Early on a Monday morning, the sun was already high and shining. Summer in Alaska meant lots of craziness with only a few hours of darkness. After the long dark winters, people soaked up the sun, and it meant not enough sleep, too much energy, and stupid stuff. Tony Wooden was ready for another day of tourists and locals who needed help. He saw all of it firsthand working as a paramedic with the Sterling Fire Department.
As he sat at the breakfast table across from his steady guy, Ross Isaac, Tony tapped on the side of his coffee mug. The excessive sun affected him too.
“Too much coffee?” Ross teased.
“Too much routine.” Tony glanced over. As usual, Ross was studying his tablet for the latest news. The new mayor of Sterling wanted to boost tourism and make his mark. At only thirty-three, he was young for that sort of job, but everyone liked him. A long-time resident, Ross was one quarter Native and it showed in his dark black hair and brown eyes. He wanted progress but respected tradition, which pleased almost everyone.
“Can I help?” Ross asked.
“I’m just a jealous jerk. My little brother Jason and his guys have the perfect woman for them and I feel like I’ve been off and on with guys all my life. I knew I liked men and women growing up. I found the right men, but Matt always makes it complicated with his job priorities. We’re finally set but we could be missing a chance,” Tony said.
“Gretchen.” Ross sighed. “I agree, she’s the best thing that’s happened to this town in a long time. And us. I’m just as interested as you are. You’re so cute when you’re smitten.”
“You have to like her and...” Tony stopped before he brought up the guy who’d hopped in and out of their lives regularly.
“She’s very attractive. I can’t say I’m in love right now. I more than like her but we haven’t had a lot of time to do any traditional sort of dating. She’s been busy moving up here. Back and forth to Michigan then setting up her advertising work with your brother and his group. It’s hard to seriously date someone who is still moving and settling in. Will she stay in Alaska? Plus I’m still figuring out this mayor job.” Ross grinned. “It’ll happen.”
“With just two of us? Or will Matt show up and ruin it? Throw a wrench in it?” Tony asked. He was used to putting out fires and handling emergencies, so when Matt landed in town, it wasn’t too bad. Ross and Tony dealt with it and enjoyed it. Maybe Tony had been putting off moving seriously on Gretchen because of the Matt question. He and Ross had spent time with her, but it was more friendly time at gatherings.
“He could jumble things if we’re trying to win Gretchen.” Ross nodded.
“No shit! He showed up right after the wedding she was in, but she was busy going back and handling things at her old place. By the time she came back, he was off again. They’ve crossed paths at most. Now she’s staying with her friend Melody and my brother and Ryan and Dale, but Matt’s gone again. I don’t want to screw it up. It’s already complicated,” Tony said.
“Small towns are always complicated. New women don’t move here every day. We shouldn’t keep things on hold. I think she’s settled in now and, with summer here, we have lots of events and options to socialize. But are we ready to shut the door on Matt? Maybe he’d settle in if we had the right woman?” Ross asked.
Tony had been wrestling with that for weeks. Matt had met Gretchen once or twice while he was here, but, like most times, he’d gotten some job and hopped in his plane.
He didn’t want to lose Gretchen over it, but Matt was a complicated guy. His dad was an ice-road trucker who was gone for long stretches. It seemed to be genetic. Matt was a pilot who loved to take high-paying jobs transporting things needed by people living on islands and in remote areas. Not every place had a ferry, and once it warmed up, the ice roads shut down. He made good money, and Tony understood, but it was hard to build a relationship without all the players.
“What do you think?” Tony turned the question back around on Ross.
“We love him. We always will. We know what he is and accept it. He’s not going to change tomorrow because of an ultimatum. We just need to live our lives. If we want Gretchen, we go after her. Date her. Two stable men isn’t bad. Gretchen came up here for Isa’s wedding. Isa only has two men and she’s very happy,” Ross said.
“And if Matt drops in while we’re dating? You know his timing,” Tony replied.
“Then we tell the truth. We tell Gretchen all about him and our history. The ménage tradition in this town is odd enough. She doesn’t seem to mind it for her friends. Guys with jobs that take them away for chunks of time is part of why the ménage structure worked in Sterling. Being on the Kenai Peninsula, some of the men went out in boats to fish while others went north and up the mountains to mine. And everyone hunts. All of it is dangerous. Sharing a woman gives the family protection. Matt says he wants the old-fashioned relationship because he loves the real Alaska.” Ross shrugged.
Tony nodded. “Matt loves the adventure. He could make a living around here giving tours. We just have to be honest with her. Two men are plenty when you have such a safe job. We’re both in town.”
“Isa married two men in the coast guard. There are no guarantees in life. You have to roll the dice and hope for the best,” Ross said.
“I know. I want to make her part of our life and keep her safe. I deal with chaos at work. I don’t like chaos in my personal life.” Tony left the table and put his dishes in the dishwasher.
“Then you should’ve cut Matt out a long time ago. A new player means uncertainty. She might not like it. She might want four men. Who knows? The longer we wait, the better the chance other men will go after her. Right?” Ross asked.
Tony leaned down and kissed Ross slowly. “I know. When you explain it, it makes sense. I want to offer her the world not a hard to explain trio.”
“If we’re that hung up on her, we need to stop stalling and move on this fast.” Ross looked at Tony. “You’re worried I won’t fall for her?”
“Of course I am.” Tony sighed.
“I’m crazy about you, and we both can’t get Matt out of our system. I think the odds are good. Let’s see what we can do to get her attention.” Ross cleared his place.
“I hope I haven’t waited too long.” Tony leaned on the counter. “She was moving and working but I danced with her at the wedding and stuff.”
“Stuff?” Ross asked.
“Nothing like that
. Flirted. You’re right. We need to move on it before she thinks we’re not interested. I just don’t want Matt to screw it up.” Tony knew he was overanalyzing and looked at the time. “Work is always a distraction. Have a good one.”
“You too, and stop worrying,” Ross said.
That was easier said than done. Tony wanted a stable family of his own. Tourism did better over in Homer. Sterling was a bit more traditional, but they had their share. New women moving in didn’t happen much. Any woman wouldn’t do. Gretchen caught his attention, and Tony trusted his instincts.
Growing up in Alaska, he was ready for the bear in the backyard or the moose on the road. He trusted his gut on a camping trip or when driving in a blizzard. At work he made split-second decisions about life, death, and the conditions around him. When it came to personal things, he agonized because he had time to think. He couldn’t trust that Gretchen and Matt would work out. He wasn’t that lucky, but he couldn’t pick between the two. He had to trust Ross and explore the options.
* * * *
Gretchen stayed out of the way as the flurry of activity swept through Melody’s home. Technically it was the guys’ home, but she’d relocated and made it hers. Three kisses and the men headed off to their boat repair shop while the women lingered over coffee.
“Well the boat repair business is picking up,” Melody said.
“I wish we could get your dress-making business humming.” Gretchen had been working on advertising but it wasn’t working as well. Alaskans were a fairly practical lot. Fancy dresses were for very special occasions only.
“I’m still getting some work, but the self-sufficient nature of Alaskans means sewing isn’t the most in-demand skill. Weddings are my best business, but people might not have the funds to buy custom gowns.” Mel shrugged.
“But you’re happy?” Gretchen asked. She knew the answer and was doing her best not to be jealous of Mel’s blissful state. Alaska was an adjustment, but Mel had easily transitioned to a complicated relationship.
Mel grinned. “Very.”
“Good. I think if we focus on weddings, we can build a business for you. We’ve got some samples and you’re working on a few more. I’m trying to get a meeting with the mayor. Maybe link up with the tourism push I heard he’s looking to do.” Gretchen’s mind whirled as she nibbled a piece of bacon leftover from her breakfast.
She’d been working hard to prove her new job; helping with the advertising and promotion of the boat repair and dress design business was worth it. After a long stretch of unemployment, she had purpose. There was plenty to do but progress was only showing on the boat side. Gretchen feared that was just the good weather, but she’d gotten the word out farther than the guys.
“You don’t need to push so hard, Gretchen. No one expects magic overnight. We’re doing the bridal show in Anchorage. That’ll help,” Mel said.
“It will and it’ll be even better if we can build up Sterling as a spot for destination weddings. Alaska is a great vacation place, we can make Sterling a great location to get married in and enjoy the scenery, the nature, and all that good stuff. If we can tie our promotion budget in with the town, we’ll more than double the reach.”
“Destination weddings? Here?” Mel asked.
“Sterling has it all. Small, cute feel. Water and gorgeous nature settings. The men can fish, hunt, hike, and all that. Women too. Or the women can do the wine tasting in Homer like we did. We need to build up the draws for women because they really are the ones who make the wedding decisions.” Gretchen nodded.
“That’s true. There’s a beauty salon in town. Not a ton of shopping beyond basics. Photographer.” Mel frowned.
“You’re sure you’re not going to have a wedding? We could make a blitz of promotion about that.” Gretchen grinned.
“No. Marriage is great for some people, but I won’t play favorites.” Mel shook her head.
Mel had overcome a lot of marriage doubts and independence issues to move here. Committing to such a complex relationship was great progress, and Mel didn’t want to be legally married to one man and not the others. Gretchen admired her friend’s perspective, but she couldn’t imagine still not wanting a big wedding. Legal or not...it was a celebration!
“I hope gay marriage is made legal here soon. That’d add to the business. Two brides, double the dresses. Or two custom-designed tuxes works too. Group marriage will take forever, but we don’t need it to be legal to throw the party,” Gretchen said.
“I know you were out of work for a while and it was really depressing, but you don’t have to push so hard. Big things take time. I won’t be a billion-dollar dress designer in a day. Especially not after moving here.” Mel patted her friend’s hand.
Gretchen took a deep breath and sipped her coffee. “I get it. Too much too fast. Too much pressure on myself. It’s just so nice to have something to do. I’m living in your house and eating your food. You know I just want to make myself useful.”
“You are. There’s no rush to move out. Trust me, the guys don’t mind. The deal was room and board while we get things going. Once business picks up, we can start paying you more. You can find a place, if you want to stay,” Mel said.
“I’m not sure I want to live alone here. Definitely not yet. It’s different, but nice. Small town. Things feel a bit simpler, yet other things are a lot more complicated.” Gretchen had been eating more in-season fresh fish and local meats instead of the processed food that were cheaper and easier to come by in the lower forty-eight. That alone helped her take off the weight she’d added while jobless.
“You fit in better than I did at first.” Mel checked her phone.
“It’s summer too. That helps. The darker winter was a rough way to explore a new town with wedding stress on top of it. You were a great maid of honor and made fabulous dresses in the dark. At least now we know what we’re in for. We can soak up the sun and prep for the winter.” Gretchen looked down at her smartphone.
Technology was a big part of what helped Alaska run better these days. Even if they were snowed in, information still came through. “What if we do an app?”
“An app? For dresses?” Mel asked.
“Yeah! What if we had an app designed where women take a selfie and pick a design of yours, and it adjusts to their form? They could virtually try on your whole line. There would be a place to put in for a custom dress, of course. But the idea is they can see what you’ve done and how it’d look on them from anywhere. We could advertise in Canada and all over Alaska. Offer the app for free.” Gretchen started making notes in her phone.
“You’re really good at this. See. I knew I hired the right woman for the job. Maybe Ryan can help?” Mel suggested.
Gretchen nodded. Ryan was the tech expert of Mel’s men. “Make sure we load those prom designs you did too.”
A text popped up on her phone.
From the office of the Mayor: He has an opening at 11 a.m. today. Please reply if you’d like this spot or not.
She replied yes quickly. “I’m seeing Ross today at eleven. Hopefully he’ll be on board.”
“He will and he’s hot.” Mel grinned.
Gretchen’s jaw dropped. “You have three hot guys.”
“I meant for you. Tony was flirting with you at Isa’s reception. He and Ross are an item. They’d been running into you every chance they get. You don’t see it? I don’t know why they haven’t been here trying to get you out on a date all spring,” Mel said.