Montana Mornings

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This was the beginning of his and his daughter’s new lives.

Gabe Wilde stood alone in the middle of the Birch Bay High School classroom, hands on hips and satisfaction overflowing, as he took in the details he’d spent the last week putting effort into. Whiteboard cleaned and waiting for the year’s first assignment, periodic table gracing the back wall. Every feature of the room had been gone over with a fine-tooth comb, and he was ready for his first group of students to walk through the door. He was a high school science teacher now. And this space was all his.

Or it would be when school started the following month.

At thirty-three, a total career change might seem drastic to some, but for Gabe, at this moment in his life, it felt exactly right. And it had to be done in his hometown in Montana. Not in California, where he’d allowed his soon-to-be ex to convince him to live since leaving the family cherry orchard.

The door to the room opened with a soft whoosh, and Gabe’s sister poked her head in. “Did you pick up Jenna’s teacher assignment yet?” Dani waved the piece of paper in her hand. Room assignments were being handed out in the elementary school across the street.

“I’m heading that way as soon as I leave here.” Gabe made one last sweep of the room. Everything needed to be perfect. “I take it you got Haley’s?”

“I did.”

He looked back at his sister. “And?”

The light disappeared from her face. “They’re not in the same room.”

His chest ached at the words. Dani’s stepdaughter, Haley, and Gabe’s daughter, Jenna, were not only the same age, they were best friends. Additionally, given the issues Jenna had been through with her mother over the years—with everything escalating since he’d filed for divorce—Haley was the only person Jenna came close to being her normal self around. With everyone else, she was rude and hurtful, or she simply ignored them. In many ways, very similar to her mother. Therefore, getting Jenna and Haley into the same second-grade classroom was imperative.

“I’ll talk to Colin,” Gabe said. He didn’t like being “that guy.” The one who called in favors with the school’s principal just because the two of them had gone to high school together. But for his kid? He’d do whatever it took.

“That’s a good idea.”

Dani slid fully into the room as Gabe remained standing in the middle of the rows of chairs, and he watched as she surveyed the space he’d been anxious to get his hands on. He didn’t miss the pride that flashed through her eyes as they roamed over each detail. As she took in the nameplate he’d proudly set at the front of his desk. Though only eleven months older than him, she was still his big sister, and he had to admit that seeing her admiration for what he’d accomplished filled him with warmth.

“Teaching,” she murmured when she brought her gaze back to his. “I still can’t believe that’s where you ended up. Who would have guessed?”

He chuckled. “Caught me off guard, too.”

When he’d moved to California two years before, his one goal, other than saving his marriage, had been to figure out what he truly wanted out of life. After running the family orchard for years—a position he’d taken on solely because it had always been assumed he would—he’d decided to see if he had any real hopes and dreams of his own, and throughout his soul-searching, he’d discovered his thoughts continually turning to his freshman science teacher. The man had not only taught Gabe to appreciate the sciences, but he’d been there when Gabe had needed someone the most. Recalling that period in his life had given him the desire to provide the same kind of support for others. It was his time to give back. Therefore, high school teacher had seemed the obvious solution.

He’d spent the last two years getting his teaching certification and adding enough classes to his undergraduate degree to earn a chemistry major, all while working multiple jobs around his class schedule to support his wife and daughter. It had been a hard two years, but it had also been worth it. Except now he was divorced. Or about to be.

“You’re going to be great at teaching.” The love shining from his sister’s eyes almost had him wrapping an arm around her. He wasn’t much of a hugger, though, so he went another route. He lowered his gaze to her stomach instead. “And you’re going to be great with a baby. You ever going to start showing, though?”

“I am!” A warm glow lit Dani’s cheeks as she tugged both sides of her shirt back and pressed the material to her body. “See my bump?” She beamed up at him. “I’m at five months today.”

He could see it, and he couldn’t be more proud. The two of them—as well as their other four brothers—had come far since their family had nearly ruptured two years before, and the fact that Dani was not only happily married to Gabe’s best friend and that she was the stepmother to a sweetheart of a kid thrilled him, but now she and Ben were bringing new life into their family as well. The world could be a good place sometimes.

Maybe I can see it,” he grudgingly admitted, and at the wide smile that suddenly covered Dani’s face, Gabe couldn’t help but drop an arm around her shoulders. “Come on, dumbass, let’s go. Gloria is using the smoker to make barbecue tonight, and I’ve already been warned that if I don’t get home in time to help, then I don’t eat.”

“You decided to stay with Dad and Gloria for good, then?” Dani asked as Gabe held the classroom door open for her. Gloria was their stepmother of eighteen months.

“Actually . . . no.” He and Jenna had been staying at the farm since coming home the month before, letting everyone assume that’s where they would remain. But at the same time, he’d been keeping a big secret. He cut a glance down at Dani. Now seemed the time to share it. “I put in an offer on a house today.”

This time it was relief that filled his sister’s eyes. As well as tears. “Oh, Gabe,” she whispered. Then she threw both arms around him. “Does that mean you’re really staying, then? That you and Michelle aren’t . . .”

He pried Dani away from him. She’d been worrying that he and Michelle might get back together? “I filed for divorce, Dani.” He stared down at her. “Months ago.”

“I know, but”—she bit her lip—“sometimes people change their minds. And you’ve never really talked about what happened or anything.”

He hadn’t talked because not everything was his family’s business.

“And the divorce isn’t final yet,” she added hesitantly.

“It will be soon enough.” He had a court date in Los Angeles scheduled for the day before school started. “And though a judge has yet to make it official, it’s final to me. Michelle is out of our lives. For good.”

His sister hugged him once more, and he again found himself staring at the top of her head.

“Really?” He gave a good-natured sigh. “Now that you’re pregnant, do you plan to use hormones as an excuse to be hugging me all the damned time?”

“I might.” She slapped his arm as she pulled away and then wiped at the tears once again filling her eyes. Then she gave him a tremulous smile. “I’m glad you’re home, moron.”

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