Chapter 13 – Things Can Only Get Better (Howard Jones)

"I just quit," Gale told Delly. "Snow is a crook."

"In more ways than you think," Delly stated. "I can take a break now. Let's get some coffee."

"Okay," Gale said. He never thought he'd be having a discussion with Delly Cartwright about Snow. He'd always thought she was super loyal to her boss.

Gale started to walk toward the employee break room, but Delly shook her head. "That room is bugged. No privacy there." She walked toward the elevator. "We can talk at that coffee shop around the corner."

"Okay." The break room is bugged? Gale was getting more and more curious. What was Delly going to tell him?

They sat down at a small table in the diner and ordered.

"I thought you were loyal to Snow," Gale started.

Delly laughed. "That man is the most sexist jerk I've ever encountered. I've been collecting data on him since the first week I started here. He's hit on almost every female he's encountered at this bank. Some women have foolishly fallen for his quid pro quo tactics."

Gale thought about a couple of promotions in other areas of the company that seemed kind of unbelievable at the time. Like when that secretary was promoted to department manager. Did she sleep with Snow to get that job?

"I had no idea this was going on," he said.

"No idea? What do you think he did to you?" she retorted.

"I wasn't harassed," Gale said stiffly.

"Then why did you pretend to be married?"

The whole company knows it. He felt so stupid. "Because he said he only promoted men who were married." Gale's voice was strangled. "So was I the talk of the office today because of that L.A. Times piece?"

Delly looked surprised. "I don't know anything about that," she said.

"Then how did you know I wasn't married to Katniss?"

Delly looked contrite. "It was a guess, really. I have a friend who is interested in Katniss. He asked me about you because he was so shocked when he heard at the merger dinner that you and Katniss were married. He insisted that Katniss had told him she was single. I started paying attention and found out from a friend in Human Resources that you never signed her up as your beneficiary for your life insurance. You never put her on your benefits plan. That's standard practice for most newly married employees. I was wondering what was going on."

Gale remembered getting a memo about that stuff weeks ago. He'd thrown all of it into the trash.

She continued. "This morning President Snow asked me to track down some woman named Madge Undersee and send her a dozen roses. However, the card enclosed was supposed to be addressed to Katniss and make some reference about your marriage."

Gale visibly flinched and grew pale. Now he'd have to tell Madge about the fake marriage in addition to the fact that he'd quit his job.

Delly noticed his alarm. "Don't worry. I didn't do it. I figured he was up to his old tricks. He gets a kick out of messing with relationships."

"Thanks," he muttered.

"So are you even married?" Delly was curious.

"Yes, I married Madge Undersee a couple of weeks ago," he said. "Katniss is a long-time friend who agreed to pretend to be my wife to help me get ahead on the job. In fact, she introduced me to Madge."

Delly took a deep breath and sighed. "That's good to hear. Because my friend has been dating Katniss for a while now. He likes her a lot. I hoped she wasn't lying to him. He doesn't deserve that."

"Is your friend a baker?"

She nodded. "Do you know Peeta?"

"I've met him," Gale said, gruffly.

"What are you going to do? Gale asked Delly. "Are you quitting your job, too?"

"No. I don't think President Snow will have a job much longer," Delly said. "I alerted the Board of Directors about the EEOC investigation in a memo this morning. They've called an emergency meeting tonight to discuss it."

"Well they might be interested in knowing that the FHLBB is conducting an investigation into the merger, as well," Gale added. "I set that into motion."

Delly grinned. "That's even better," she squealed. "You need to go to that meeting tonight and tell them."

"Sure," Gale said. What did he have to lose? He'd already quit his job.

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The board meeting proved to be quite enlightening. Snow appeared with his attorney. The EEOC representatives spoke and then Delly spoke and provided a notebook of data she'd personally compiled showing the grievances against Snow. Several other women were there to support her claims. Some of them broke down in tears recounting the personal harassment by the bank president. There was only one woman on the board, and Gale watched her face get angrier and angrier as the evidence unfolded.

Gale spoke last. He didn't go into specifics about the fake marriage, but he did mention that Snow had implied he'd been passed over for a promotion because he wasn't married. Then he dropped the bombshell that he had tipped off the FHLBB regarding improprieties that had occurred with the National Trust bank merger. He told them that an investigation was already underway. He also told them that Snow had promised to give him the department manager job if he would tell the FHLBB he'd been mistaken.

The board president stopped the meeting abruptly and asked everyone but the board members, President Snow, and his attorney to leave the room. Twenty minutes later, someone came out and invited everyone back in. The board president announced that Snow was going on an immediate leave of absence and would not be returning until an investigation was complete.

There was clapping among all of the witnesses. Snow and his attorney hurried out of the room.

Delly made her way to Gale in the crowd. "Thank you so much for testifying. I think the FHLBB investigation was final straw."

"So what's next?" Gale asked Delly. "Do you still have a job?"

"Of course I do," she replied. "And so do you if you want one. No one but Snow knows you quit. And he's gone now."

"I really don't want to stay in Portland," Gale muttered.

"I suggest talking to Vice President Heavensbee, tomorrow morning. With Cato out he really needs someone to run the Acquisitions department. Maybe you can move into that position."

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By 10 a.m. the next morning Gale was sitting in his new corner office that overlooked the congestion on the Interstate 5 Freeway. He was the new Acquistions manager for L.A. Federal. He'd already called Madge with the good news. Last night he'd confessed and told her everything – the fake marriage, contacting the FHLBB to start an investigation into the merger, and telling Snow he quit. It had been an interesting conversation in which Madge had revealed a secret of her own - her huge credit card debt. The conversation had been a brutal one, but at least they both knew the full score now. He hoped things would be much smoother from now on. He didn't think they could get much worse, and at least he still had a job.

He thought he'd call Katniss to let her know what had happened, although he suspected she'd already read the news about Snow's quick departure in the business section of today's Los Angeles Times. In fact, he was a little surprised she hadn't called him already. He hoped she still wasn't mad at him because of his marriage to Madge. He dialed her number at Abernathy, Inc.

But a strange voice answered her direct line. When he asked for Katniss, the voice informed him that she no longer worked there.

What? He quickly dialed her home number. Maybe Prim was still there and could tell him what was going on. But Katniss answered.

"I just called your work number and someone told me you don't work there anymore," he asked her. "Did you quit?"

She was silent for so long that Gale wondered if the line had gone dead. Finally she spoke.

"I was fired because I was moonlighting and Haymitch found out."

"Wow. What are you going to do?" he asked.

"I'm not sure yet. I'm having lunch with Peeta to come up with a plan."

"You're going to work at a bakery?"

"Peeta has a business major, Gale. He's going to help me come up with a plan."

"Okay," Gale said. He realized it probably wasn't a good time to tell her about his promotion, but he had other good news for her. "I called to tell you that Snow was suspended from his job. Chances are good he's never coming back. So you don't have to worry about the fake marriage anymore. It's over. And because of the circumstances under which he left, he's not in position to destroy anyone's career."

"That's good to hear." Katniss sounded relieved. "Did you ever tell Madge?"

"Yeah, last night. She wasn't happy at all, but she doesn't hold it against you. She blames me. She called me an ass."

"Well, you are. But I'm glad she understands because I don't want to lose her friendship because of it."

"No, it's fine. In fact, we should all get together soon for dinner or something. I'll have Madge call you. You can bring the baker."

"His name is Peeta and he's my boyfriend," Katniss said.

"Have you ever even had a boyfriend?" Gale questioned. "I know you dated some, but.."

"No, just a fake husband," she replied. "Look I have to get dressed. Say `hi' to Madge. I'll talk to you later."

"Okay, thanks for everything. I know the fake marriage thing was a bit much. If you ever need anything, a fake cousin or something, I'll be happy to help out."

"I'll keep that in mind Gale, but I really have to go," she said. "I'm meeting Peeta soon.

"One last thing Catnip, since we've split up, feel free to keep the toaster."

Author's Note: The Federal Home Loan Bank Board FHLBB was an independent agency in the executive branch of the federal government that regulated and supervised the savings and loan industry. It was abolished in 1989, and its functions were transferred to other agencies, including the Office of Thrift Supervision.

Epilogue – 1987 – Always (Atlantic Starr)

Katniss stood in the bedroom. She held a plastic stick between her index finger and her thumb and waited for a line to appear on the end of the stick. A plus sign meant she was pregnant, a straight line meant she wasn't.

She heard Peeta in the kitchen. He was making breakfast. She could smell the cheese buns baking in the oven.

Finally the picture in the little window at the end of the stick became clear.

Katniss walked to the kitchen holding it. She stood in the doorway watching her husband open the oven and pull out a tray and set it onto the stovetop.

He stopped when he saw her.

"Are you pregnant?" A look of excitement appeared on his face.

"Yes," she grinned, waving the stick and running into his arms.

Later, as they sat at the table eating cold cheese buns, Katniss thought back over the past two years. Her life had changed so much and Peeta was at the heart of it. He had helped her to realize there was more to life than making a living. He had taught her that it was okay to lean on someone else. He showed her that life goes on no matter what happens. And it could be good again. In fact, it could even be better.

What had seemed to be such a devastating event, getting fired from her job, had been one of the best things that had ever happened to her. She started her own wedding planning business. Her firm specialized in high-end weddings for the well to do in the Los Angeles area. Her small office was located only a few doors down from Mellark's Bakery. She shared her space with Cinna's Bridal Fashions.

One thing she had learned from Haymitch was the value of a good vendor list. Besides getting paid for her work by her bridal clients, she also negotiated commissions from the vendors she booked for her clients. Peeta, with his business acumen, had been instrumental in showing her exactly how to maximize her profit. Of course she didn't charge a commission to Mellark Bakery, her only cake supplier, because she had a personal relationship with the owner. Her business was doing so well, that she even turned down the occasional job, most recently Clove Ableman's second marriage.

When Haymitch called seven months after firing her and asked her to help run the public relations campaign for the first Los Angeles Marathon she wanted to tell him to take a flying leap. But her business was in its early stages, and she did have the time. Fortunately, Peeta had warned her against burning her bridges. As a business owner, she understood that it was better to stay on good terms with everyone.

She took the consulting job and charged Haymitch three times her usual rate. He complained but admitted he had no choice. Effie had made a mess of the project and he needed Katniss to fix things. Haymitch never mentioned her firing; in fact he praised her to everyone as his former star employee. While drunk one afternoon, he admitted that Effie begged him for a job after losing her position in New York. By then, though Katniss didn't need an apology, she was past all that. It was funny how easy it was to forgive someone when you were in a better place.

Peeta asked her to marry him six months after they began to date. Katniss agreed, but waited another six months before tying the knot. Ironically, the wedding was a small family affair. After planning so many large weddings for her job, she didn't feel like being the center of a big extravaganza.

After her wedding, Peeta's parents moved to Arizona for an early retirement. They turned the bakery over to Peeta to run and their home over to Peeta and Katniss to live in. His parents didn't want to sell just yet. Real estate values were on the rise and were expected to go even higher.

The pregnancy was a surprise, probably the first unplanned thing Katniss had ever done, but it was a welcome one for both of them. Life was full of surprises. She agreed with Peeta, people only get so much time. A person might as well be happy.

Eventually, Peeta rose from his seat at the kitchen table and kissed Katniss goodbye. He had to get to the bakery. His business was expanding daily. He'd hired several more employees so he could focus on the bigger picture. He had recently opened a second kitchen dedicated to providing Mellark baked goods to the finer restaurants in Los Angeles.

Katniss followed him to the door. It was still early. She'd run to the guesthouse in the back now and wake up Prim. Tell her the good news that she'd be an aunt. Later, she'd call Madge. Maybe they'd get together when Gale returned from his business trip to Florida where he negotiating L.A. Federal's newest acquisition.

Then she'd shower, and drive to her office. Another wedding to plan, another memory to make.

Later, she'd spend some time outdoors with Peeta, take a long walk in the mountains, or, maybe on the beach.

One thing she was sure of - today was going to be a really, really, really good day.

Author's Note: The first Los Angeles Marathon was held on March 9, 1986. It is still run today.

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Thanks for following The Occasional Wife and reviewing it. I had fun writing it and listening to all the songs used for the chapter headings. These songs were all on Billboard's top 100 song list for 1985 (with the exception of Always, which was on the 1987 Billboard list). It was definitely, in my opinion, an excellent year for music.

If you're looking for another good read, check out my other story, Wagons West. It's an historical AU that takes place on the Oregon Trail.