gone and forgotten.
She felt Harris’s fingers settle over hers. He rubbed his thumb along the back of her hand in that reassuring-husband way she loved. The gentle touch still had the power to calm the nerves jumping around inside her.
“You okay?” he asked in a low voice.
How did she tell him that his beloved baby brother scared the hell out of her? She couldn’t and that problem created an unpassable divide between them.
He hadn’t picked up on her pulling away, but she was and she couldn’t seem to stop it. She vowed to figure out a solution before her marriage imploded. She just needed time and evidence . . . and some sign that the husband she adored would believe her. That he’d take her side against blood.
The breath she’d been holding came out on a shaky exhale. She concentrated, trying to force a lightness she didn’t feel into her voice as she glanced at her son with an exaggerated eyebrow lift. “I’m cranky because someone woke up before six and wanted to play outside.”
“It was raining.” Nathan practically whined the response, as if any rational person would prefer splashing around in muddy driveway puddles to sleep.
Harris laughed. “And that’s good?”
Nathan smiled back. “Yes!”
“Interesting you didn’t know about the family’s early morning activities.” Josh put down his wineglass and reached for another dinner roll as he glanced at Harris. “Where were you?”
Mindless conversation. She could do this. “He was still asleep.”
“Story of your life. Right, Elisa?” Josh leaned in close to Nathan as if they were sharing an uncle-nephew
She tried to keep her expression neutral but feared it came off more like a grimace. “Something like that.”
“Uh, nothing like that, actually,” Harris joked. He gave her hand a squeeze before picking up his fork and heading back in for another piece of steak.
When would this dinner from hell end? She couldn’t force down another bite. Hoping Josh would choke didn’t seem to be working either.
While she was forcing things, she forced a smile, this one for Harris. He was the hardest worker she knew. He’d built a practice and opened up not one but two locations of his emergency vet hospital in just a few years, way ahead of schedule.
It wasn’t Harris’s fault his brother was a psychopath.
“Okay, but . . .” Nathan stopped to chew and swallow when his father sent him that look. As soon as the chicken cleared his throat he was shifting around in his chair, practically bouncing with excitement. His gaze flipped to Josh. “Wanna watch a movie with me tomorrow night? Doolittle?”
“Again?” Harris cringed but Nathan was too busy staring at his uncle to notice.
No, no, no. She didn’t want Josh in her house, at her table, or near her son any more than necessary to keep family calm.
Before she could invent a lame excuse, Josh shook his head. “Any other time, yes, but I have to take a pass on tomorrow.”
When Nathan’s face dropped, Josh squeezed his shoulder. “Later, during the weekend. Okay?”
Nathan shrugged. “Fine.”
“You’ll survive a Friday night with just your boring parents for company,” Harris said in his most convincing dad voice.
Nathan dropped one leg until his foot inched toward the floor, suggesting he was ready to move to the next thing on his agenda. “May I be excused?” he asked as he stared at his tablet on the kitchen counter. The one loaded with his videogames he was allowed to play after dinner.
Harris nodded. “Take your plate to the sink and you can go.”
Nathan jumped down, dropping a nugget on the floor as he went. He whipped around his chair. Knocked into it. Basically made as much noise and as much of a scene as possible.
“No running in the house!” The same words she spent half her life shouting ever since Nathan learned to walk.
The adults watched Nathan set the plate on the very edge of the counter, just far in enough not to immediately fall.Then he was off. Made a beeline for the tablet, grabbed it, and hummed his way into the small television room off the kitchen.
Josh laughed as he followed the scene then his smile fell as he turned back to the table. “Speaking of tomorrow . . .”
“Were we?” Harris asked in his usual joking manner as he continued eating his dinner.
“I want to explain why I can’t come over and—”
“It’s fine,” Elisa rushed out. Better than fine. Whatever his conflict was it saved her hours of panicked pacing as she tried to think of a way out of the visit. “Nathan can go one night without seeing you.” Something about the way she said the phrase made Harris glance at her.
Josh plowed ahead. “I have a date.”
The scrambling fight for the right words stopped in Elisa’s brain. She went from a mental frenzy of wanting Josh out of her house to blank. And it wasn’t just her. Harris’s stunned expression mirrored the confusion running through her.
After more than the usual amount of hesitation, Harrisslowly lowered his fork to his plate. Nothing else moved. “A date? Really?”
The breath had punched out of her but now it was back along with a full dose of rage. “What?”
“Is the idea of a woman agreeing to go out with me that shocking?” Josh said, clearly amused by the joint stunned reaction.
“Well, with the . . .” Harris shot her another quick glance before looking at Josh again. “It’s just a surprise.”
Screw that. This was not a time to verbally tiptoe, so Elisa didn’t. “You can’t.”
“Of course I can,” Josh said.
She tried to remain calm. Not blurt out accusations or question him. She didn’t have the evidence for that yet. But . . . come on. “Okay, but should you?”
“I know it seems sudden, but we’ve been going out for a while. I kept it quiet until I was sure the relationship was going somewhere. I’d like you to meet her now.” Josh leaned back in his chair. “I was thinking maybe this weekend.”
Elisa preferred never. “Not possible.”
She’d spent two days trying to wrap her mind around the idea the man she thought she knew, someone she viewed as family, who meant everything to Harris and Nathan, lacked a heart, a soul . . . a conscience. Now he was trying to shove her into the position of accepting his twisted life choices.
Josh frowned at her. “Is next week better?”
She was trying to hold it together, but he had to be kidding.
“What’s going on?” Josh’s frown deepened. “Why are you both looking at me with such weird expressions?”
Elisa shoved her chair back, ignored the way the legs dragged against the hardwood floor, making that annoying
screeching sound, and stood up. “We’re not meeting her.”
Harris reached toward her but didn’t actually touch her. “Elisa.”
“Why not?” Josh asked at the same time.
He had the nerve to sound surprised, as if this whole discussion wasn’t obscene. As if what he suggested wasn’t shocking and horrible. “You’ve been dating this person—”
Elisa didn’t want to know this new woman. Not even her name.
Before she could explain that—shout and scream it at Josh, Harris jumped in. “I think the point is the timing.”
No. Wrong. “Not just that, but it doesn’t help.”
Josh’s gaze traveled from Elisa to Harris, not showing one ounce of understanding. “What are you two talking about?”
She really wanted to punch him. “What about your missing fiancee?”