Damage Control (Laws of Attraction #1) by Kate McMurray

Senate candidate Parker Livingston chose his political dreams over a future with the man he loved. He lives with constant regret about not having Jackson Kane in his life. Or his bed. And when a strange woman is found murdered in Parker’s apartment, Jackson is the only person Parker trusts to help clear his name.

Jackson never forgave Parker for the way their relationship ended. He moved on, built a name for himself as a criminal defense attorney and swore he’d never let heartbreak back in. But when Parker shows up on his doorstep, wild-eyed and handsome and desperate for his help, Jackson can’t say no. Parker is a lot of things, but he’s no murderer.

Forced back together, searching for answers, their attraction returns with a vengeance. Any distraction—personal or professional—could be deadly. The murderer is still at large, and he’s made it clear one of them is his next victim.

Rating: C-

Damage Control is the first book in the author’s Laws of Attraction series, and it opens when top defence attorney Jackson Kane is approached by senatorial candidate Parker Livingston to represent him when, as looks likely to happen, Livingston is arrested for the murder of a woman found dead in his apartment.  The book is a reasonably well written and engaging tale, but there were a number of issues that kept pulling me out of the story, and there were times when the suspension of disbelief required was just too large for comfort.

Jackson and Parker – Park – have history.  They met at college, aged nineteen, and were each other’s first everything; they stayed together for eight years until Park’s political ambitions (and daddy issues) forced them apart.  Eight years later, Park is running for the senate… as a Republican.  Okay – I’m British, so it’s entirely possible that some of the finer political points in the story passed me by, but basically, Park is a left-of-centre Republican who espouses many of the party’s conservative economic tenets while also believing it has gone off the rails and that change can only be effected from within.  But the party and voters will never accept a gay republican, so he’s firmly closeted.  Even though it’s a matter of record – and it comes up a few times – that Park and Jackson shared a couple of addresses over the years, we’re asked to believe that nobody, at any time during the vetting process put two and two together and made four? They were together as a couple for EIGHT YEARS.  They didn’t ever have friends round for dinner?  They never went out as a couple?  Setting aside the fact I have a hard time believing that ANYONE would want to identify as a Republican these days, surely someone running for high political office would have been thoroughly investigated?

Anyway.  It seems the murdered woman was a socialite whose father is a major donor to the party and Park’s campaign.  Fortunately, however, Park has a watertight alibi for the time of the murder, and once that is established,  the story turns its attention to trying to find out why the victim was at Park’s apartment in the first place? Did his political opponents lure her there with the intention of framing Park for murder?

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

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Perfect Day by Sally Malcolm

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Love doesn’t burn out just because the timing’s wrong. It grows. It never leaves.

When Joshua Newton, prodigal son of one of New Milton’s elite, fell in love with ambitious young actor Finn Callaghan, his world finally made sense. With every stolen moment, soft touch and breathless kiss, they fell deeper in love.

Finn was his future…until he wasn’t.

Love stays. Even when you don’t want it to, even when you try to deny it, it stays.

Eight years later, Finn has returned to the seaside town where it all began. He’s on the brink of stardom, a far cry from the poor mechanic who spent one gorgeous summer falling in love on the beach.

The last thing he wants is a second chance with the man who broke his heart. Finn has spent a long time forgetting Joshua Newton—he certainly doesn’t plan to forgive him.

Love grows. It never leaves.

Rating: A-

Sally Malcolm’s first published m/m romance is a contemporary retelling of Jane Austen’s Persuasion (which regularly vies with Emma for first place in my ranking of Austen’s novels!) set in a sleepy New York seaside town. I admit I’m usually a bit wary of retellings of classic novels – especially when they’re great personal favourites – but I’ve known the author on and off for over a decade, I enjoy her writing and was confident that she’d treat the material with respect – and that confidence wasn’t misplaced. Perfect Day is a beautifully told second-chance-at-love story that tugs at the heartstrings and can be enjoyed regardless of whether you’re familiar with Persuasion or not. It stands on its own very well, although the fun for those of us who do know the original is in recognising the plot points and characters the author has chosen to ‘transplant’ and how she’s made them work in a contemporary setting.

During one halcyon summer eight years earlier, Joshua Newton and Finn Callaghan met when Finn was employed to work on Charles Newton’s classic car collection at his Hanworth Hall estate on Long Island. The Newtons were extremely wealthy; Joshua’s father and older brother Michael were tough-nosed businessmen who believed money was everything, but Josh was always a bit of an outsider, a talented musician and gentle soul whose ambitions lay in a different direction. He and Finn spent as much time together as they possibly could over the couple of months that followed, falling deeply and passionately in love and eventually deciding to move to Los Angeles together, where the stunningly handsome Finn would pursue an acting career while Josh would further his musical studies.

But their dreams came to an abrupt end when Josh allowed his aunt Ruth to persuade him not only that he should finish his MBA at Harvard, but that for Finn to arrive in LA with a boyfriend in tow would end his career before it had even begun. If Josh truly loved Finn, he should end their relationship and let him go.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

The Wolf at the Door (Big Bad Wolf #1) by Charlie Adhara


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Hunting for big bad wolves was never part of Agent Cooper Dayton’s plan, but a werewolf attack lands him in the carefully guarded Bureau of Special Investigations. A new case comes with a new partner: ruggedly sexy werewolf Oliver Park.

Park is an agent of The Trust, a werewolf oversight organization working to ease escalating tensions with the BSI. But as far as Cooper’s concerned, it’s failing. As they investigate a series of mysterious deaths unlike anything they’ve seen, every bone in Cooper’s body is suspicious of his new partner—even when Park proves himself as competent as he is utterly captivating.

When more people vanish, pressure to solve the case skyrockets. And though he’d resolved to keep things professional, Cooper’s friction with Park soon erupts…into a physical need that can’t be contained or controlled. But with a body count that’s rising by the day, werewolves and humans are in equal danger. If Cooper and Park don’t catch the killer soon, one—or both—of them could be the next to go.

Rating: A-

An excellent début form Charlie Adhara, Wolf at the Door combines romance, mystery and paranormal elements and weaves them skilfully together into a procedural drama that provides a thoroughly entertaining and gripping read.

FBI Cooper Dayton narrowly survived a werewolf attack around a year before the story begins.  At the time, he had no idea what had caused his injuries; as far as he knew, he was chasing down a murder suspect.  Given the choice between finding out what really happened, and continuing in ignorance, he opts for the former – and is inducted into the Bureau of Special Investigations with the FBI, a small unit that has been created specially to deal with “monsters”. (No, it’s not quite the X-Files!)  Cooper is one of a very small number of people to know that werewolves actually exist and live freely among the general population, and that five years previously, their leadership group – the Trust – had decided to reveal the truth to governments around the world in an attempt to help werewolves to continue to live peaceably in the modern world.

That’s the background to an intriguing suspense novel that sees Cooper paired with a Trust agent – Oliver Park – as an experiment to foster werewolf/human co-operation.  They are assigned to investigate the deaths of two – possibly three – hikers in the White Mountain National Forest in Maine, who are believed to have been killed by werewolves.  When a fourth victim is found alive, it seems at first to be an unrelated case of kidnap and assault – but is it?  Cooper and Park have to navigate their way through small-town politics as well as the wider political canvas of human/werewolf relations – not to mention risk their lives – if they’re going to find out the truth.

The mystery element of the story is well executed, and I wasn’t sure of the identity of the villain until it was finally revealed, which is always a good thing.  The author creates a suitably menacing small-town atmosphere for the fictional town where much of the story takes place as Cooper and Park gradually pull together the disparate threads and clues they uncover.

They’ve got a kind of Odd Couple thing going on; Park is always smartly dressed and exudes confidence while Cooper is a bit of a shambles most of the time; he’s very shrewd and observant (as Park notices) but he sometimes lacks the courage of his own convictions and tends to second guess himself.  Given his experience with werewolves, it’s to be expected that Cooper isn’t best pleased at having one for a partner, plus his more experienced BSI partner has drummed it into him to be suspicious of all wolves; which makes his instinct to trust Park that much more confusing.

While he’s trying – not too hard at first – to get used to having a werewolf around, he tends to be snippy and displays an inordinate talent for putting his foot in his mouth, but Park is calm and unflappable; he gives Cooper the space to work things out and his quiet confidence that Cooper will make the right calls goes a long way towards helping him to come into his own over the course of the story. The author does a great job of creating a strong rapport between them; you gotta love a couple who can quote movie references in perilous situations – which makes the physical relationship they embark upon later in the book feel like a natural extension of their working one.

I knocked off half a grade point mostly because I wanted to know a bit more about Park.  The story is told entirely through Cooper’s PoV, and for most of the story Park is coolly aloof and completely professional; he’s hard to read until Cooper starts to get to know him and to recognise his subtle non-verbal signals, and that means he’s pretty much an enigma for the reader, too.  Most of the things we learn about him – he’s from an old and very much venerated pack, but doesn’t live with them any more – just pose more questions, which I hope will be answered in later books in the series.

Ms. Adhara gets the balance between the romance and the suspense just about right here, and does a tremendous job of paralleling the development of the relationships – personal and professional – between her two principals.  I wolfed down (!) The Wolf at the Door in a couple of sittings and would definitely recommend it to fans of the genre.

Unfit to Print by K.J. Charles


This title may be purchased from Amazon

When crusading lawyer Vikram Pandey sets out in search of a missing youth, his investigations take him to Holywell Street, London’s most notorious address. He expects to find a disgraceful array of sordid bookshops. He doesn’t expect one of them to be run by the long-lost friend whose disappearance and presumed death he’s been mourning for thirteen years.

Gil Lawless became a Holywell Street bookseller for his own reasons, and he’s damned if he’s going to apologise or listen to moralising from anyone. Not even Vikram; not even if the once-beloved boy has grown into a man who makes his mouth water.

Now the upright lawyer and the illicit bookseller need to work together to track down the missing youth. And on the way, they may even learn if there’s more than just memory and old affection binding them together…

Rating: A-

K.J. Charles always finds fresh, new angles to pursue in her stories and peoples them with characters in unusual walks of life – and her new novella, Unfit to Print, is no exception.  Set in late Victorian London, one of the protagonists is a purveyor of naughty books and has a shop in Holywell Street, which was, at that time, the centre of London’s porn trade; while the other is a somewhat uptight lawyer who views the whole business with a degree of distaste.  The novella boasts a mystery to be solved, a relationship to be rekindled and a mountain of filth to be shifted, and all of it is deftly and expertly done in well under two hundred pages.

Vikram Pandey and Gilbert Lawless are from minority – albeit fairly well-do-do – backgrounds, and met at boarding school several years before the story opens.  Vik’s father had been a high-ranking government official in India, while Gil is the result of a liaison between a black housemaid and a wealthy gentleman who publicly acknowledged him, paid for his education and treated him as a son.  Gil and Vik bonded at school and became the best of friends in spite of the fundamental differences in their natures, Gil seeming never to have a care in the world while Vik was always a little uptight and reserved. But one day when they were sixteen, both their lives were upended when Gil disappeared without warning or a word to anyone.  Vik was devastated, but his enquiries at school were always met with stony silence and disapproval, and eventually he stopped asking about or looking for Gil, believing him to be dead. He must be, or surely he’d have got word to Vik somehow, to tell him what happened.

In fact, Gil was removed from school and pretty much cast onto the streets on the day his father died and his half-brother inherited the estate.  Gil begged and scraped a living and now runs a small bookshop on Holywell Street near the Strand which, at that time, contained the largest concentration of porn shops in England.  Gilbert Lawless, Bookseller is Gil’s two-fingered-salute to the brother who, he later learned, cheated him out of his father’s last bequest, as well as to the “kind of respectability that means keeping other people in line while you do as you please.”

He is surprised when his cousin Percy asks him to attend Matthew Lawes’ funeral – and not at all surprised when he discovers there was an ulterior motive for inviting him. It seems his uncle was a connoisseur of pornography of all sorts, and faced with a massive library of books and photographs which could cause the family huge embarrassment, (not to mention large fines and possible imprisonment!)  they want Gil to take it all away and dispose of it.  Gil isn’t interested in most of it, but some of the books – one of them particularly rare – catch his eye, so he decides he might as well get what he can out of it, and agrees to have the lot transported to his shop.  It’s when he’s looking through some of the photographs that he recognises the likeness of a young lad – a rent boy – named Errol, who was found dead in a local alley just three weeks earlier.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score (Seducing the Sedgwicks #2) by Cat Sebastian

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Once beloved by London’s fashionable elite, Hartley Sedgwick has become a recluse after a spate of salacious gossip exposed his most-private secrets. Rarely venturing from the house whose inheritance is a daily reminder of his downfall, he’s captivated by the exceedingly handsome man who seeks to rob him.

Since retiring from the boxing ring, Sam Fox has made his pub, The Bell, into a haven for those in his Free Black community. But when his best friend Kate implores him to find and destroy a scandalously revealing painting of her, he agrees. Sam would do anything to protect those he loves, even if it means stealing from a wealthy gentleman. But when he encounters Hartley, he soon finds himself wanting to steal more than just a painting from the lovely, lonely man—he wants to steal his heart.

Rating: B+

This second book in Cat Sebastian’s Seducing the Sedgwicks series centres around Hartley, younger brother of Ben (hero of book one, It Takes Two to Tumble) whose backstory as explained in that book was both heartbreaking and intriguing.  It’s impossible to discuss further without entering into spoiler territory for book one, so if you haven’t read it yet, but intend to and don’t want to know, then stop reading this review now.

If you have read the previous book, then you’ll no doubt recall that Hartley was just sixteen when he entered upon a sexual relationship with his wealthy godfather, Sir Humphrey Easterbrook, with the intention of giving his brothers Ben and Will the chance to have a safe, secure life.  Ben never knew where the money for his and Will’s school fees came from, or who purchased Will’s naval commission – and it’s only after Easterbrook’s death and the rumours started by the man’s son, that Hartley finally told his brothers the truth.  Over the years spent with Easterbrook, Hartley turned himself into a gentleman of fashion and has been used to being welcomed by all – but when gossip started to circulate about the true nature of his relationship with his godfather, he was immediately shunned. Now, he’s all but a recluse, rarely leaving the expensive house left him in Easterbrook’s will,  and waited upon by only a couple of servants – and he expects even those to abandon him soon.

Sam Fox, publican and ex-boxer, is content with his lot running the Bell public house near Fleet Street.  The pub is doing well – it’s popular with servants and tradesmen both black and white, his brother, Nick, is the cook, and Nick’s lady-love, Kate Bradley, a busy midwife, helps out when she can.  Nick wants to marry Kate, and although she’s not accepted him – yet – she’s going to; but there’s something she needs to clear up first. Five years earlier, a wealthy gentleman offered her a princely sum to let him paint her in the nude, and, needing money to cover her father’s gambling debts, she accepted. Nick knows about it, but Kate doesn’t like the idea of Nick’s being hurt should the portrait resurface and engender nasty gossip.  Sam says he’ll ask around to see if he can find what’s become of the painting – which is how come he ends up loitering outside a house in Brook Street and being mistaken for a potential housebreaker by Hartley Sedgwick late one night.

The large man hanging around the back door appears completely impervious to Hartley’s sarcasm, and instead of leaving, asks if he’s drunk and all but carries him into the kitchen.  When Hartley’s guest explains he’s looking for a painting, Hartley realises immediately what sort of painting it is, but also has to admit that he has no idea what happened to Easterbrook’s ‘art collection’, as those particular items had disappeared by the time he inherited the house. But he’s determined to find out, and for the first time in months feels as though he has a purpose, even if it’s to obtain revenge against a dead man.

Sam and Hartley arrange to meet again to discuss the search and compare notes – or so each tells himself, not wishing to acknowledge that his interest is more centred on the other man than on anything to do with the missing naughty pictures.

Ms. Sebastian skilfully imbues the romance between this mismatched pair with a great deal of sensuality and tenderness.  Neither has had much – if any – experience of gentleness or affection when it comes to relationships; neither has experienced romantic love and Hartley, especially, has walled himself off emotionally, partly as a way of dealing with the things he’s done, and now because he’s wary of ‘infecting’ anyone he cares for with the stigma he carries.  But the connection between him and Sam is strong and impossible to resist; and because of Hartley’s reluctance to be touched, their sexual relationship develops in a way that is outside Sam’s experience, but which he discovers he likes very much.  Because of his size and his past as a boxer, Sam’s previous lovers have assumed him to be violent and wanted him to be rough with them,  but with Hartley, Sam realises he can take the time to give and accept the sort of warmth and caring he’s never been asked for and didn’t realise he needed. Hartley needs someone who can let him move at a pace he’s comfortable with, and Sam is only too happy to allow him to explore his desires and to at last experience the pleasures – both in and out of bed – to be had when two people care for one another.

Unsurprisingly, Hartley’s backstory is a difficult one to read about, and although Ms. Sebastian doesn’t go into gratuitous detail, what she does tell us is sufficient to paint a picture (pun unintentional) of what he went through and to explain why he is so tightly controlled and on edge.  He’s also desperately lonely and has, for the past few years, disliked being touched, which of course makes even casual sexual encounters unsatisfying at best and impossible at worst.  There’s a weight of sadness about him as he contemplates a life alone which permeates the early part of the novel and provides a pertinent contrast to what we’re shown of Sam’s life – content, surrounded by people who love him, and yet also facing a life without long-term companionship because it’s so difficult to find that special person in a world which says he can’t love as he wants to.

I’m pleased to say that the major criticism I expressed about the last couple of books of Ms. Sebastian’s I read – that there were so many different plotlines going on that none of them felt adequately developed – is not an issue here.   The author keeps the romance between Hartley and Sam very much front and centre, and the other issues she touches upon – the racism Sam experiences on a daily basis, the crippling weight of Hartley’s shame, the inflexibility of society and the injustices practiced on the poor by the rich – are subtly and skilfully incorporated into the storyline.

A Gentleman Never Keeps Score is a touching, sexy, and gently humorous read, and I’m thoroughly intrigued by the set up for book three glimpsed at the end.  The secondary characters are well-realised and I especially loved Hartley’s adopted ‘family’ – including a three-legged dog, a former prostitute and a young woman whose family disowned her when she became pregnant out of wedlock – whose interactions with him show clearly that Hartley is far from the aloof, cold man he believes he has become.  Watching him regain his sense of self and rediscover his capacity for love and affection was truly lovely, and I closed the book with a smile of my face, confident that he and Sam were in it for the long haul.

The Mermaid Murders (The Art of Murder #1) by Josh Lanyon (audiobook) – Narrated by Kale Williams


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Special Agent Jason West is seconded from the FBI Art Crime Team to temporarily partner with disgraced, legendary “manhunter” Sam Kennedy when it appears that Kennedy’s most famous case, the capture and conviction of a serial killer known as The Huntsman, may actually have been a disastrous failure.

For The Huntsman is still out there… and the killing has begun again.

Rating: Narration – B : Content – B+

Note: I have no idea what’s with that cover. Fingers crossed the author/publisher can find a more appealing one someday.

The first book in the author’s The Art of Murder series, The Mermaid Murders pairs up hard-boiled Senior Special Agent Sam Kennedy of the FBI Behavioural Analysis Unit with one of the bureau’s rising stars, Jason West, who has been seconded from the Art Crimes Team and instructed to assist Kennedy with his latest case, ostensibly because Jason is familiar with the area in which the crime has been committed.  It’s not that simple however;  Sam Kennedy might be something of a legend in the bureau, but his often abrasive manner and single-minded focus hasn’t earned him many friends over the years, and following a very public disagreement with a state governor, he’s  in the dog-house and the higher-ups want someone keeping tabs on him.  So this new partnership is far from a match made in heaven; Kennedy doesn’t want a partner – especially one he doesn’t know or know if he can trust, and makes it clear from the off that he knows Jason has been assigned to babysit him.  But Jason isn’t easily cowed; he’s just as pissed that he’s been sent to ‘handle’ Kennedy and insists right back that he’s part of the investigation and isn’t going to be pushed aside.

“I’ve been asked to try and make sure you don’t step in it again, sure, but I’m not here to hold your cape, Batman.”

More than a decade earlier, Sam was responsible for the apprehension of a serial killer who preyed on teenaged girls in Kingsfield, a small town in Worcester County, New England.  At the time, it was a regular holiday destination for Jason’s family and he had actually been close friends with the first victim, Honey Corrigan.  But now, more than a decade later, it seems the killer has struck again; another girl dead, a small, carved mermaid charm found by the body.  Is this the work of a copycat?  Or did Sam get the wrong man all those years ago?  Given that he’s currently under a cloud, his superiors are twitchy in case the killer is still out there and the wrong man is in prison – but Sam knows that’s not the case.  The right guy is behind bars, but there’s no evidence to support the theory of a copycat or disciple either, which leaves the investigation… where?

The Mermaid Murders boasts an intriguing mystery with plenty of twists and turns, and the author  captures the somewhat insular and suspicious attitude of the local population very well, which lends the story a slight air of menace.  It also introduces a couple of compelling protagonists in Sam Kennedy and Jason West; Sam is large, imposing, taciturn and doesn’t suffer fools. He takes his job seriously, has an enviable record of solving cases and, in spite of the current snafu, is clearly very well respected.  Because the story is told entirely in Jason’s PoV, we never get into Sam’s head which means he remains somewhat frustratingly enigmatic, but it’s clear there’s a lot going on beneath that immovable exterior.  Jason is a dozen years younger (Sam’s mid-forties), he’s smart, he’s intuitive and loves his job in Art Crimes:

“It’s just that…people keep killing other people. That’s the worst of humanity. Art is the other side of the coin. It represents the best of humanity. And what I’m here for is to try and protect that…legacy.”

After a few days, Jason is surprised to discover that even though he doesn’t much like Sam Kennedy, he’s strongly attracted to him.  He has no idea about Kennedy’s sexual preferences but even if he did, Jason doesn’t make a habit of going to bed with people he doesn’t like, so it’s academic and utterly ridiculous. Until it isn’t.  When Sam makes a move, Jason is surprised by the intensity of his reactions to the man and can’t resist, no matter that he knows it’s a bad idea. As this story is setting up a series, the relationship between the pair is basically confined to a couple of explosive sexual encounters, but the author also subtly conveys the changing nature of Jason’s feelings towards Sam, and shows that while Sam is outwardly all about the job and compartmentalising his life, he’s capable of affection and tenderness, even though it’s brief and not overt.  When the book ends, Sam and Jason have agreed to keep in touch, and maybe go on an actual date… but whether they manage that remains to be seen.

Kale Williams is a new-to-me narrator, and I enjoyed his performance overall, although it took me a while to get used to his characterisation of Sam.  It’s not that it’s bad; actually it’s quite a good interpretation of the character, because he’s blunt and very rarely expresses emotion, so the somewhat monotonous (as in a same pitch, not boring!) delivery works.  It’s more that Mr. Williams adopts a kind of whisper/speech delivery for his dialogue in order to sustain the lower pitch (I’m guessing); as I said above, it’s not horrible, it just took me a chapter or two to get used to.  Otherwise it’s a very strong performance – the pacing is spot on and the character differentiation is good so there’s never any confusion as to who is speaking, and he does a good job with the action/set pieces, injecting the right degree of anticipation or fear or whatever else is required into his voice.  I’ll certainly be listening to more books in the series.

Squared Away (Out of Uniform #5) by Annabeth Albert (audiobook) – Narrated by Greg Boudreaux

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

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.