Desert Isle Keeper
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.