I’ve enjoyed all the books in Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series, and although I wasn’t wild about the book before this one Wheels Up, book five, Squared Away is one of my favourites, a beautifully told story of love – romantic and familial – trust, and acceptance, featuring a gorgeous slow-burn romance as two men come to terms with a devastating event that changes their lives irrevocably.
Six years earlier, eighteen-year-old Isaiah James decided it was time to lose his v-card and knew exactly who he wanted to give it to. He’d had a crush on his cousin Cal’s best friend for a while and decides it’s time to make his move on Navy SEAL medic Mark Whitley at Cal’s wedding to Mark’s sister, Danielle. Sadly for Isaiah, his evening didn’t turn out as expected and Mark turned him down; in the years since, they’ve hardly seen each other and Isaiah suspects Mark has actually gone out of his way to avoid him. But that can’t continue when Cal and Danielle are killed in an accident, leaving behind three young children. Mark is deployed at an undisclosed location when the tragedy occurs, so by the time he gets the news and returns to the States, it’s to find Isaiah installed in the family home with the kids, clearly knowing what he’s doing. This version of Isaiah is more mature, more confident than the one Mark remembers and he’s not quite sure what to make of him at first. He certainly doesn’t like the way Isaiah seems to have taken control of everything, and Isaiah’s calm confidence with the kids unsettles Mark, who hardly knows them, and knows little about children in general.
Mark assumes that, as he’s their closest relative, his sister will have left the kids to his care, so it’s a surprise to discover that both Cal and Danielle made wills and that things aren’t so cut and dried. In one, Mark is named, and in the other, Isaiah; so they agree to continue as they are for the time being until such time as a legal decision can be made. Mark knows that his job is not conducive to being granted custody of young children, as it takes him away from home for long periods of time, but that’s a surmountable obstacle – once he has the children in his care, he can hire a good nanny. What surprises him, however, is the ferocity with which Isaiah makes clear his desire to gain custody of baby Liam and his two sisters. As far as Isaiah is concerned, the kids are family, and he’s not prepared to hand them off to someone else to bring up.
I loved this story, and the author has done a terrific job of showing what it’s like to be the parents of very young children; they’re hard work. Isaiah is great with them and clearly adores them, while Mark doesn’t have the first clue of how to handle them. In fact, he comes across as a bit of a dickhead in the first part of story, assuming he’ll get custody of the kids but leaving all the heavy lifting to Isaiah, and then being persuaded into a course of action that he knows isn’t right and will cause a major issue further down the line, but doing it anyway.
One of the joys of the story, though, is seeing Mark gradually unbend and adapt to his new situation. He loves the kids, too, but hasn’t any experience of being around them and he’s got a lot to learn. But to his credit, once he realises that he’s not pulling his weight around the house, he mans up and starts to integrate into this small and rather special family unit.
The romance is sensual and beautifully developed, the fact that Mark is demisexual (or maybe grey ace) meaning that it focuses more on the emotional connection that develops between the two men, especially in the early stages, than a sexual one. While Isaiah is the younger of the two, Mark is the least experienced; his sexual experiences so far have not been positive ones and he came away from them feeling guilty for disappointing his partner and not reacting in an expected way. He’s given up hoping to find someone to ‘put up with him’ (as he thinks of it) so he’s astonished at the ease with which Isaiah accepts his sexuality and is prepared to let Mark set the pace. Ms. Albert does a superb job of conveying the complexity of Mark’s emotions and the way his feelings for Isaiah change and develop.
Mark and Isaiah’s HEA is hard-won, but very well-deserved. Squared Away is a fairly angsty story, but is generally a ‘quiet’ book, focusing on the characters and their emotional journeys. In this case it’s about processing grief and learning to adapt in order to move forward, learning to trust, support and grow as a person and as part of a couple and family. It’s a lovely, emotionally satisfying read and is highly recommended.