Navy SEAL Mark Whitley is deployed when he gets word that his sister and her husband have died in a car accident. He returns home, prepared to take over as guardian of their three kids, only to find the children being cared for by their other uncle, Isaiah James. As a military medic, Mark is used to assessing the situation and taking control, so he isn’t quite sure how to react to the fact that Isaiah has been caring for the kids and wants to become their guardian.
Isaiah may have had a crush on Mark when they met six years ago, but now his sole focus is on the kids. He has been an active part of their lives since they were born and he wants to take on responsibility for their care now that Danielle and Cal are gone. But when competing wills and financial issues get in the way, the guys find that things are more complicated than they hoped. Even though Isaiah is filing for guardianship, while the will and estate are sorted out, both men need to care for the kids together.
As the guys spend more time together taking care of the kids, the attraction that was sparked years ago comes back to life. Mark even opens up to Isaiah about being demisexual, and the two build an emotional relationship, while slowly exploring a physical one as well. Both Mark and Isaiah find they make a good team, taking care of the children, being there to support one another, and forming a family. But Mark worries that Isaiah’s history of lots of hookups means he won’t be happy with Mark for long. And Isaiah isn’t quite sure how Mark feels about him, especially since Mark seems very wary about revealing his interest in men to his friends and family. Not to mention that court hearings loom over the guys and they aren’t sure how the custody situation will resolve. Both Mark and Isaiah are dreaming of the family they could have together, but they will need to share their feelings and trust in one other if they are going to be able to keep what they have built.
Squared Away is the fifth book in Annabeth Albert’s excellent Out of Uniform series. I have been really enjoying this series and am impressed how Albert is able to make all the books in the set feel fresh and different from one another, even as they all deal with Navy SEALS. While there is often cross over between the characters in the books, I feel like these stories will mostly stand alone. In this case, we met Isaiah as a side character in a couple of the other books, and there are cameos from some other folks here, like Dylan from At Attention.
Albert sets up an interesting conflict here with the custody of the children and the future of estate being so up in the air that the guys are forced to work (and live) together while it gets all sorted. Honestly, this could have felt very contrived and like a forced set up to get these guys together, and to Albert’s credit, it never comes across that way. I enjoyed watching the men move from a bit resentful of the other’s presence and wanting to take on all the responsibilities themselves, to forming a real partnership and working together to care for the kids. They both have to learn to rely on one another, to trust and communicate, and it gives them a chance to grow individually as the story goes on.
I also like how Albert addresses Mark coming to terms with his asexuality. He has always struggled with his lack of interest in sex, never quite knowing why things that seemed to work for others didn’t for him. And he felt a sense of pressure that he should fit the mold everyone expects of him. Isaiah not only helps Mark start to identify the fact that he is somewhere on the asexual spectrum, but also makes it clear that he likes Mark exactly how he is. Isaiah lets Mark lead the pace, is happy with whatever Mark wants to give, and, in turn, this gives Mark the confidence and the comfort to explore his interests and what works for him without pressure. It is nicely handled and I enjoyed seeing the tenderness with which the guys treat one another.
I think my only real issue here is the conflict centered on Mark’s concern that Isaiah wouldn’t be interested in him for the long haul. While Mark does have some confidence issues surround his asexuality, his fear seems largely stemming around the perception that Isaiah is a party boy who will want to go back to his wild life of hook ups. The problem is that by the time we meet Isaiah here, he is a guy who is pretty domestic, taking care of the kids and settled totally into a parental role. We never see him going out, hooking up, or living any kind of wild life. So it was hard to see Mark’s concern as anything legitimate because Isaiah never feels like anything other than a young guy struggling to suddenly parent three kids. I think if this is going to be the big conflict between them, we had to get more of a sense of Isaiah as this wild guy to justify all of Mark’s concerns.
That aside, I think this one works really well. I really liked both Mark and Isaiah, and while I think they needed to talk to one another way earlier than they did, I think they both have some nice growth over the story. I enjoyed watching them build their family and find that they really worked together as a team. So Squared Away is another nice installment in this series and I am looking forward to more.