At Your Service (In Service #1) by Sandra Antonelli

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A butler. A spy. A toilet brush. A romantic suspense cosy spy-thriller-mystery with a dash of grittiness and humour. It’s Charade meets Remains of the Day.

After three years in the employ of a former British army officer turned Risk Assessment Specialist, widowed butler Mae Valentine is familiar with Major Kitt’s taste for scrambled eggs, bourbon, and brawling. Kitt knows of Mae’s fondness for order, her beloved dead husband, and the millions the man left her in trust. Their easy bond is tested the day Mae kills the man sent to murder her and the trust fund vanishes.

Soon, a volcano, a hand roasting in an oven, and a fish named Shirley accentuate sinister machinations that involve Mae and the missing money. To keep her safe from women in ugly shoes, homicidal bankers, and Mafia henchmen, Kitt risks exposing his true profession, which doesn’t trouble him as much as being in love with a woman who’s still in love with a dead man. If he can’t protect Mae, he’ll lose the best butler—and scrambled eggs—a spy ever loved.

Rating: A-

This romantic suspense novel featuring a retired army Major and his female butler was like a breath of fresh air.  The plot is twisty and complex and the dry, witty banter flows thick and fast; it’s an exciting, fast-paced story, and I really appreciated the protagonists being older than usual for romance novels – he’s late forties, she’s early fifties and they’ve both been around the block a few times.

Mae Valentine and Major Kitt have an interesting relationship.  Mae is a widow of some sixteen years, and is still in love with her dead husband, albeit not in a ‘mopey’ way.  She’s practical, self-sufficient and highly competent; she’s worked for Kitt for about three years, but while she’s his employee, he’s her tenant (she owns two adjoining houses, one of which he rents from her), which is an interesting way to address the employer/employee dynamic.  Kitt is retired from the army and now works as a Risk Assessment Specialist that often takes him to dangerous parts of the world.  It’s clear from fairly early on that that’s not the whole story, but Mae doesn’t ask, Kitt doesn’t tell, and they’re both content with that.

Things change, however, when Mae is receives the news that her late husband had some kind of trust fund of which she is the beneficiary, and she stands to inherit a large sum of money.  Mae knew nothing about it, and doesn’t want or need the money, but she’s in the process of signing the necessary papers anyway.  The representative of the bank she’s been dealing with actually asked her out for dinner – but he doesn’t show up at the restaurant and Mae ends up being walked home by Kitt, who’d been there as well.  On the way back, Mae is attacked, her bag is stolen and Kitt beats the living crap out of the one of her assailants he catches hold of; and later, they arrive back at her flat to discover that it’s been ransacked.  Clearly, whoever stole her bag was after her keys rather than her money and credit cards.

Nothing appears to have been stolen though, and Mae can’t help wondering if the attack and (not)break-in are somehow related to the trust, especially when the newspapers report the mysterious death of the same bank executive who’d stood her up.  And when someone else claiming to be from the bank tries to kill her, there’s no doubt any more that it’s something to do with the money.  Desperate to get Mae out of harm’s way, Kitt tells her to take a holiday, thinking she’ll go to a posh spa or something similar.  He’d not banked on her running off to Sicily – where her husband was from – in order to try to follow the money and get to the bottom of what’s going on.

The story is well-put together and gripping, but the characters are what really drew me in.  Kitt is obviously a James Bond type (and I have to say that the author’s description of him as being attractive in an ugly-handsome way brings Daniel Craig perfectly to mind!) with his love for strong drink, fast (Mae calls them “girly”) cars and married women, yet it’s clear from the start that his relationship with Mae is important to him.  No matter where he goes, what state he’s in when he returns (he always seems to be bruised or battered) and whichever woman has been in his bed the night before, when he’s home, he’s always got a superb breakfast waiting – Mae’s scrambled eggs are his idea of perfection, it seems – and the pithy conversation of his expert butler to enjoy.

The story moves quickly and there’s a fair bit of violence, a bit more than I come across in most romantic suspense stories; there’s cross upon cross upon double-cross as they – and we – are left wondering who they can really trust. Mae’s suspicions as to Kitt’s real job begin to solidify, and they find themselves thrown into one dangerous situation after another.

Also dangerous is the fact that the close proximity into which Mae and Kitt are thrust is starting to stir up thoughts and feelings that both of them have been repressing for some time. Her attraction to Kitt comes as something of a surprise to Mae, while he is forced to acknowledge – to himself at least – that he’s had feelings for her for a while but has buried them in favour of her scrambled eggs (or at least in favour of not losing her as a butler and friend).  The chemistry between them zings from the start and their deepening attraction is really well done.

I had a minor niggle about the sometimes dizzying speed with which Mae and Kitt lurch from one life-threatening situation to another without really thinking things through, but that didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment of the book.  They’re attractive, three-dimensional characters and I really enjoyed the way their relationship developed, which felt completely right given their ages and life experience.  One other thing I appreciated greatly was the “Britishness” of the book (and yes, I know the author is Australian!).  There are no Americanisms and no unidiomatic language; the London locations are really well described, but more than that, the speech patterns, the dryness of the humour and the classically understated manner Mae and Kitt so often display towards one another felt spot on.  At Your Service is a smart, sexy read peppered with sophisticated, dry humour and lots of in-jokes about spies for the geeks among us 😉  I’m really looking forward to the next book in this series and to checking out Sandra Antonelli’s backlist.

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