July 06, 2005|By Stephen Kiehl | Stephen Kiehl,SUN STAFF

One morning at breakfast, Cathy Gallagher told her husband she wanted to start a line of greeting cards for adulterers. There was a pregnant pause. And then he said, "I think it's a great idea."

Lucky for him, Gallagher doesn't plan on patronizing her own business. "You don't have to be a murderer to write a murder mystery," she says. Nor, apparently, does one need to be unfaithful to write a Christmas card that says, "As we each celebrate with our families, I will be thinking of you."

Gallagher says her Secret Lover Collection of 24 cards is the first line exclusively for people having affairs, and she expects hot sales. She says half of married people have had affairs (though some studies show the figure to be far less - more like 15 percent of married women and 22 percent of married men, according to the University of Chicago). From former President Bill Clinton's relationship with "that woman" to shenanigans on TV shows like Desperate Housewives, affairs are out in the open.

"Look at the soap operas. It's all about forbidden love," Gallagher says in her Bethesda office, where the walls are painted red and pink. "Look at how many people on soap operas are having affairs. That's real. And I think that's why this is so scary - these cards are real, and for a lot of people it hits very close to home."

But is America ready to see cards for secret lovers rubbing elbows with cards for Grandma's birthday? In these morals-conscious times, Desperate Housewives may be a hit, but one of its stars, Nicollette Sheridan, was chastised for a promotional spot in which she dropped a towel from her body and jumped into the arms of a pro football player. And broadcasters were hit with record fines last year for indecency on the airwaves.

Gallagher has felt part of that backlash. Some retailers have refused to carry the cards for fear of alienating longtime customers, while others think their clientele would be ashamed to purchase such a card. Gallagher has also received e-mails accusing her of endorsing bad behavior.

"She's just making money out of other people's misery," said Robin Sawyer, a public-health professor and human-sexuality expert at the University of Maryland. "I think most of us would agree that infidelity is a negative thing, so we're now selling cards to celebrate a negative thing."

Gallagher says her cards will be discreetly labeled in the stores. "It won't say `Infidelity Aisle,'" she says. But some retailers are still hesitant. At Greetings & Readings in Towson, President Steve Baum said he won't be carrying the Secret Lover Collection.

"I've never had one person ever ask for anything remotely like that," Baum says. "Maybe there's a market there, but we have to turn a product. You have to sit there and say, `Is this something we really want to promote?' And that's not something we want to promote in this store."

Gallagher, who won't give her exact age but appears to be somewhere north of 40, doesn't take a position on whether affairs are good or bad. She notes simply that they exist. And - like any good capitalist - when she saw a market opening, she went for it. She says consumers, not the morality police, will decide if her business succeeds or fails.

"People make choices," she says. "I'm not making a choice for them. People make choices. And by the time they buy this greeting card, they're already involved deeply in the affair. ... This is an entrepreneurial venture. And this is an untapped market. That's the bottom line."

Filling orders

She has already printed 100,000 of her cards and is filling orders for retailers across North America, including boutique stores and hotel gift shops. And starting Tuesday, the cards can be bought off her Web site, secretlovercollection.com. The site went up in May and has already received 60,000 hits.

The collection is not what one might expect from a woman of Gallagher's background. She has two children and says she has always been faithful to her husband of 15 years. For 20 years, she worked in marketing and advertising for decidedly unsexy clients - car dealerships, utility companies, Lasik eye-surgery centers.

Then, a few years ago, she noticed how many people she knew, from friends to colleagues, had been in affairs. She also realized there were no cards that adequately expressed their feelings. Being a big greeting-card fan - she'll often give multiple cards for a single birthday - she sensed an opening.

The cards feature acrylic paintings on the cover, done by an artist in Virginia and predictably heavy on deep shades of red, with long verses by Gallagher inside. Some of them read as if they were written by a dropout of the Hallmark school of greeting-card writing:

"My soul has been searching for you since I came into this world.

"All my life I have had this emptiness inside, like a part of me was missing and I was incomplete ...

"And now I can't imagine my life without you ... Even if I have to share you."

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