For Your Eyes Only by Sandra Antonelli

This title may be purchased from Amazon

By day, Willa Heston is a mild-mannered Quantum Physicist; by night, she’s on the trail of stolen classified documents. Technically that means Detective John Tilbrook is on her side, only Willa has secrets she’s not sharing. Though she keeps her distance, John is fascinated by the new physicist on the block. A fan of coincidence and happy endings, John has plans for the secretive scientist with the wicked sense of humour. Trouble is, Willa has more than her heart on the line — her best friend is the prime suspect for espionage, she’s leading a double life and she’s having one hell of a bad hair day. As days speed past, Willa’s life unravels as she struggles to come to terms with her unexpected feelings for a man she just met. John’s a big fan of happily-ever-afters, but will he believe in love and happiness when Willa divulges the real reason she’s in town? Will he break the law he’s sworn to uphold — for love?

Rating: B

Having read and greatly enjoyed the two novels that (so far) comprise Sandra Antonelli’s In Service romantic suspense series featuring a spy and the (female) butler who loves him, I decided to delve into her back catalogue. I liked the sound of For Your Eyes Only (a title the author tells me she originally suggested as a joke!), a story revolving around a forty-something physicist-turned-FBI-agent who is sent to investigate the leak of sensitive information from the Los Alamos National Laboratory.  Ms. Antonelli’s writing is clever and witty, her plots generally well-executed  and her books all feature romances between characters in their forties and fifties, an age group that is still sadly underrepresented within the romance genre.

Dr. Willa Heston isn’t too thrilled by her latest assignment.  A quantum physicist, she’s also worked for the FBI for a number of years as an Intelligence Analyst before being recruited into undercover work.  She’s heading to Los Alamos to take up a fellowship at the National Lab (where she used to work) but her real job is to find out how classified information from the lab was found at the site of a recent drug bust by the local PD.  And that would all be fine were it not for the fact that the investigation is likely to turn up links to her dear friend Dominic Brennan – whom she knows is completely innocent  – a former colleague, and the man who helped her keep her shit together after the tragic death of her husband.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, her car has a flat tyre on the road and while she’s perfectly capable of changing it, the final lug nut is screwed on so tightly she just can’t get it off.  A passing motorist stops to offer his help, and discovering the spare tyre is flat, too, ends up driving Willa to the nearest town so she can get it sorted out.  Even Willa’s foul mood can’t stop her noticing that the guy is really attractive, with a truly disarming smile – or from admitting there’s a definite spark between them, something she hasn’t felt since losing her husband a couple of years back.

Detective John Tilbrook has been on enforced leave from his job because of a complaint levelled at him by a suspect, which is how come he’s driving his eight-year-old niece home from a party just in time to catch sight of the white-haired woman beating the crap out of the rear tyre on a beat-up Volkswagen by the side of the road. When he stops to help, he’s surprised to find the woman is younger than her white hair had led him to expect, and that she’s really pretty besides. He likes her instantly; her sense of humour aligns with his and her ability to banter back and forth is seriously impressive and attractive… but he’s unlikely to see her ever again. Or so he thinks until, over lunch at his favourite haunt, he hears her voice dryly advising him not to cram too-hot food into his mouth.

That’s only the first of the series of accidental encounters between John and Willa that take place throughout the book, usually at the most inopportune times. The strength of their mutual attraction is never in doubt, but as one would expect of a couple of individuals who have a few decades of life experience under their belts, they’re both carrying around a bit of baggage, and everything is further complicated by the fact that not only is Willa unable to tell John the truth about why she’s back in Los Alamos, his best friend (and cousin) Lesley recently married Dominic Brennan. Soon Willa is going to be forced to make a difficult choice between the man she’s falling for in a big way and the long-standing friend who’s always been there for her. Throw in the local murder investigation John’s heading up and both he and Willa have plenty to think about besides each other… although that proves more difficult than expected for both of them.

It took me a few chapters to really get into this story and I’m not completely sure why. I liked the initial meeting between John and Willa and the way they just seemed to connect straight away, trading quips and pop-culture references as though they’d known each other for a while. But although they both came into focus fairly quickly, the suspense plot didn’t – it took a while for that to get going and for me to really understand what was going on. I also didn’t really get the relationship between Willa and her teenaged step-daughter – who steals from her, vandalises her car and generally treats her like shit – or rather I don’t understand why it was included, as the book would have worked equally well without it. It felt rather as though it had been included just to add yet another item onto Willa’s pile of baggage.

John and Willa are likeable, intelligent and attractive people who stumble into love unexpectedly at a time when both of them are starting to wonder if maybe they’ve missed the boat and are going to spend the rest of their lives alone. John is a genuinely nice guy; kind, funny, a bit of a dork and ready to wait for Willa if that’s what it takes; and Willa is a sassy, competent woman who embraces her white hair (it’s been that way since she was twenty-two) and the intense sexual attraction she feels towards John. She’s perhaps the more well-defined of the pair, but they work well as a couple, despite a bit of out-of-character behaviour from John towards the end.

There are a few rough edges here; the pacing is a little slow in places, and while I was amused by the fact that whenever John and Willa met they were a mess – they’d spilled something down themselves or someone else and ended up with food stains on their clothes – it got old fairly quickly; I mean, I’m clumsy, but even I’m not that clumsy!

Ultimately though, if you’re looking for a smart, funny and sexy romance featuring characters with a few more grey hairs and a few more laugh-lines than the norm for the genre, you could do a lot worse than take For Your Eyes Only out for a spin.

Forever In Your Service (In Service #2) by Sandra Antonelli

This title may be purchased from Amazon

A heartbroken butler. A dead spy. A randy little dog.

Reproduction wines, counterfeit handbags, forged art, and sham relationships trap Mae in a web of phonies, frauds, and liars—with Kitt the greatest charlatan of them all.

Spies come back from the dead in movies and books, but this isn’t film or fiction. Mae isn’t sure what to believe after a spy loves says, ‘I love you,’ and everything, including her own life, is nothing but a ruse.

Rating: B+

“A lavish party at a country estate, men in dinner suits, women in finery, fine wine, fine art, fine music, fine murder, and a little dog – it all feels so very Agatha Christie.”

Says Mae Valentine, who doesn’t seem able to perform her duties as butler these days without ending up embroiled in something unsavory.

Forever in Your Service is the sequel to the terrific At Your Service, in which we first met Mae and  her employer, a former army major who, she believed, worked as a Risk Assessment Specialist for a company called The Consortium.  This job often took him to dangerous places and put him into dangerous situations; it wasn’t unusual for him to appear at breakfast looking battered and bruised, but he didn’t tell and Mae didn’t ask.  The truth began to emerge when Mae inadvertently became mixed up in an international money-laundering ring – and it became clear that “Risk Assessment Specialist” was code for “spy” and that “The Consortium” was the British Government.

Forever in Your Service opens a few months after the events of the first book, and although Mae and Kitt are a couple now, their living and employment arrangements – he still rents his flat from her, she still works as his butler – haven’t changed.  The affectionate snark that characterised their relationship is still very much in evidence, but it’s clear that Mae is still processing the events of the summer, during which she’d killed two men (in self-defence) and discovered that the man she’d married years before hadn’t been the man she thought he was.  Kitt continues his work and continues to come home looking the worse for wear – and Mae can’t help worrying if each time he leaves ‘for work’ will be the time he doesn’t come back.  Having spent well over a decade loving one dead man – her late husband – she can’t bear the thought of doing the same thing all over again for Kitt.

Until she has to.

 

Mae, heartbroken but being steadfastly productive (her preferred method of coping with shock and grief), has relocated to just outside Los Alamos, New Mexico, where she works for  Dr. Julius Tattinger, a connoisseur and collector of fine wine and fine art.  She’s presently preparing Tattinger’s home for the arrival of a number of guests who will be staying there over New Year’s, specifically to taste, buy and sell rare wines, and raise money for the humanitarian charities Tattinger passionately supports.  But she’s also there because Tattinger is suspected of fraudulent practices and counterfeiting wine – and Mae took the assignment offered her after Kitt’s death, to observe Tattinger for a year and report her findings to British Intelligence.

The disparate group of guests arrives, all obscenely wealthy (some obscenely obnoxious), one of whom reminds Mae just a tiny bit of Kitt when he smiles – although that’s not surprising, as Mae sees Kitt everywhere; he’s the postman, the barista, he’s even Tattinger when he shuffles into the kitchen.  After an afternoon spent tasting and playing games of one-upmanship over the various wines they’ve brought, the party swings into gear, Mae taking careful note of the proceedings with a professional eye as to the catering and who is talking about what to whom.  When Tattinger’s dog wreaks havoc in the kitchen and promptly escapes the house, Mae (who is fonder of the dog than she is of its master) heads out into the snow to find him – and finds the dead body of Mr. Grant – the butler who had accompanied one of the guests – instead.

The plot thickens fast from here on in, sometimes at dizzying speed, as discovery upon discovery unearths a very real threat to Mae’s life, a complex web of lies and deceit – and a far bigger network of betrayal and corruption than she could ever have envisaged.

I always take care not to say much about the plot when reviewing suspense novels, but there’s a development in this one that, while it may seem obvious, might be too much of a spoiler for some, so if you don’t want to know, then stop reading now.

Given that we learn of Kitt’s death at the end of the opening chapter, it can’t come as too much of a surprise to learn that he isn’t dead after all – there would be no book were that the case!  That said however, even though we romance readers know there’s an HEA (or HFN) on the cards, the author presents  Mae’s grief and anger in such an incredibly visceral way that I found myself tearing up a few times. She’s furious with Kitt for dying, but more furious with herself for loving him and letting herself believe, even for just a little while, that they could have made a life together.  When he turns up alive and well (mostly) at Tattinger’s house, she’s even more furious, her grief and anger augmented by intense feelings of betrayal.

Kitt is obviously desperately in love with Mae and fearful he’s lost her for good.  He knows all too well that the demands of his job makes anything but the sort of fleeting relationships he’s had before impossible, but he wants forever with Mae – if only he can find a way to convince her that the risks are worth it.  Mae is just as far gone for Kitt, but has to decide if she’s prepared to deal with the way his unpredictable brand of chaos will impinge on her practical, orderly life.  And while they’re both struggling to come to terms with what ‘forever’ might mean for them, they once again find themselves playing a dangerous game that may well curtail it anyway.  Kitt is sure, from the moment he finds Mae in New Mexico, that whatever is going on is tied to his last mission somehow, the one in which he was on the trail of an international smuggling ring and which really did almost kill him.  The way Kitt and Mae work to piece things together is really well-done and lovely to read; they’re wonderfully in sync, and as was the case in the previous book, their bantering dialogue is fabulously dry and perfectly pitched. I loved all the in-jokes and nods to genre fiction – both spy stories and romance (gotta love a heroine who gives her man a copy of Flowers from the Storm to read – and a hero who’s already read it!) – and the way the author pokes gentle fun at her own story:

“With a murder in a cosy mystery such as this, on a country estate such as this, suspicion always falls on the domestic help, such as the butler.”

“This is not a cosy mystery. It’s a somewhat gritty cosy romantic spy thriller that tries hard to be amusing.”

On the negative side, there are a lot of secondary characters and I sometimes had trouble keeping track of all of them; and although I like a complex plot, this one sometimes twisted and turned at such an alarming rate that I had to backtrack a few times to make sure I’d understood what was going on!

If you haven’t already read At Your Service, I’d strongly recommend doing so before tackling this one, as you’ll gain a deeper understanding of Mae and Kitt, and the way that who they are informs their relationship.  None of the criticisms I’ve levelled above in any way spoiled my enjoyment of this “gritty cosy romantic spy thriller” that succeeds in being amusing, gripping, sexy and poignant.  Forever in Your Service is a great read, and I’m looking forward to the next instalment in the In Service trilogy.

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.