At Your Service
This guest review is by Catherine Heloise.
Previously, Catherine ranted about Shakespearean rockstars and loved Chase Me by Laura Florand. She has a food blog called Cate’s Cates, where she creates allergy-friendly treats, and she also runs the Stories Under Paris website, where she creates fictional stories based on the names of Paris Metro stations. How cool is that?
I rarely read contemporary romance, and I’m not a big fan of thrillers. When I discovered that Sandra Antonelli’s At Your Service features rarely-seen-in-romance older main characters, though, I was instantly on board.
I am very glad I went out of my comfort zone.
At Your Service is the first book in Antonelli’s In Service trilogy, which features Mae Valentine, a retired butler, and Kitt, a retired British Army major who works in risk assessment. Mae is about 50, and Kitt is five years younger.
Some three years before the start of the book, Mae and Kitt struck an unusual arrangement. Mae is Kitt’s landlady, as he rents a flat adjacent to her house, but also his employee. Mae came out of retirement to be Kitt’s butler (he travels frequently for work).
The attraction between the two is there from the start, but neither acts on it. They keep their relationship very cordial and comfortable enough to exchange clever, good-humored banter that never comes across as petulant back-and-forth.
Here’s Kitt explaining his reasons to not rock the boat:
He was not unaware of the affection, of the connection he felt for Mae, but egocentricity was fundamental to his way of life. As complicated as he’d made things, as much trouble as she had suddenly become, he was no longer able to ignore what he always had, and it had little to do with her scrambled eggs.
Mae is much more than a superb butler (not a housekeeper, she says) and cook, though. She’s a smart woman, a sensual being, and someone who copes remarkably well with the complete upending of her neat and tidy life after she becomes unwittingly involved in an international criminal enterprise.
High standards are important to Mae, as is holding on to the memory of her husband, a master gardener from Sicily. Mae has been widowed for 16 years, and at the beginning of the book she has just found out that her husband left her untold millions in a trust. She had no idea the trust existed. After a mugging that quickly proves to be more than that and an attempt at Mae’s life (featuring the deadly use of a toilet brush), Mae and Kitt have to figure out why someone wants her dead.
The romance is slow burn, as Mae and Kitt take things very slowly, which I imagine would be the way I would go about it if I were witnessing murder, getting into all kinds of scrapes, and having to defend myself with cleaning implements. I felt a strong kinship with Mae when she, at the height of her predicament, turned to ironing to feel less rattled. Kitt is a great character, a man trying to remain human while doing a tough job, for all that he talks about his “black soul.”
Not being a fan of spy novels, James Bond movies, and the like, I am certain that I missed quite a few half-hidden references to those, but I spotted one delightful, tongue-in-cheek exchange in which Kitt references Bond’s housekeeper.
Kitt owns up to his feelings for Mae early on, but Mae has a longer journey to take. She is not only holding tight to the memory of her husband and her comfy routines, she is also appalled that Kitt’s job turns out to be about a lot more than “risk assessment.” And, as she puts it, she doesn’t want to love another dead man.
Here’s Mae describing her doubts:
“I don’t know what to do. I don’t know how to respond or react or what to think about this, about you.”
Kitt dipped his head. “What you and I do. It’s not that different. We both clean up after someone’s made a mess. (…) You have to trust me, Mae. I followed you here because you were a loose end. You’re a very loose end. But there are things I am not able to tell you, actions I am not able to talk about. Ever. You have to trust me and let me do what it is I do.”
Mae has to come to terms with what she learns about Kitt, about her husband, who turns out to have had secrets of his own, and about the criminal ring. She also worries that she’s becoming ‘bloodthirsty.”
As I mentioned, At Your Service is the first of three books featuring Mae and Kitt (there’s also a prequel, the very short story Your Sterling Service, that shows Kitt having recently moved to the flat Mae owns). Forever In Your Service, book 2, came out in March, and according to the author’s website, the final book will be out next year.
So here comes my first quibble about this book: I felt it ended a tad abruptly, even considering that it is part of a trilogy, and on Happy For Now territory, which I have trouble with sometimes. I longed to see Mae and Kitt working out their way forward a bit more.
In addition, the violence and the fighting described were hard on me. It was also a bit confusing to keep a relatively large cast of characters in my head and to process the plot twist toward the end, which is, obviously, entirely my fault.
In my defense, the book was too good to read slowly, and I didn’t go back to try to figure out who this or that was because I was definitely hooked and desperately wanted to keep going. (I felt that delicious good-book pull between wanting to “save” it and wanting to read it as fast as possible.)
I suspect readers who are more into thrillers, mystery, and plot-driven stories will get an even greater enjoyment from this book, and perhaps give it a higher grade. And I am looking forward to reading more about Mae and Kitt, even as I tend to pick up books that are more character driven.
At Your Service is a very well written, funny, fast-paced read, and one that offers the rare opportunity to dwell among mature characters, emotionally and otherwise. For all that and for best use of a toilet brush in a romance novel, this book gets a B plus from me.