In the wake of tragedy, SEAL Mark Whitley rushed stateside to act as guardian to his sister’s three young children. But a conflicting will could give custody to someone else – someone Mark remembers as a too-young, too-hot, wild party boy. Even after six years, Mark can’t shake the memory of his close encounter with Isaiah James, or face up to what it says about his own sexuality.
Isaiah’s totally over the crush that made him proposition Mark all those years ago. In fact, he’s done with crushing on the wrong men altogether. For now, he’s throwing himself into proving he’s the best person to care for his cousin’s kids. But there’s no denying there’s something sexy about a big, tough military man with a baby in his arms.
As the legal details get sorted out, their long-buried attraction resurfaces, leading to intimate evenings after the kids are tucked in. A forever future is within reach for all of them, if only Mark can find the courage he needs to trust Isaiah with his secrets – and his heart.
Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+
I wasn’t wild about the previous book in this series (Wheels Up) and wasn’t sure I was going to continue to read or listen to any more, but then I saw the blurb for Squared Away AND that Greg Boudreaux was narrating it, so I decided to give it a try. And I’m glad I did, because it turned out to be a beautifully told story of love – romantic and familial – trust, and acceptance, featuring an unusual (in my reading/listening experience, that is) 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’s 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 (who is the bride’s brother) at Cal and Danielle’s wedding. Sadly for Isaiah, his evening didn’t turn out as expected and Mark turned him down; in the intervening six years, 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 the kids will have been left to his care, as he’s their closest relative, 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 probably not all that 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 pre-school age sisters. As far as he’s 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 three very young children; they’re hard work and don’t conveniently disappear when the plot demands they do. 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’, 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.
Books 1-4 in this series had four different narrators, so I was a bit surprised to see Greg Boudreaux’s name on the cover of this one… or maybe I wasn’t because, let’s face it, once Greg’s narrated one of your books, you’re ruined for anyone else 😉 (That’s my theory and I’m sticking to it! And even better, he’s narrating the next book, too!) Of course he does a fantastic job with the narration, expertly characterising the principals (Isaiah’s soft tones contrasting nicely with Mark’s gruff, prickly ones) and skilfully realising Mark’s insecurity and uncertainty about his sexuality and his new role as a parent. The various secondary characters (including those from previous books) are all clearly differentiated and easy to tell apart, his female voices are excellent and he does an especially good job with the two little girls, who sound age appropriate without being too high-pitched or squeaky.
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 part of a couple and family. I really enjoyed the story, and with Greg Boudreaux delivering another wonderfully insightful, nuanced performance, it’s an audiobook I can recommend without reservation.