The Dare and the Doctor
This third book in Kate Noble’s Winner Takes All series is another beautifully written romance featuring likeable central characters, a very well-drawn secondary cast and dilemmas that feel realistic while also being problematic enough to provide the necessary degree of conflict. The Dare and the Doctor is a gently moving, character-driven friends-to-lovers story about two people who are perfect for each other falling in love while coping with personal and family difficulties. It’s not absolutely necessary to have read the other two books in the series (The Game and the Governess and The Lie and the Lady) in order to appreciate this one, although it might help to have at least a rough idea of the storylines of each of them in order to be able to place the recurring characters.
Doctor Rhys Gray and Miss Margaret Babcock met briefly around a year earlier when Rhys visited his friend John Turner at his Lincolnshire home. Margaret’s father, Sir Barty, is the local squire, a well-liked, congenial man who, at one time, had hoped to marry Leticia, Countess Churzy. As told in The Lie and the Lady, Leticia married Turner instead, but the Turners and the Babcocks remain on good terms, and Leticia has become one of Margaret’s few friends.
Recognising in each other people of similar interests and turn of mind – as Rhys puts it, they “like to know things” – when Rhys’ visit is over, he and Margaret begin a correspondence in which they discuss their various academic interests and scientific pursuits. Margaret is a dedicated and talented horticulturalist, spending most of her time in the greenhouse on her father’s estate, where she cultivates and studies a variety of plants and flowers, adhering to scientific methods of study, experimentation and recording. She doesn’t just grow flowers, though – she is seeking to propagate a new variety of hardy China rose using a plant much beloved by her late mother, and she is passionate about her endeavours. But she is also quite shy and wary of people and places with which she is not familiar, so when Rhys writes to say that he has spoken to one of the most influential members of the Horticultural Society about her rose project and that he has asked her to come to London to present it to him, Margaret is apprehensive. She doesn’t really want to go to London, certainly not to take part in anything remotely approaching the social whirl that is the season, but her desire to get an expert opinion on her new roses – and the thought of meeting Rhys again, terrifying though it is – finally wins out over her nervousness, and she is persuaded to go along with the Turners, who arrange for them all to stay with their friends, the Earl and Countess of Ashby.
Once Margaret arrives, she is almost distraught to discover that the conservatory she had been promised as a place to work is not at all suitable, and immediately sets about putting it to rights. Yet her work is constantly interrupted – she has to go out for dress fittings, and to visit this place and that, when all she wants is to get back to her plants, her pots and making her special blend of manure and fishbone fertilizer.
Complicating things further is the fact that the Ashbys and the Turners seem to think that there is something more between Margaret and Rhys than a simple friendship born of an interest in science and academia. And of course, there is. It’s apparent to the reader straight away from the letters exchanged between the couple at the beginning of the book that they are more than half way toward being in love, but they continue to maintain that they are just friends, good friends, who happen to be interested in the same things.
Rhys was a doctor in the army, which is where he met Ashby and Turner, but he is the son of a viscount, a larger-than-life man who made fun of his bookish second son at every opportunity and whose sense of self-consequence and the superiority of his bloodlines unfortunately led to a quarrel with a neighbouring family which grew into something far more serious. As a result, the viscount and his eldest son fled to the continent, where they both continue to reside with no apparent desire to return home. But Rhys’ mother persists in the belief that if the disagreement between the two families can be patched up, her husband and son will return home and all will be well. And the method of patching up is for Rhys to marry Miss Sylvia Morton, the lovely daughter of a self-made businessman who had the effrontery – in Lord Gray’s opinion – to purchase the neighbouring estate and set himself up as a gentleman.
Even before he met Margaret, Rhys was resistant to the idea of the marriage, knowing – as his mother refuses to acknowledge – that his father is quite happily living it up abroad and has no intention of returning to England. But he is a dutiful son and loves his family – even though they drive him round the bend – and has so far found it impossible to tell his mother “no”. Now that Margaret is in the picture, he is even less inclined to marry Sylvia, but can’t see a way to gently let down his emotionally fragile mother.
While this might seem like one of those very flimsily constructed “we can’t be together because I’ve got to marry someone else” plots at first, there’s more to it than that. For one thing, Rhys’ dilemma is extremely well written and laid out so that even when one wants to yell at him to forget his bloody family and do something for himself for once, it’s easy to understand why he finds that so difficult to do. In the absence of his father and older brother, he’s the man of the house and is the sole voice of calm and reason in what is, for the most part, a loveable, lively but somewhat unconventional (read bonkers!) family. His younger brother is in his “sowing wild oats” phase; his older sister is unhappily married and possessed of a very sharp tongue; his youngest brother is a tearaway and his mother doesn’t seem to inhabit quite the same reality as everyone else! Kate Noble paints a recognisable picture of family life complete with all its ups and downs and unpredictable messiness and somehow manages to make this bunch of collective pains in the arse rather endearing.
The romance between Rhys and Margaret is sweet and achingly tender, but not devoid of heat or passion. I like the friends-to-lovers trope as a rule, and it’s beautifully done here, right from the opening epistolary exchanges through to the gradually dawning awareness of the other’s attractions and of the true nature of their feelings for one another. Margaret is an especially appealing heroine; she has struggled with shyness and dislike of change all her life, and I admired her courage in deciding to get out there and try something new. She is refreshingly natural and honest, and when push comes to shove, is prepared to stand up for what she wants with a compelling grace and quiet conviction. And Rhys is a charming hero, a genuinely good, decent man who is torn between wanting to help his family or pursuing happiness with the woman he loves.
On the surface, The Dare and the Doctor tells a fairly simple story, but further exploration reveals an understated complexity arising from richly detailed characterisation and exquisitely crafted emotional nuance which made it one of those books I finished with a sigh of contentment. It’s not a ‘flashy’ book – there are no mysteries, spies, pirates, or other forms of derring-do to be found within its pages. But if you are looking for a rest from all that chasing around and appreciate a story replete with warmth, humour and subtlety, then I suggest you need look no further than this one.