The Dare and the Doctor
Dr. Rhys Gray and Miss Margaret Babcock are friends—just friends. But as they share letters, they share their lives with each other — and their friends can’t help think that there might be something more.
When Dr. Gray helps Margaret come to London and realize her dearest dream, it seems that their connection cannot be denied. But when Rhys’s past comes back to haunt him, will their relationship stand up to the scruples of society, or are they destined to be only friends, and nothing more?
November 22, 2016 • Pocket Books
ISBN-10: 147674940X • ISBN-13: 978-1476749402
Margaret might have been in London only two days, but from what she could tell, the Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens were the place to be on an overwarm summer night in London. Just far enough away from the city that it qualified as having fresh air, and enough entertainments to keep those who had seen everything enthralled. And it wasn’t only the jaded elite who took part in its delights. Since the price of admission was only a shilling—three of which Lord Ashby handed to the porter at the large wrought-iron gates—even merchants and shop workers could have an evening out and take some gentle exercise.
And it was the most polished, manicured place Margaret had ever seen.
“Oh my,” she breathed as they entered the main drive, called the Grand Walk.
“Impressive, no?” Rhys said, watching her closely.
“Very,” she replied, not taking her eyes off the tall trees that lined the Grand Walk, heading up to the rotunda. They swayed in the dying light, inky against the pink sky. Lamplighters walked on stilts, lighting the newfangled gas lamps that made the main walks and rotundas as bright as day. “Oh I’m so glad,” she said. “I was so worried when Lord Ashby said we would go to the gardens at night. I thought I would not get to see everything.”
Rhys laughed. She turned to him and realized he had been studying her carefully.
“You might be the only person who comes to Vauxhall Gardens to see the gardens.” A smile played across his face.
“Ah . . . what do other people come to see?” she asked.
“Music!” Lord Ashby cried, piping up from behind them. “And dancing, and tightrope walkers and fire eaters—Vauxhall has to keep up with the competition. Ranelagh Gardens is more fashionable, other gardens are easier to reach . . . but Vauxhall is Vauxhall, dark walks and all.”
“Dark walks?” Margaret asked. “Those sound interesting. Do they have night-blooming plants and such?”
For some reason, Rhys sent his friend a hard look.
“Yes, erm, never mind those,” Ned said, blushing under Rhys’s stare. “Can’t see any plants there in any case. My goodness, I’m hungry! Is anyone else famished?”
They made their way to one of the two main rotundas featuring boxes around an open area, which acted as sort of a stage. In the center was a string quartet, and merry couples danced in circles, high and low, aristocrat and plebian.
A porter approached them, and learning Lord Ashby’s name, ushered them to a box in the center of the loop.
“I always forget that when I go out with you, Ned, I am part of the entertainment,” Rhys said.
“Part and parcel with the earldom,” he said, shrugging. “Phoebe is still getting used to it.”
Margaret’s brow came down. “So, not only do people come to Vauxhall to see music and tightrope walkers, they come here to see you.”
“And others of our ilk,” Lord Ashby said. “But don’t worry, you’re perfectly safe.”
“I shouldn’t think I wasn’t safe,” Margaret replied, biting her lip. “I worry more about doing something to embarrass you.”
And Margaret was left to contemplate his meaning as he turned his attention to the food. The first course had arrived with amazing speed. No sooner was their wine poured than the roast lamb was placed before them, with potatoes and leeks and long green beans.
Margaret stared at the plate before her, her mind seemingly elsewhere. And Rhys thought he could guess where.
He leaned in close to her, his voice pitched low. “Ignore Ned. He’s just miserable because Phoebe isn’t here. Please don’t worry about your behavior. You are above reproach.”
She glanced at him, a little hesitant. Completely unable to ascertain his meaning, she decided instead to respond squarely with comfortable self-deprecation. “I assure you I’m not. Leticia and Helen have made a sport out of reproaching me. Half the time I’m tempted to use the wrong fork just to watch their faces.”
“Well, use the wrong fork here, and no one will say a word.”
“Even though we are part of the entertainment?”
“We are less so than Ned would have you believe. Most people here are too wrapped up in each other to notice the Earl of Ashby and his wrong-fork-using guest.” Rhys smiled. “I promise.”
Dinner proceeded quite smoothly after that. Lamb was followed by fish, followed by pork, followed by pies and then trifle. Wine flowed, and while the night grew darker and the lamplight brighter, the crowd grew rowdier and the music livelier.
But all the while Margaret’s mind was occupied by two separate but equal thoughts—what did Rhys’s attentions mean, and where on earth was the garden part of Vauxhall Gardens?
“What is it?” Rhys asked, leaning over to whisper in her ear.
“Nothing,” she replied immediately.
“Come now, you’re fidgeting with the tablecloth and have been turning your head around like an owl for the last ten minutes.”
“Nothing. Just . . .” she took a deep breath. “How long do the lamps stay lit?”
“How long . . . ? All night, I expect.”
“I just don’t want to miss anything. I suppose we could come back in the daylight sometime . . .”
“Ah, I understand,” Rhys said, throwing his napkin onto the tablecloth and rising. He held out his hand to Margaret. “Let’s not keep you from the garden’s earthly delights any longer.”
As she hesitantly took his hand, Ned looked up from the dancing, a glower set across his face. “Wait, where are you two going?”
“Miss Babcock came to Vauxhall to view the gardens. And so we are going to do just that.”
“But they haven’t brought out the port yet.”
“Why don’t you drink your port, and then you can catch up with us,” Rhys said. Then, pointedly, “We’ll be fine.”
Lord Ashby, Margaret knew, was faced with a dilemma. On the one hand, his wife had placed him in charge of her safety and honor, and that included her reputation. On the other hand, Margaret heard Phoebe whisper in her husband’s ear to not stay too close to Rhys and Margaret, for reasons that only made Margaret more nervous. And yet again on the other hand, there was port to finish off the meal.
It was two to one in favor of staying, and so Lord Ashby sat, grinned like a man who had come to a satisfactory conclusion, and took a fork to the last few bites of his trifle.
Rhys moved Margaret’s hand to his arm and led her out of the noise and jubilee of the rotunda.
“Where are we going?” she asked.
“If I recall correctly, the Spring Gardens are this way.” He steered her further up the Grand Walk.
They moved leisurely—a bit too leisurely for Margaret’s taste. But everyone who strolled around them kept to that same pace, so Margaret sighed and settled her long legs into a shortened stride.
Finally they came to a T in the path, and while everyone else took the well-lit side, she began to lean toward the other.
“No,” Rhys said, coming to an abrupt, if gentle halt. “We should keep with everyone else.”
“Why? Perhaps this is a shortcut.” She reasoned. “Indeed, it’s more in the direction you indicated.”
“True, but . . .” He hesitated. “Better not to venture onto one of the dark walks. Leticia and Phoebe would have my head.”
Margaret turned around, eyed the path again. “Why?” she asked. “What’s down there?”
It was dark, yes, with shady trees canopying the footpath, but for goodness’ sake, it wasn’t pitch black. The moon was full and lines of light cut across the ground.
“Considering the lack of garden so far, that much is obvious.”
“Since anyone can gain admission, that includes less savory elements. Footpads and prostitutes use the dark, unlit walks to ply their trade. It’s no place for a young lady.”
“Indeed?” she asked, more curious than ever. “I would think it would be more dangerous for you than for me.”
One clinical eyebrow went up.
“I don’t have to worry about being approached by prostitutes,” she said. “Therefore I only have half the worry you do.”
He chuckled at that, which had her chuckling too.
“Well, then keep me safe and let’s follow the rest of the crowd.”
“It does beg the question,” Margaret said as they moved down the well-lit path with the rest of the gardens’ patrons, “why Vauxhall is so popular if it is so dangerous.”
“Perhaps it is not so dangerous. Perhaps it is popular because it is just dangerous enough.” At her look he continued. “People enjoy a little jeopardy in their entertainment. A bit of a thrill.”
Margaret thought that over. “Of course. How else to explain the baffling existence of fire-eaters?”
They had come to a second rotunda, this one with acrobats and circus performers as its entertainment, using the distant strains of the music from the first rotunda to set their feats to a tempo. There were jugglers, a trained large cat in a cage, tightrope walkers high above the ground, and yes, even a fire-eater.
“Gracious,” Rhys said.
“Yes,” she mused. “Imagine the damage to the poor man’s throat.”
Rhys stood stock-still for a moment, and then threw his head back in laughter.
Margaret looked at him like he was losing his mind. “Now what did I do?”
“Nothing,” Rhys replied. “Simply spoke words that hadn’t yet made it to my lips.”
He smiled at her wide. And for the first time all evening—hell, for the first time since she had come to London—Margaret realized she was completely at ease. Why couldn’t it always be so? Why couldn’t she and Rhys just have their own bubble, where they didn’t have to listen to people who questioned their friendship? Why did she have to spend all night wondering about his intentions and making herself nervous?
And why could she not simply be left to enjoy the company of a person of so much the same mind as she that just his laughing made her laugh, and vice versa? That she said what he thought before the words could make it to his lips, as he said?
At that thought, her gaze slid down to his mouth. It was open slightly, ticked up at the corners. And for some reason she could not take her eyes off of it.
Off of him.
Something was . . . stirring. Something warm, and anticipatory. And for the briefest second, she understood why people liked fire-eaters and coming to a place with dark walks. There was danger in them, yes. But there was also possibility.
I dare you.
The little voice echoed in her head. As she stood there, in the lamplight, it was all she could hear. Not the people walking by. Not the ones who would no doubt see . . . all she had to do was lean in . . .