Annabeth Albert is an author who first came to my attention with her Portland Heat series, centered around small shop owners of assorted varieties, and her #gaymer series which features a video game company. The last #gaymers book, Connection Error, featured a Navy SEAL (Ryan) and this new series Out of Uniform is a spin off from that. While the previous books of hers that I’ve read (and enjoyed very much) were fairly lighthearted, Off Base tackles more serious subjects such as workplace harassment and family conflict in a compelling and believable story.
Zack Nelson is a twenty-three year old active duty SEAL. He’s also a virgin, and unsure of his own sexuality. He’s dated girls, but never felt the same kind of attraction for them that he feels towards men. While the military’s ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ policy is no longer in effect, it hasn’t stopped the harassment of gay servicemen and women, it’s just kept it more hidden. Zack’s inadvertent physical reaction to a male friend is noticed by a homophobic teammate who proceeds to corner Zack and threaten to out him, taking opportunities when they are working alone to bully him. Looking to ease some of the stress, Zack moves off base to a fixer-upper house owned by a senior officer, where he’ll pay a reduced rent in exchange for helping to renovate the house.
Truth is, Zack has no idea how to do most of the work involved. When a friend of a friend, Pike Reynolds, is in need of a place to live while he teaches for a term at a local college, Zack reluctantly agrees to let him live with him. Pike used to help his mom renovate houses and has the technical expertise that Zack lacks. But Pike is also very much out of the closet. He’s comfortable with his sexuality and doesn’t shy away from conversations about it. Zack’s denial of his sexuality doesn’t last long when his attraction to Pike surfaces. But Pike isn’t interested in a having a ‘tourist’ visit the gay lifestyle; he’s looking for long term commitment. Will Zack have the courage to accept the truth about himself and his feelings for Pike, no matter the consequences?
Most of this story is about Zack’s struggle to accept his sexuality. Faced with real harassment at work, homophobic sentiments and actions from some of his teammates and reluctance to break team cohesion, it’s no wonder he doesn’t want to fully open that closet door. It’s better to continue denying his feelings and stay clear of other gay men so as to not be tempted or outed inadvertently. It doesn’t help that he comes from a small town religious conservative background. His parents are active in their church and believe the lie about homosexuality being a lifestyle choice. They are proud of Zack being a member of the Navy and constantly tell him so. Plus, his older brother is a troublemaker, making Zack the ‘good’ son. Zack was bullied by his brother as a child, a fact his parents refuse to accept. Being bullied again in his work life reminds him uncomfortably of what it was like at home as a child, one of the reasons he left his home town to join the Navy. It’s a lot of pressure on a young man. He’s great at his job, but he believes that rocking the boat by coming forward with harassment charges against a teammate could mean the end of his career and being forced to move back home.
Pike knows that Zack is struggling, though not the extent of the reasons why. He’s part of a circle of gay friends that includes a Navy SEAL, Ryan, which is how he and Zack initially met. He’s been attracted to Zack for ages, but isn’t going to act on those feelings. Instead he focuses on being a friend to Zack, supporting him by being someone he can talk to and dealing with the home renovation jobs for which he has the expertise. It’s not long before Zack makes the first move in the privacy and safety of their home, and they share some steamy scenes together. As a virgin, Zack is hesitant but his enthusiasm makes up for any inexperience. Pike finds himself falling for Zack pretty quickly, even as he understands that their relationship can only be temporary, and that unless Zack is willing to come out of the closet, it won’t have a future.
Pike is a very engaging and likable character. He’s smart, funny and self-assured, the opposite of Zack’s quiet and introverted self. He’s a young professor and this is his first teaching job, so he worries about whether he’s being effective in the classroom. Prior to this position, he’d been hoping to work for a gaming company and with this job being only for a term, and Zack’s commitment problems, he’s still feeling in limbo about his future.
Things get pretty intense in the latter half of the story, with Zack’s family, his work and his relationship with Pike all coming to a head. Choices can no longer be put off. I really like how all of the issues are dealt with and the way that Zack and Pike get their happy ending. The situations that both men encounter along the way feel realistic and are dealt with in a believable manner. There are some well written secondary characters that have major impacts on Zack and Pike’s relationships, both negatively and positively, including ones who will feature in later stories in the series. Off Base combines a sexy romance with an emotionally dramatic story and is a great start to the Out of Uniform series.