Wayward (Hazard and Somerset: A Union of Swords #4) by Gregory Ashe

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Emery Hazard is trying to plan his wedding, even though his fiancé, John-Henry Somerset, isn’t exactly making things easy for him. To be fair, Somers has been distracted lately; his father is running for mayor in a hotly contested election, and their hometown is splintering under the weight of divisive politics.

In a matter of hours, those poisonous politics invade Hazard’s life in a way he couldn’t have imagined. Glenn Somerset, Somers’s father, shows up on their doorstep, and he wants two things: first, for Hazard to neutralize a blackmail threat; and second, for Somers temporarily to move out of the house he shares with Hazard, part of public relations stunt to win the election. To Hazard’s shock, Somers agrees.

Determined to lose himself in his work, Hazard takes on a missing person’s case, but his investigation only leads him deeper into the tangled web of small-town politics. To find the truth, he must face off with the viciously rich who rule Wahredua—and with the poor, desperate, and marginalized, who fight just as viciously in their own way.

When Hazard’s investigation uncovers a murder, he is forced to work with Somers to bring the killer to justice, despite their fractured relationship. But the sudden news that Hazard’s father is failing fast threatens to put an untimely end to the case—and, in doing so, jeopardize Somers’s last-ditch effort to repair his relationship with his own father.

Rating: A

Having written over a dozen reviews of Gregory Ashe’s books over the last couple of years, I really am running out of ways to express just how damn good they are!  So forgive me for repeating myself when I say that Wayward, book four in the second Hazard and Somerset series, A Union of Swords is another fantastic combination of tightly-plotted, twisty mystery and complex and compelling romantic relationship which Mr. Ashe continues to examine with laser-sharp insight.  The wry observation, humour, snarky dialogue and fantastic storytelling readers have come to expect from this author are all present and correct in this penultimate instalment of the series, as our two favourite dysfunctional detectives – now an engaged couple – struggle with many of the same day-to-day relationship issues as the rest of us while working hard to clean up the streets of Wahredua. *grin*

The last book, Transactional Dymanics, really put Hazard and Somers’ relationship to the test, with the re-appearance of Hazard’s abusive ex and the resurgence of Somers’ tendency to retreat into a bottle as an avoidance tactic.  It’s always hard to read them when they’re at odds and hurting each other as they work through their issues, but there’s always the sense that they’re bound together by a  bedrock of love and committment that keeps them firmly anchored to each other.  By the end of that book, they’re back on an even keel and as much in love as ever.  But this is Gregory Ashe, and if you’ve got this far, you’ll know all too well that that tends to signal the calm before the storm 😉

Wayward begins a few weeks after Transactional Dynamics and Hazard is grumbling about wedding plans as he and Somers spend a relaxed evening with their neighbours Noah and Rebecca, and their friendship group – Dulac and Darnell, Wesley (the local pastor) and his girlfriend, Mitchell Martin – who narrowly escaped the Keeper of Bees in The Rational Faculty – and even Nico, who I was really pleased to see growing up and acting like a proper friend in this book.  But we’re not allowed to bask in their domesticity for too long; a day later, after an exhausting day during which he and Dulac were asked to handle an upsetting custody exchange, Somers’ father shows up to throw several cats in among the pigeons.

Glennworth Somerset is front-runner in the upcoming mayoral elections (the lesser of two evils – it’s him or Naomi Malsho!) and wants to hire Hazard to find out who is behind the blackmail threats he’s begun to get recently.  Hazard is reluctant, but Somerset Snr. reminds him of a deal they struck a while back – and he’s calling in the debt.  But that’s not the only debt he’s collecting.  With the election just two weeks away, he reminds John of an agreement they reached (most likely over the loan to start Hazard’s business) and asks Somers to  temporarily move out of the house he shares with Hazard in an attempt to sway undecided voters who don’t like the idea of having a mayor with a queer son.  Knowing how many times Somers has raised the figurative finger to his parents, or told his father to plain fuck off, Hazard waits to hear it this time.  And waits.  But what he’s forgotten to take into account is that Somers, while having spent most of his life rebelling against his father, nonetheless craves his approval – and Somers, knowing it’s just a stunt and that nothing about it is real, misreads the situation and doesn’t say no.  Furious, hurt and utterly disgusted, Hazard storms out in an attempt to calm down – and returns home to find Somers already gone.

The day after Somers moves out, a young woman enters Hazard’s office saying she wants to hire him to find her missing sister.  Something about Courtney Vega is familiar, and Hazard realises that the sister she wants to find – Donna May Plenge – is none other than the antifa activist who disrupted the tree-lighting ceremony last Christmas and assaulted and threatened to kill a police officer (Police Brutality).  Donna has a history of sudden disappearances but she has always – so far – returned to Wahredua, and this last time, she made it clear she intended to stay for good, because she was going to stick around for her four-year-old daughter, Dolores, and possibly get back together with Dolores’ father, Josh Dobbs, the son of a local well-to-do family.  Dolores had, until recently been living with Donna’s parents, and is the little girl Somers and Dulac had to escort from her grandparent’s home the day before.  But Donna has disappeared again, and Courtney doesn’t believe she’s simply run off this time.

The mystery is complicated and of course nothing is as it seems.  None of the leads Courtney gives Hazard pan out; Donna isn’t at any of her local haunts, the last people to see her are all telling similar but not-quite-the-same stories, and it quickly becomes apparent that he’s been sent on a wild goose chase.  When a hunch leads him to find Donna’s body hidden in the boathouse on the grounds of the Dobbs’ residence, it’s time to call the cops.

The involvement of Somers (and Dulac) in the murder investigation sees Hazard and Somers having to find a way to work together, which isn’t easy, given that Hazard is still furious at Somers and hardly speaking to him.  At the same time, Hazard is working on the job he agreed to do for Somers’ father, and when his enquiries lead him to a bit of late night B&E, Somers insists on tagging along. This leads to one of the best scenes in the book, when the two of them slip effortlessly into their old patterns of working together.  It’s glorious and silly and funny and perfect; they’re feeling the old, familiar rhythm between them, and it’s the best either of them has felt in days.

The mystery is solved and the blackmailer is found  by the end, but as always in this series, Hazard and Somers and their complicated, angsty relationship are the big draw, and wow, is Gregory Ashe delivering an amazing story there.  I admit that when I read the synopsis for Wayward I worried I was going to end up disliking Somers (much as I love Hazard, Somers is my boy!) but that never happened, because Mr. Ashe does a superb job of not taking sides, showing that they’re both wrong and both right.  Somers doesn’t immediately see why what he’s agreed to is a big deal – he and Hazard are going to spend the rest of their lives together, so in the grand scheme of things, living apart for two weeks isn’t a long time.  It doesn’t take Somers long to realise he’s made a serious error of judgement, but Hazard’s refusal to communicate or engage makes it impossible for any attempt at hashing everything out.  The rumours about their ‘break-up’ being permanent which quickly start to circulate don’t help the situation, and only add to Hazard’s already big pile of insecurities.  Hazard sees Somers’ willingness to do as his father asks as a personal rejection and betrayal of everything they’ve built together, and on top of the hurt and fear and low self-esteem that’s been fostered by scumbags like Billy Rolker, the events of the previous summer and his continued refusal to admit to or get treatment for his PTSD, are making it harder and harder for Hazard to control his temper and his emotions. It’s like trying to keep a faulty lid on a pressure cooker; steam is leaking out around the edges and it’s only a matter of time until it blows.  And right now, that’s Emery Hazard.  His tendency to retreat inside himself and shut everyone out when his emotions start to get the better of him is increasing, in spite of his promise to try to be more open, so here, he just shuts down and shuts John out – and watching him spiralling out of control and getting so dangerously close to the edge in this book was a heart-breaking punch to the gut (please, Mr. Ashe, let him get some therapy soon!).

This is probably the closest the couple has come to a real split, and there are times it’s really difficult to see how they’re ever going to be able to pull back from the brink.  Yet scenes like the one I mentioned earlier really do help both of them to remember why they’re so good together, and a slow but solid rapprochement begins.

The other thread running through the story is one about father/son relationships.  Readers got some insight into Somers’ family dynamic in Paternity Case; he was something of a rebel, marrying Cora against his parents’ wishes, becoming a police officer instead of going to law school; he thumbed his nose at his parents every way he could, and yet it was also clear that he desperately wanted validation from his father.  In Reasonable Doubt, we met Frank Hazard, who is dying from cancer, and while the Hazard men’s relationship is different, the underlying theme of wanting a father’s approval isn’t too dissimilar.

And in the end, it’s family and those fraught relationships that finally seal the cracks in Hazard and Somers’ bruised hearts and battered relationship.  A family emergency forces some soul-searching and re-evaluation of what it means to be a family, and by the end of the novel – and in a lovely and somewhat whimsical final scene – Hazard and Somers recommit to each other all over again.

On top of all this, Darnell and Dulac are still on-off, Somers makes an unsettling discovery and the Keeper of Bees is still out there, just waiting to strike again.  Hazard is no closer to working out their identity (and neither are we) and I’m sure that by now, we’re all scrutinising the actions of every other character in each book and wondering if it could be them! (I have no idea, but I’m notoriously bad at working out whodunit!)

Wayward has plenty of the humour and snarky banter that are the hallmarks of the series – and the author’s work in general – but Emery and John spend a lot of the book on the outs, and it’s hard to read them hurting and wounding each other so badly.  But – and I know I’ve said this before – Gregory Ashe’s ability to focus in on what makes both men and their relationship tick is incredible, and the fact that he can pull off a story like this and make it so relatable and convincing is testament to his skill as an author.  If you’ve come this far with Ree and John, then you won’t want to miss this instalment in the Union of Swords series; just prepare yourself for a bumpy ride.

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