“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.
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