Off Base, the first in the Out of Uniform series, was my first military romance. Although I didn’t love that story, I liked the writing and the premise of the series, and decided to stay with it. I’m so glad I did. Over the course of seven wonderfully disparate books, the series has been reliably good (often amazing) and satisfying, and Ms. Albert’s love for her characters permeates each novel. I was sad picking up Rough Terrain, knowing it was the last book in the series, but happy to spend some more time in the Out of Uniform world. It’s too short – as the conclusion to this marvelous series and as a standalone title; readers don’t get nearly enough backstory. It’s a shame because this romance is sexy, smart, and I was engaged from start to finish.
In earlier novels in the series, we briefly met Navy SEAL Renzo Bianchi, aka “Rooster.” In I Do (a novella linked to At Attention), Rooster outed himself as bisexual; he’s also handsome, fit and famous (his workout videos have garnered him loyal fanbase on Instagram). Renzo loves being a SEAL, but is anxious to get back to the east coast and his close-knit family – who hero-worship him both for his military service and the way he takes care of them; he’s also hoping to be picked for jumpmaster training. Renzo isn’t looking for a boyfriend, and a recent failed relationship has left him doubting himself. He’s struggling under the pressure of his family’s expectations, and insecure about his appeal (to either sex); despite the positive attention he gets from his videos, Renzo is a study in contradictions. He also can’t stop thinking about the hot guy at the local smoothie shop, wondering if he should take him up on his offer to “find some trouble” together.
Canaan Finley thought he had life figured out. Drummer for up-and-coming rock band, Kirby’s Revenge, he spent years on the road traveling from gig to gig, until three years earlier his life took a major detour when his grandmother was diagnosed with stage four cancer. Canaan took a hiatus from the band to return home and help care for her, and after she died, he realized life on the road no longer held the same appeal. Now, Canaan is living with his grandfather, working part time at a smoothie shop, and pursuing a nursing degree in geriatric care. His former bandmates are touring in the US and want him to join them for a weekend camping trip. Canaan wants to go, but with everyone coupled up – including his asshole ex-boyfriend, he panics and tells them he might be bringing someone too. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have a boyfriend, and time is running out. When the hot Italian Navy SEAL he’s been crushing on stops in with friends one night, Canaan impetuously invites him out.
Renzo takes Canaan up on his offer to spend time together, but doubts about Canaan’s expectations for the night nearly derail the evening before it begins. Worried Canaan is a SEAL chaser (he is), and reluctant to pursue something that can’t go anywhere, he tries to keep his attraction at bay. But he likes Canaan. A lot. Their evening is easy and effortless, and Canaan has an uncanny ability to intuit exactly what Renzo needs. His charming ‘friend’ makes it clear he’s up for more, but never presses. Renzo struggles to resist him until Canaan asks him for a favor and confirms what he already suspected: Canaan was using him all along. He has no desire to be anyone’s fake boyfriend or go camping. Canaan tries – in vain – to reassure him he’s interested whether or not Renzo goes on the trip, but the damage is done and it’s clear Renzo is hurt. They part as friends, but Canaan worries he’s ruined everything.
Reader, Renzo goes on the trip (it’s in the book description) after trying and failing to resist his desire to spend more time with Canaan. He doesn’t quite trust Canaan and resents his role as ‘fake boyfriend,’ but he can’t stay away. Resolving beforehand to keep his hands to himself and get through the weekend as Canaan’s friend, he stubbornly tries to resist Canaan’s flirtatious teasing. Unfortunately, Canaan makes it EXTREMELY difficult to do so. He’s charming, funny, and forthright, and totally unfazed by Renzo’s attempts to keep his questions and curiosity at bay. No subject is off-limits and even when Renzo confesses sex hasn’t always been easy or pleasurable for him (and explains why), Canaan doesn’t stumble. He stubbornly sticks to his pursuit of more from Renzo, and eventually, Renzo is forced to admit resistance is futile – he can’t control his attraction to the other man.
From the start, the camping trip goes awry. Renzo doesn’t like the way Canaan’s bandmates treat him (especially his ex), and their behavior informs his own. Protective and devoted, he’s everything Canaan wants in a real boyfriend and there’s nothing pretend about his response to their intense connection. When they find themselves alone in their hotel together the first night, Renzo quits pretending. Their sex is hot, passionate, and playful, and nothing like Renzo has ever experienced; it confuses him. Is it real or an act? For his part, Canaan is a skillful and patient lover, carefully and systematically dismantling Renzo’s preconceived expectations, and teaching him the pleasures to be had with the right partner.
The story detours shortly after the camping trip gets underway; Renzo and Canaan are separated from the group by a flash flood and have to depend on each other for survival. Their ordeal and time together triggers a protective instinct in both men, along with a new awareness there’s nothing simple or fake about their feelings for each other. I loved the refocus and where the narrative goes from this point forward, but I wish Ms. Albert had made better use of their sojourn in the wilderness. Although we finally discover how each man became the person they are when the story begins, the revelations felt more like an awkward info dump that permits the author to pivot and introduce the second half: the rough terrain they face once they return to San Diego.
Ms. Albert does a marvelous job confounding reader expectations for Rough Terrain. Renzo is no preening rooster as earlier books suggested, and while Canaan might be a SEAL chaser, he recognizes Renzo is someone special; there’s never anything ‘fake’ about this relationship, and this isn’t a wilderness survival story (that’s actually a very brief portion of the book). Instead, Ms. Albert takes two stubborn and opposite men and reveals how they learn to love and trust in each other and themselves despite their less than auspicious beginning. I liked them and their journey, and the author perfectly captures the tenderness, affection and HEAT between them (there are some STEAMY scenes in this one). Although Rough Terrain isn’t the best in the series (that’s a toss-up between On Point and Tight Quarters), it’s a lovely conclusion to this excellent series.