Being home again was refreshing. Sean had spent some time with his family and laid low as far as socializing. He and Mick knew what this town was about and were ready to settle down. Phil was new to the group, and they’d given him time to get used to things before they started anything.
Spotting Tiff, Sean enjoyed the rush of lust and affection. Tousled brown hair, big brown eyes, and a curvy figure. “Mick, look. I told you she’d be here.” Sean waved at Tiffany, but she had her head down and went to a table. His friend and high school crush had always been complicated. Nice to know some things hadn’t changed.
“I don’t know why you want to dredge up ancient history. Her brothers are still around too. I saw two of them.” Mick glanced around the room again.
“Her brothers were your friends. You said we need the right woman. It’s time. She’s it. You know she is.” Sean grinned at his longtime boyfriend. Dark brown hair, brown eyes, tall, and solid muscle—he stood like an Alaska State Trooper even in civilian clothes. It was Mick’s idea to move home to Sterling. The obstacles involving Mick’s family and Sean’s busted-up leg were finally behind them. Sterling was home, and the weather was better than towns north. Best of all, the group relationship raised no eyebrows at all.
Mick liked things orderly and could keep his calm in the face of gay bashers and drunken crazies. He wasn’t going to overreact or rush into anything, even if he wanted Tiff to become part of their group. Sean was less patient.
“That’s the woman I talked to. The paramedic.” Phil started to go over.
“Hold on.” Sean preferred nature and sports to law and order. How he ended up with two troopers in his bed he’d never know. Phil making the move for the group? Not the best idea. “Tiffany is the paramedic who gave you her number?”
“Yep. I was working traffic on the highway, and there was a fender bender checked out. She and a male partner showed up to clear them.”
“Maybe she’s got men?” Mick suggested.
Sean took a deep breath. Juggling these two wore on his well-trained hunter patience. “Would Tiff give Phil her number if she was taken?”
“She didn’t strike me as a flirt.” Phil shook his head. His brown short hair, sharp green eyes, and quick smile had plenty of women paying attention tonight, single or not. New men got noticed, especially with Phil’s military build.
“She was as sheltered as you can be around here. Tiff has a lot of brothers. Four. Big guys who are as overprotective as her father.” Mick sipped his soda.
“Didn’t her mom stand up for her so she could have some fun?” Phil shrugged.
“Mom went back and forth a lot taking care of her ailing mother in Florida. I remember Tiff’s grandmother being around sometimes. Gave all the kids attention and helped run the house. The girlie stuff was never Tiff’s comfort zone.” Sean sighed. “She wanted to keep up with her brothers.”
“Looks like she’s grown up now. What’s the problem?” Phil asked.
“She sort of had a crush on Mick, and he was friends with her brothers. So he never gave her the time of day. Teenagers are dumb.” Sean understood why Mick did what he did, but Tiff might not be forgiving.
“I knew I wanted to be a trooper, and they move you around a bit at first for experience in different posts. I wasn’t looking for complicated in high school,” Mick replied.
“But you were with Sean in high school?” Phil asked.
“That was different,” Mick said.
“Yeah, we both knew we weren’t going to stick around Sterling after graduation. I wanted to explore Alaska with extreme sports and hunting. He wanted a uniform.” Sean grinned at Phil. “We had fun together. I had no idea we’d run into each other in Anchorage and you’d cement the deal.”
“But ménage here is normal. With a woman too?” Phil asked.
“Yep, kept the peace—less fighting over available women. The families were safe. Fewer prostitutes, but that was back in the 1800s. Now it’s just quirky.” Mick chuckled.
“Quirky?” Sean softly punched Mick’s shoulder.
“It’s not normal. People talk about it even in Alaska.” Mick shrugged.
Phil nodded. “If you’re bisexual, it’s ideal. So what was your history with Tiff, Sean?”
“Friends more than anything. I took her to the school dances.” He glanced at her again with a smile as memories flooded.
“Got it. She had a crush on Mick. You had a crush on her. You were in the friend zone with her, which was safe from the brothers while you and Mick were together.” Phil threw back the rest of his drink and nodded to the bartender for another.
“Basically, yes. These group things aren’t simple to put together as adults. As teenagers, it’s asking for disaster. Her father would’ve pulled a gun on either of us if we made a move.” Mick shared a look with Sean.
“Damn right. That old man was territorial even by Alaska standards. He’d have shot us, and his boys would’ve butchered and fed us to the bears over on Kodiak before anyone missed us.” Sean shivered at the memory of Mr. James’ disapproving glare when they were headed for a school dance, no matter how many times Tiff and her brothers assured their dad it was okay.
“The baby of the family and only girl. Men around here protect what’s theirs. The women too.” Mick nodded to Phil.
“Right, but she’s grown now. I think we need to go say hello,” Phil replied.
“Fine. But follow my lead.” Sean led the way.
“I’ll hang back.” Mick leaned on the bar.
Sean marched back to him. “I’m sorry. Aren’t we in this together?”
“I know we want her as the fourth. All the history and us just being back after years. She probably hates me and resents you for just wanting to be friends. He’s barely been in Alaska a couple years.” Mick pointed at Phil.
“You were friends with her brothers. So what? Why would she hate you?” Phil asked.
“It’s complicated,” Sean said.
Mick shrugged. “She asked me to one of those turnabout dances in high school. I told her no and froze. Before I could explain, she ran off. One of her brothers said she was crying. I didn’t know what to do. A crying woman still flusters me. As a teenager, how was I to handle that? She was never the same open and friendly girl to me again.”
“But you love her?” Phil asked.
Sean and Mick shared a look.
“I was safe there. Good friends. You know my home life…” Mick shrugged.
“Sucked,” Phil supplied.
“Relax. We’re not going to rush it. We’re saying hi to an old friend. We’re back in town. Dana is over there too. Don’t open with we want Tiff in our ménage,” Sean said.
“Fine, I’ll say hi, but don’t get too friendly,” Mick warned.
“There is a whole group of women there. I don’t think we’re in any danger of looking predatory.” Phil headed over.
Tiff looked a bit like she’d seen a ghost, but her smile for Phil seemed genuine. She eyed Sean and Mick with a bit more trepidation as she introduced her friends.
“Dana, this is Phil Henderson. He’s joining Mick at the trooper post here. Dana is a Sterling native. It’s nice to see new faces too,” Sean said as he turned on the charm.
“Gretchen was just locking in a date with Dana for her wedding at the Sterling Inn. I don’t see the point of four-way marriage if it’s not legal, but I don’t mind the jewelry.” Melody fingered the diamond on her left ring finger casually.
Sean got the message. She and Gretchen were taken.
“Congratulations,” Mick said.
“Thanks.” Gretchen beamed.
“So, Phil. Where are you from?” Dana asked.
“I’ll go get another round of drinks for everyone,” Mick said.
“Wyoming,” Phil finally answered Dana’s question.
“Outsider? I thought he was your third,” Dana said to Sean.
“I am,” Phil said proudly. “I went into the military after high school. After that I wanted a fresh start. Bisexual wasn’t exactly well received at home, so I came to Alaska.”
“How fun.” Bethany eyed him like a choice cut of meat.
“It is. I love being a trooper and how different everything is here.” Phil smiled at her.
“I’m sure the military was a good prep for Alaska. We do things differently here for our own reasons.” Tiffany held her glass tightly. “I had no idea when we met on that call you were with them.”
“I had no idea you knew them either. Just glad to see so many beautiful women in Sterling.” Phil stared at Tiffany.
“So you’re doing traffic patrol? Not wildlife or anything?” Dana asked.
“For now, yes. But I’m pretty decent on a snowmobile, and I can drive a boat,” Phil said.
Sighs came from all the true Alaskans.
“What?” Phil asked.
“Machines. Snow machines
.” Sean laughed.
“You guys are so picky. Means the same thing.” Phil blushed.
“Like a retired Marine and an ex-Marine mean the same thing?” Tiffany asked.
Phil’s posture stiffened. “No, I’m retired from the military. There’s no ex-military.”
“Exactly. Snow machines are necessary in Alaska. Like bush planes and boats if you’re on the water. It’s not a weekend toy. I bet you don’t even own a snow machine.” Tiff leaned back in her chair.
“I’ve been moving around for training. Mick and Sean have them, but I doubt it’ll be mandatory this far south.” Phil held his ground.
“Why don’t you help Mick with the drinks?” Sean suggested.
Phil went, but his expression told Sean he didn’t like being dismissed. There was history to sort out that Phil wasn’t involved in. He wasn’t helping right that minute. Sean would explain later.
“Tiff, you haven’t changed a bit.” Sean smirked.
“He’s an outsider.” Tiff shook her head. “You and Mick shacked up with an outsider?”
Dana shrugged. “He’s hot. He’s military, so he’ll adapt. Trooper training is good. What do you care, Tiff?”
“I don’t. I just never imagined Mick would have the patience for someone who can’t butcher a moose solo.” Tiff nibbled at the appetizers. “Back for good?”
“They both took a permanent assignment to the post here. They might patrol over in Homer as well, but you know how it goes. They’ve got their territory.” Sean went for the lovable old friend angle. “Miss us?”
Before she could reply, Dave James walked up. “These guys bothering you, sis?”
“We’re fine, Dave.” Tiff seemed annoyed.
“If they’re a problem, we’ll get rid of them,” Dave offered.
Dana wasn’t one to be pushed around. “Oh, please, Dave. Mick is your old pal. He’s at the bar with another trooper. You can’t bully them. They can arrest you. So let your sister have some fun, and quit being a chaperone.”
For a second everyone was quiet. Sean fought to hide his grin. Dana was strong and smart but bookish and had never been one of the popular girls.
Dave nodded. “You’re right, Dana. She’s already got you to be the boring chaperone. Neither of you two ever did anything out of line. I’m just offering help. I’ll go chat with Mick.”
Gesturing to his brother, Dave headed for the bar.
“Sorry about him,” Tiff said to Dana.
“Forget it. My parents always liked it when we went places together because I don’t have any siblings and you had enough older brothers to spare. Talk about safe.” Dana laughed it off. “Where are those drinks?”
Sean saw that Dana had grown into her role more easily than Tiff. Dana’s parents were older. Sean had paid them a visit looking for odd jobs until tourist season. With no one judging her every move or cramping her style, Dana was a pillar of the community ready to find the right trio of men. Tiff still seemed stuck in the role of little sister.
Phil and a waitress brought over the drinks. The women thanked them, and Sean waved it off. For women there was no charge, so Mick had just used it as an excuse to get away for bit.
“So, Tiff. How about a dance?” Phil asked.
There was a small dance floor to one side of the bar with couples on it. Sean instantly knew it was too fast.
“Thanks, but I’m actually coming down with a headache. I’m going to splash some cold water on my face and see if it helps.” Tiff sipped her cola and then headed for the ladies’ room.
The women followed their leader like a heard of caribou bounding over the landscape. Sean sat down in Tiff’s chair. “Way to go, Phil.”
“What? I was trying to get some alone time with her to show I’m not a total jerk or clueless. She really is sensitive.” Phil frowned.
“Sensitive. She’s also an Alaskan girl who is tough. She’s probably carrying a gun on her and a knife. Plus, she’s a paramedic, so she could kill you in a few ways you might not expect.” Sean grinned.
“I can handle her.” Phil’s military posture came out again.
“I wouldn’t brag too much on the military thing either. I told you, Alaskans don’t like being told what to do or how to do it. Being a trooper is one thing. Being a marine too, they’ll think you’re just about the orders.” Sean respected the military and loved the pics of Phil in uniform, but here independence and self-reliance were prized higher than any medal.
“It is weird. Was Tiff’s dad military?”
Sean nodded. “One of her brothers went in too for the education. It’s not a bad thing if you’re from here. You’re from outside, so you have to prove you can make it here. The military stuff, Tiff was being nice. Alaska weather changes in minutes. You have to improvise, innovate, and anticipate shit you don’t even know might happen yet. The only way to be accepted here is to make it here for a year.”
“I’ve been a year in Anchorage.” Phil studied the bar.
“That’s a big city, and you did some other posts. This is a small town. People are sizing you up. Looking you over and judging right here.” Sean gestured to the room.
“I can feel it.” Phil nodded.
“Be a dick, no one will talk to you. Be everyone’s best friend, they’ll think you’re after something. Be yourself, in a relationship with me and Mick, and you’ll meet people and gain their trust. Don’t try too hard with them or Tiffany.” Sean texted Mick to get his ass over to the table. They weren’t leaving until they got another chance to chat with Tiffany.
“Got it. Geez, it’s like basic training all over again.” Phil downed his beer.
“It’s worse here. We don’t trust outsiders, so you don’t get trained or taught things readily. People shoot trespassers. The animals can kill you about as fast as the people.” Sean smiled.
“If it were easy, everyone would move here.” Phil never backed down from a challenge, and that made Sean love him more. Tiff would be one hell of a challenge.