The Secret Wife

By: Susan Mallery
Chapter One

“Before I offer you the job I want to make sure you understand that, salarywise, we’re talking about chicken feed.”

Elissa Bedford glanced at the well-dressed older woman on the other side of the desk and laughed. “I noticed. Don’t worry, Millie. I didn’t apply because of the money. I’m a great admirer of what you’re trying to do here, and I would like to help.”

Elissa glanced around the office. The small administration building was nearly seventy years old. Despite the worn linoleum flooring and walls badly in need of paint, the charm of the original architecture showed through in rounded corners and molded ceilings. Between beat-up filing cabinets, where one might have expected inexpensive prints of famous paintings, original art covered the white spaces. Not the kind of art one found in museums, but creative masterpieces that came from the heart. They ranged from indistinguishable scribbles done in crayon to talented pen-and-ink drawings. A parade of children’s contributions continuing a tradition that went back at least fifteen years.

The pictures themselves were different from those she remembered, as were the names of the young artists. Still, the familiar display reminded her of the pleasant times she’d spent here all those years ago. Some things hadn’t changed. Had Cole?

Millie English, the woman conducting the interview, followed Elissa’s gaze. “I see you’ve noticed our gallery. Those pictures are very special to us. They’re chosen to be displayed for a number of reasons.”

“I remember,” Elissa said. “Talent has nothing to do with it. Having something put up on the office walls is a reward for good behavior, an improved grade or doing more than is expected.”

Millie’s pale eyebrows rosé slightly. She glanced at the application in front of her. “You didn’t say you were a former resident, so I’m going to have to assume you’ve done your research.”

“Not really.” Elissa leaned back in her chair. “My sisters and I used to visit the orphanage. It’s been a long time, but I always remembered the gallery. I thought it was a wonderful idea. I still do.”

“It’s one of the reasons you want to help?”

“Yes,” Elissa admitted, wondering if she was going to be forced to talk about all the others. Some of them were personal.

Millie studied her. The fifty-something office manager wore a stylish dress that might be off-the-rack, but only from the kind of department store that used the word exclusive to describe its clientele. Elegantly coiffured white-blond hair framed an attractive, well-made-up face. Millie used her half glasses both for reading and as a prop. Right now she stared over them, her expression kind. Yet Elissa had the feeling Millie English didn’t suffer fools gladly.

“You don’t know how tempted I am to pursue this line of questioning,” Millie said, and tossed her glasses onto the worn desk. “However, we’ve been looking for help for nearly a month and you’re only the second person to apply for the job.” Her mouth twisted into a frown. “The other person had never worked in an office before.”

Elissa motioned to her application. “You’re welcome to call and check my references. I’ve had four years of experience in hospital administration. Although I enjoyed my work, I got tired of being tied up with paperwork. I want to work with people as well as computer keyboards. I thought this job would give me the chance to do both.”

“You don’t have to convince me,” Millie said. “As I mentioned earlier, your salary includes room and board. You’ll have several nights a week off, but you will be expected to be on duty some evenings. The orphanage is situated far enough from town to give us the room and privacy we need, yet it’s close enough to be convenient for the schools. I think you’ll like the area.”

“I already do.”

“Well, Elissa Bedford, I’m formally offering you the job. Would you like a chance to think about it?”

Elissa drew in a deep breath. As simple as that? Apparently Millie didn’t have to check with anyone before making a final decision. “I wanted the job when I applied, and I still do.”

“Great. When can you start?”

Before Elissa could answer the question, she heard footsteps in the outer office. Her throat tightened and the nervousness she’d been fighting returned full force.

Millie smiled and rosé to her feet. “Ah, Cole’s back. Perfect timing. You can meet him. Now, don’t let him scare you off. He’s a little gruff and uncommunicative, but he’s a brilliant director. If he hadn’t stepped in to save the facility a couple of years ago, the Grace Orphanage would have gone under.” Millie eyed Elissa speculatively. “I suppose it would be too much to hope that you’re single.”