Winter Dreams (Winter Magic #2) by Marie Sexton

winter dreams

This title may be purchased from Amazon

What happens when a player gets played?

Actor Dylan Frasier is known as one of the biggest playboys in Hollywood, infamous for seducing men and women alike. He’s also half in love with his two best friends. Unfortunately, Jason and Ben are madly in love with each other, leaving Dylan the odd man out. When Ben suggests an extended Christmas vacation at a resort modeled after his favorite 80s TV show, Dylan reluctantly agrees. Sure, his heart breaks a bit every time he sees them together, but it’s a vacation in the Bahamas. How bad can it be?

At first, the resort seems like any other. Dylan plans to work on his tan, get laid, and hunt for Hollywood’s most in-demand director – not necessarily in that order. Then he meets Connor, a tennis instructor still hurting from a bad breakup. Connor knows Dylan’s reputation and refuses to be seduced. Dylan sees Connor as just another conquest, but this tropical island isn’t as mundane as it appears. It has its own kind of magic, and it’s about to make things interesting.

Rating: A-

Back in 2020, I chose Marie Sexton’s Winter Oranges as my read for that year’s December prompt in the TBR Challenge, and really enjoyed it. It’s an unusual and charming story, a gorgeous slow-burn romance with a magical twist, and I was delighted to see that the author was writing a sequel. Often, sequels turn out to be disappointing, but I’m happy to report that Winter Dreams is even better than Winter Oranges. It’s a beautifully developed redemption story (and I’m a sucker for those!) combined with a touch of fantasy and another fabulous and emotionally satisfying slow-burn romance.

While it’s probably not essential to have read Winter Oranges before this, I strongly recommend doing so. For one thing, it’s a great read, and for another, you’ll get more detailed insight into the central relationships and character backgrounds. Please be aware that there are spoilers for that book in this review.

Actor Dylan Fraser has a reputation as one of Hollywood’s biggest playboys. Relationships aren’t for him and he’s never made a secret of that – even with the only lover he ever returned to, his best friend Jason Walker. Even though Dylan knew Jason was in love with him and no matter that he knew how cruel it was, Dylan couldn’t bring himself to stay away. But two years later, things are very different. Jason is now blisfully happy with Ben (Winter Oranges is their love story), and although Dylan adores them both – is even a little in love with both of them – and knows Ben is more right for Jason than he ever was, he can’t help feeling like the odd man out, or wondering about what might have been if he’d been capable of fidelity.

When the story opens, Dylan, Jason and Ben are en route to a luxury holiday island resort in the Bahamas called Fantasy Island, like the classic eighties TV show of the same name. It is, according to the brochure, a “place where all your fantasies come true.” Jason snidely suggests Dylan’s fantasy is to fuck his way through all the guests before the month is out; laughingly, Dylan agrees, although he knows that deep down, his fantasy would be to stop being himself and become Jason or Ben for the rest of his life, which would be so much better than being him. He ruthlessly suppresses the knowledge that he’s envious of what they’ve found in each other, and knowing it’s not something he’ll ever have, he figures he might as well not bother trying to find it and continues to live up to his flagrantly promiscuous reputation.

Within hours of arriving, Dylan has made a start on his ‘fuck everyone on the island’ quest, but after only a few days of having all the sex he wants, he starts to feel bored and on edge. He decides it’s time to get started on the other reason he came to the island – to track down a big-name movie director who winters there and charm – or fuck, whatever is needed – his way into his latest movie.

After a workout at the gym, Dylan heads to the nearby café for lunch and his interest is snagged by a guy sitting alone at another table. Dylan wanders over to ask him if he can buy him a drink, but the guy throws Dylan off his stride when he asks if his uncle has put Dylan up to trying to pick him up. Dylan has no idea who this uncle is and says so; the guy – Connor – relaxes a bit and lets Dylan buy that drink. As they’re chatting and Connor makes it clear that he’s not going to have sex with him, Dylan realises that he actually wants to spend time with the other man, even if it is just for the thrill of the chase. Connor suggests a game of tennis later that afternoon – still adamant that he’s not going to be seduced – and Dylan becomes even more determined to ‘woo’ Connor into bed.

The tennis match is followed by dinner, which leads to more conversation and to Connor opening up to Dylan about his recent break-up with a guy he thought he loved, but who turned out to be using him to get ahead. After dinner, Dylan gets to walk Connor back to his bungalow – but that’s where the night ends, after a chaste kiss to the forehead. More not-dates – tennis and dinner, sightseeing and dinner – follow, and Dylan realises he’s started not to care that sex isn’t on the table; he’s enjoying being with Connor and enjoying everything about him – he’s fun to be with, he’s sexy and intriguing – and Dylan is not at all interested in being with anyone else. Startled, he realises he could actually be falling for Connor – he wakes up every morning wanting to see him and hates saying goodnigh every evening – but he’s terrified, too. He’s not cut out for monogamy – he knows what he is and how he operates, and is sure it’s only a matter of time before he screws it all up.

The slow-burn romance is beautifully done here; the growing connection between Dylan and Connor is superbly written, and although Dylan’s is the sole PoV, his perspective is so rich and perceptive that I never once felt there was anything lacking. Connor is a great foil for him, level-headed where Dylan is impulsive, quieter and introspective where Dylan is outgoing – and they’re good for one another, Dylan encouraging Connor to come out of his shell a little, and Connor helping Dylan to see himself a little differently.

Dylan wasn’t a particularly likeable character in Winter Oranges, selfishly hurting Jason over and over, so the author set herself quite the challenge to redeem him and make him the hero of his own story. She rises to that challenge admirably, however, slowly peeling away layer after layer of Dylan’s character to reveal the real man beneath the party-boy exterior he uses to deter anyone from getting close, and the unacknowledged and untreated trauma in his past that has informed so much of the man he has become. That man is incredibly complex – so very self-aware yet stuck in a never-ending spiral of self-loathing and unable to see a way out – and Ms. Sexton does a fantastic job of showing us that he’s far more than the smooth seducer of reputation, and that beneath it all, he’s in a pretty bad place. No spoilers, but it’s made clear that Dylan’s road to breaking the cycle he’s fallen into is not going to be easy, and that it’s an ongoing process – which felt very realistic.

The fantasy element in Winter Dreams is perhaps less prominent than in its predecessor, but it packs quite the emotional punch. Ben has correctly defined the premise of the old TV show as “be careful what you wish for”, with the characters’ fantasies taking them down paths they hadn’t considered and then having to stay the course to get their just reward. It seems this Fantasy Island is doing the same thing as, in dreams, Dylan and Connor are shown possible futures, ways their lives could turn out depending on the choices they make. I absolutely loved this device; it’s clever and impactful but doesn’t overwhelm the story or have the feel of some kind of deus ex machina; the romance develops organically and is very much character-driven.

While all this is going on, the author also takes time to bring some closure to the relationship between Dylan and Jason – or rather, to one particular phase of their relationship and move it into the next one. Despite his avowed rejection of romantic love, there’s no question that Dylan was in love with Jason and that he just refused to see it. Now, he’s filled with regrets, and even though he is happy that Jason has found love with Ben, he’s a bit jealous, too, and there’s a sense that Jason is not especially happy in their friendship. I was so pleased to see that friendship being repaired and becoming stronger and deeper; as Dylan finds love with Connor, he’s able to see his love for Jason and Ben for what it truly is, a real and true friendship that will last forever. And on a side note, I loved Dylan choosing Ben to help him at the end; for all his faults, one of Dylan’s better qualities is his desire to make other people feel good about themselves, and he knew that showing his trust in Ben would would make a huge difference to his (Ben’s) self-esteem.

Winter Dreams exceeded my expectations all round. All the relationships in the story are beautifully written and the central romance is passionate and full of chemistry with a deeply satisfying emotional connection at its core. Looking at my ‘read’ shelf on Goodreads, I see this is only the second book by Marie Sexton I’ve read – something I clearly need to rectify! In the meantime however, this one goes on to my keeper shelf, and is very highly recommended.

TBR Challenge: Winter Oranges by Marie Sexton

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Jason Walker is a child star turned teen heartthrob turned reluctant B-movie regular who’s sick of his failing career. So he gives up Hollywood for northern Idaho, far away from the press, the drama of LA, and the best friend he’s secretly been in love with for years.

There’s only one problem with his new life: a strange young man only he can see is haunting his guesthouse. Except Benjamin Ward isn’t a ghost. He’s a man caught out of time, trapped since the Civil War in a magical prison where he can only watch the lives of those around him. He’s also sweet, funny, and cute as hell, with an affinity for cheesy ’80s TV shows. And he’s thrilled to finally have someone to talk to.

But Jason quickly discovers that spending all his time with a man nobody else can see or hear isn’t without its problems—especially when the tabloids find him again and make him front-page news. The local sheriff thinks he’s on drugs, and his best friend thinks he’s crazy. But Jason knows he hasn’t lost his mind. Too bad he can’t say the same thing about his heart.

Rating: B+

Marie Sexton is one of those authors who’s been on my radar for a while but whose books I haven’t yet read, so I was pleased when I found something on my Kindle that would fit this month’s TBR Challenge prompt.  Winter Oranges is an emotional but impossible love story that kept me guessing – right up to the end – as to how on earth the author was going to give this star-crossed couple a believable HEA.

Former child star turned teen heart-throb turned B-list movie actor Jason Walker is at something of a crossroads.  Tired of only being offered crappy parts, of the unrequited love he feels for his best  friend and fuckbuddy Dylan, and of continually dodging the attention he still gets from the media (especially after being forcibly outed eight months earlier) he leaves Hollywood and buys a house in a remote location in Idaho, looking forward to a bit of privacy and seclusion.

On his first night in the house, Jason is shocked when he sees a face at the window of the apartment above the garage.  When Jason looks again, the face is gone, but the next day it appears again, and now he can see it belongs to a young man with pale skin and a shock of dark hair; a young man who seems to be delighted to see him, his lips moving and hands waving excitedly.  Jason rushes back inside and immediately calls the local sheriff – but when she arrives and goes into the apartment to investigate, she finds nothing and no-one there.

Still spooked, Jason realises he has to accept that either he’s hallucinating… or his house is haunted.

After trying to ignore his ‘ghost’ for two days,  Jason gives in and goes up to the apartment himself – and there he is, the man he’d seen at the window, dressed in old-fashioned, baggy clothes and old boots… and he’s translucent.  As Jason recovers from the shock of seeing an actual ghost, he  realises that although the man is talking rapidly,  he can’t hear him – and on saying so, the other man immediately deflates, crestfallen.

Communicating through a mixture of lip reading and gestures, Jason learns that the man – Ben – was born in 1840 and that he lives IN the old snow globe he directs Jason to find on the shelf, and that what Jason is seeing is not his spirit but a kind of ‘projection’.   Jason struggles to take it all in – but after a few days (during which he’s seen no sign of Ben)  he returns to the apartment and takes the globe with him into the house.  When Ben appears, they still can’t communicate easily – until Jason realises the globe is a music box, winds it, and discovers he can actually hear Ben, who is overjoyed and immediately bombards Jason with questions (I had to laugh when one of the first things he asked was “Who killed J.R?”).  He tells Jason how his sister Sarah had somehow “put” him into the snow globe back in 1861 in order to stop him going off to join the Confederate Army, but that she’d never given him any instructions as to how to get out as she hadn’t intended him to be there for long.  Unfortunately though, the globe was stolen and has changed hands many times over the years until it eventually ended up in the garage apartment.

After this, Jason and Ben spend every day together.  Ben’s enthusiasm for and enjoyment of everything around him is infectious – and incredibly endearing – and Jason can’t help getting swept up in it, realising he feels happy for the first time in ages.  A genuine and loving friendship develops between the pair, and as the weeks pass, that friendship becomes underpinned by a slowly building attraction, their connection growing deeper and turning into something much more.   Watching these two lonely men falling for each other was captivating and sigh-worthy…  and heartbreaking at the same time, their inability to touch each other ramping up the tension and frustration, the longing between them so palpable it leaps off the page.

Of course, this being a romance novel, obstacles are overcome – although not easily or without cost, and the HEA is delightful and well-deserved.

Jason and Ben are likeable, well-drawn characters who find, in each other, someone to fill the voids in their lives.  When the story opens, Jason is feeling hopeless and disillusioned with just about everything in his life, but Ben, with his enthusiasm for the simplest things, brings back the light and joy Jason has lost and teaches him to appreciate the simple things, too.  And Ben, who has been deprived of human contact for a hundred and fifty years, is just so grateful to be able to interact and experience the world around him in a way he hasn’t been able to for so long, that he completely charms Jason – and us – with his childlike innocence and zest for every new experience.

With a touch of magic, a lot of romance, and a lovely wintry setting, Winter Oranges is a charming, poignant and heartbreaking  slow-burn love story that made me sad, made me smile and gave me all the feels.  If you’re looking for a seasonal tale with depth and emotion that’s just a little bit different, this one should definitely be on your radar.