I’ve really enjoyed Annabeth Albert’s Out of Uniform series. She’s done a great job linking the novels together while crafting fresh and special individual stories and romantic relationships in each one. This time out her principals find themselves fighting their attraction and love for each other while knowing they can’t have it all – SEAL careers and each other – because romantic relationships between officers and the men under their command are forbidden in the military. It’s difficult to see how these two will find a way forward, but Ms. Albert capably steers this romance to a satisfying and believable happily ever after. Though Wheels Up is the fourth book in the series, it works well as a standalone and fans will be glad to see some familiar faces and also meet secondary characters who seem destined for future books of their own.
Lieutenant Dustin Strauss appears to have it all. Great friends, good looks, a challenging and satisfying career as a Navy SEAL… but he has a big secret that he’s finding harder and harder to keep. Despite having a brother who’s gay (Dylan from At Attention), Dustin is afraid to admit he’s bisexual. Pressure from his father to marry and carry on the family name has kept him in the closet, but a new relationship with another man – albeit only online via Joe4Joe (a military themed hook-up app) – has him re-thinking his decision to suppress this part of himself. With his Saucer-Man (whom he suspects works in security) he’s free to be himself and give in to his kink – a need to submit and give up control – unreservedly. Dustin is content with his online relationship just the way it is. As Wheels Up opens, Dustin is enroute to Baltimore for work when he mentions his destination in a text exchange with Saucer-Man. Saucer-Man surprises him by suggesting they meet and Dustin isn’t sure how to react – he’s never dated another man and isn’t convinced it’s a good idea – but he’s curious about his online lover. He agrees and they exchange photos and set a time and public place to meet-up shortly after he lands.
After six months developing a friendship and sharing explicit cyber-sex with Godzilla (whom he suspects is a marine), Petty Officer Wes Lowe is curious about the man behind the screen. When he discovers Godzilla will be within driving distance of his home, he can’t help suggesting they meet up. It’s clear the guy is nervous about getting together, but Wes is anxious to meet the man he’s been hooking up with online for months – the man he’s falling for. Despite Dustin’s nerves, Wes does everything he can to put him at ease and they spend an enjoyable day together, and Wes realises Dustin isn’t out. That night Dustin agrees to come back to Wes’ hotel room – though their chemistry is off-the-charts and they’re attracted to each other, Dustin is nervous, Wes is anxious… until Wes takes control and they resume the D/s relationship they enjoy in their online relationship. But their one-time, no questions passionate night together quickly feels like a lot more than a one-night stand. When they part, both men find themselves remembering and savoring the night over and over again in their hearts and minds.
Time for a MAJOR plot twist. Life becomes abruptly more complicated when Wes, who’s never revealed what he does for a living, puts in for a transfer from the east coast and lands on the San Diego based SEAL team. The same one commanded by Dustin. Oops.
The first part of Wheels Up , in which Dustin and Wes develop an emotional and physical (cyber) relationship online and then spend a scorching night together, ratchets up the tension in all the best ways. We get to know each man individually – as a SEAL, as a friend, as part of a family, as more than just a partner to the other – and we like Dustin and Wes as much as they like each other. So it’s a terrible, sad thing when they meet for the first time as SEAL teammates – one of whom is subordinate to the other. That relationship supersedes everything else between them. Commanding officers don’t have friendly – or, more significantly – sexual, relationships with the men they command. We know Dustin and Wes were deeply invested in each other long before that one night stand; discovering that their relationship is over devastates them both.
As the novel progresses and the two men try and fail to stay away from each other, the novel stalls a bit. There’s great chemistry between them, but outside of the bedroom is angst, angst, angst. Dustin struggles with his sexual identity and whether or not to come out to friends and family; he craves submission with Wes, but in his daily life, he’s expected to command and lead. The dichotomy between his personal and professional life and keeping secret his feelings for Wes leaves him stressed, tired and discouraged. Wes is similarly frustrated by his non/secret relationship with Dustin, a man who isn’t publicly out; he’s also dealing with the distance from his family and a sister who is in and out of the hospital due to a major heart condition. Secrets, personal struggles, the very real dangers of his job as an explosives expert… Ms. Albert doesn’t hold back as she stacks the deck against these two.
If it all seems like too much for the pair to ever find a happily ever after – it is. Something(s) have to give, though Ms. Albert rather neatly works out a way for Wes and Dustin to be together. She doesn’t make it easy, and even after they decide to make it work, it’s complicated. I liked her resolution but I’m not sure how I felt about this couple in general. Both men are supremely likeable, talented and successful. They like/love each other and ‘get’ each other sexually. But I struggled with the other parts of their relationship – what happens outside the bedroom – and I’m not sure Ms. Albert sold me on their long term compatibility. There’s chemistry and then there’s compatibility…I’m still not certain there’s enough of both in this pairing.
Ultimately though, Wheels Up is Annabeth Albert comfort food. A couple deeply in lust/love with one another, great camaraderie between friends and colleagues, and a happy ever after that’s hard earned. It’s not my favorite Out of Uniform novel (that’s At Attention), but it’s an entertaining and romantic addition nonetheless.