Marina Howell loved many things and many people, but the two things she loved most were dancing and Dylan Quinn. Tonight, she was enjoying both, dancing the Sugar Plum Fairy from The Nutcracker while Dylan sat in the audience with their friends Eric, Jacob, Dean and Will.
Beyond the first row of seats, Marina could only see darkness, but she imagined Dylan’s eyes on her, filled with admiration and lust, and it spurred her on. She was one with the music, relishing the freedom of soaring through air, the wonder of feeling her body vibrate with energy. Even so, she was certain of one thing: that even her considerable joy at dancing would pale in comparison to the joy she’d feel if things worked out the way she wanted after the performance.
Tonight, she was finally going to tell Dylan how she felt about him. That she wanted to be more than friends. That she’d broken up with her fiancé, Nick, and didn’t want Dylan to get back together with his on-again off-again girlfriend, Ginger. She’d set her sights high with dancing and had soared—she was a soloist for the Pacific Rim Ballet Corps dance studio; now it was time to take her shot at having more with Dylan.
She waited until they were in her Seattle apartment to tell him, and thank God, Dylan told her he felt the same way. Soon the petals from the red roses he’d brought her lay scattered on the floor. He lifted her roughly onto the countertop, nudging her legs apart even as they spread aside willingly to let him in. She felt the heat of his breath on her neck, and his solid abs pressing against her core. One more grind of Dylan’s body between her legs would send her effortlessly over the edge.
Bitch. Whore. Slut!
Marina cried out, backing away from the dark figure that suddenly loomed over her, fighting the blackness that threatened to drag her down so deep, she might never resurface. Where had Dylan gone?
He doesn’t want you. He’ll never want you. Ginger is the love of his life. In fact, he’s with her right now. Fucking her right now.
“No. Please, no!”
“Marina. Babe, it’s okay. Shh…”
Marina gasped and struggled as everything around her grew fuzzy. But then warm, strong hands held her upper arms. Gentle fingers lightly touched her face. Suddenly, Marina didn’t feel afraid. She felt safe, as if the person touching her was giving her strength.
Heart thudding, breath hitching in and out, Marina blinked her eyes open.
And instantly realized she’d been dreaming again.
She hadn’t been dancing. She’d never dance again. And as for Dylan…
He sat next to her, his expression marred with concern. She’d fallen asleep on her couch after a long day bartending at Skeeps. Clearly Dylan had used his key to come in, and his gray-blue eyes, like a stormy day at sea, stared back at her. Tulip, her American Staffordshire terrier, AKA a solid lump of silly muscle, was snoring over in the corner of the living room, and her journal still lay open on her lap from when she’d been writing in it just a little while earlier.
“It’s okay,” Dylan said. “You’re okay. You were having a nightmare.”
Marina bit her lip to hold back her whimper of distress. A nightmare, yes, but one based on reality, and for a second she felt the loss all over again, like a gaping wound that would never heal.
The part of her dream where she’d been dancing? Where her friends, Dylan especially, had been watching her and she’d been planning to tell Dylan how she felt afterward? That had been all too real. But Dylan had never kissed her in her apartment in Seattle, and she’d never had the chance to tell him how she felt about him before her world along with her ankle had shattered.
Now it was too late. Her dreams of having the two things she most wanted in life—dancing and Dylan—were over.
At her continued silence, Dylan’s concerned frown deepened and she forced herself to give him a tremulous smile. “I’m okay, Dylan. You’re right. It was just a bad dream. What time is it?” she asked. She sniffed the air. “Is that pizza?”
“Were you dreaming about the attack?”
Automatically, she started to deny it, but he shook his head in warning. “Don’t lie to me, Marina.”
She sighed. “Yes, but you woke me up before things got bad.”
God, she was such a liar, about so much more than what she’d been dreaming about, but she hated seeing him so worried. Hated still feeling weak and at the mercy of a night that had happened exactly five years ago. The truth was, however, that she’d probably always feel that way.
Because you haven’t told Dylan the truth. Not about what really happened. And not about why it happened—
No! Marina ruthlessly brought her thoughts to a crashing halt. As far as everyone was concerned, she’d fallen down the stairs—which was true—but she’d never told anyone why she’d fallen, that she’d been trying to get away from Nick and his horrible words. She’d never tell anyone, especially Dylan—not about that night and not about how she felt about him. Those feelings and fantasies would stay trapped in her own mind, or on the pages of her journal where she—
An involuntary gasp left her as her gaze shot to the journal still in her lap and the words sitting right there, in her own handwriting, clear as day. In thick black ink, she’d written: Does he even know how gorgeous he is? How much I want him? Does he know I watch him when he’s not looking? Does he know sometimes I wish he’d grab me, bend me over the couch, and fuck me?”
Her heart pounded wildly once more, and her throat went dry. Had he read what she’d written? If he had, was he shocked that his friend—quiet and reserved Marina Howell—would write such a thing?
Quickly, she slapped the journal shut then set it down onto the side lamp table, placing a marble coaster on its cover to keep the pages shut. “So, about that pizza?”
Dylan stared at her, keen eyes searching hers, but thankfully he didn’t push it. “I brought pepperoni for you and me, and some new treats for Tulip.”
At the sound of his name, Tulip blinked open his eyes, heaved himself up with a groan, then waddled over. Dylan laughed. “Some watchdog you got here,” he joked.
“He does his job just fine, don’t you, babykins?” Marina said, giggling when Tulip opened his massive jaw and covered Dylan’s face in sloppy dog kisses. Dylan was the one who had found Tulip for her shortly after the attack to help with her anxiety and PTSD, and the dog always seemed determined to thank him for it.
She totally got it. It didn’t happen often anymore, but on the rare occasion she suffered an anxiety attack or was paralyzed by a flashback, Tulip’s presence helped calm her down. It always filled her with renewed appreciation for not only the dog, but the man who’d found him for her.
Easy, girl, or you’ll wind up covering his face in sloppy kisses too.
“Kisses for treats, Tulip? Fair exchange,” Dylan said to the dog, then headed into the kitchen, calling over his shoulder, “Pizza’s warming in the oven. I’m going to wash up, get us some beers and plates, and be right back.”
She watched as he made himself at home, and marveled at how involved they were in each other’s lives now. They’d always been good friends, but after her injury and she’d moved back to Buffalo Falls, they’d started spending enough time together that an outsider might confuse them for a real couple. It didn’t matter that she worked late at the bar, getting off anywhere between 9 p.m. and 2:30 a.m., often picking up extra shifts to afford the mortgage she’d taken over after her parents moved—Dylan always made time for her.
“Jacob got an email from Dean today,” Dylan said, and Marina looked up to see him standing a few feet away with a pizza box balanced on one hand along with paper napkins and two beers tucked under his arm.
“Dean doing okay?” Like the two of them, Jacob and Dean Tedesco had grown up in Buffalo Falls. For as along as Marina could remember, it had been her, Dylan, Jacob, Dean, Will, and Eric. Eric had only been here during the summers to visit his grandparents, but whenever he’d shown up, he’d slipped effortlessly back into the group. Later, Dean had moved to New York, and Eric to L.A. Recently, Eric had left his L.A. billionaire life behind, including his fiancée Brianne, and was now back in Buffalo Falls for the foreseeable future. He’d inherited his grandparents’ hardware store after they passed, but had also just bought his own ranch. Dean, on the other hand…
Marina’s heart hurt for her friend. The sole survivor of a plane crash, he hadn’t returned to Buffalo Falls to heal. Instead, he’d isolated himself in Alaska driving trucks. The only person he kept infrequent contact with now was his brother, Jacob.
“Dean says he’s doing fine, but Jacob is still worried. He wants him home.”
“We all miss him, and of course Jacob misses him the most, but Dean’s doing what he needs to do,” she said.
“You don’t think so?”
With a sigh, Dylan walked toward her then put the plates he was holding down on the coffee table. When he straightened, he looked at the ground for a few seconds, then met Marina’s gaze again. “I think what he’s gone through is a terrible thing and I can’t imagine being in his place. What he must be feeling. Survivor’s guilt for sure. But he’s been hiding for over almost a year now. I’m not sure that’s the way to heal.”
Marina frowned. She wanted to tell Dylan he didn’t know what he was talking about. That he’d never suffered something so “terrible,” as he put it, that his whole world was shattered and he had to scramble to pick up the pieces. “Maybe healing is exactly what he’s doing, not hiding. Maybe that’s the life he needs now. When Eric broke up with Brianne, he moved to Montana. After what happened to me, I did the same. And after the plane crash, Dean moved to Alaska. Change of venue. Fresh start. It doesn’t have to mean we’re running. Or hiding.” Despite her best intentions, Marina’s voice rose as she spoke.
“Whoa, babe,” Dylan said. “Why are you upset? What’s this about?”
Marina swallowed hard then took a shaky breath. She hadn’t meant to go off like that, but now that she had, she tried to explain what she was feeling. “I don’t know. Maybe… Well, sometimes I think that’s how people see me. That after what happened, I’m hiding here. That now that my ankle is healed, I should go somewhere else. But I’m good here. I’m happy here.”
“I’m glad,” he said quietly then took a seat next to her.
They both remained quiet for several moments before she peeked up at him. “You’ve never said anything about my dancing.”
“That’s not true. I used to ask you, but you didn’t want to talk about it. I hoped when you were ready, you would say something.”
She smoothed out the blanket she’d pulled over herself. “What’s there to say? I had my brief time in the spotlight. It’s over now.”
“But why is it over? I thought the doctors said your injury wasn’t career ending…”
“They said it might not be career ending. But I know my body. It’s over.”
“If it’s over because you say it’s over, because you don’t need it anymore, that’s fine. But if you still need it, deep in your soul, and damn Marina, I can’t see how you don’t because you loved to dance—”
“It’s not about what I need, but what I can have. Now how much do I owe you for the pizza?”
For a moment, he looked frustrated by her reasoning, like he wanted to keep arguing with her, but again, he didn’t push her. “The pizza is on me.”
“Dylan, come on. You always pay.”
“That’s because I’m not working myself ragged trying to keep this house even though I can’t afford the mortgage.”
“It’s my parents’ house,” she murmured. “I can’t lose it.”
“You won’t. But instead of working how many extra shifts this week…?” He cocked a questioning brow at her.
“Three,” she muttered.
“Right, instead of working three extra shifts this week, you could let me help.”
She shook her head. “Nope. I’m not taking your money,” she told him for what had to be the hundredth time. Dylan was a furniture craftsman who was insanely talented, but he was still establishing himself and certainly not rolling in dough. Even if he was, Marina couldn’t take his money.
“Then I’m paying for pizza,” he said firmly.
“Fine,” she said, knowing it was a lost cause to fight and not having the energy to even try. She’d just have to treat him to lunch the next time they were out. “Thank you.”
“You’re welcome. Now, as for the foot massage I gave you,” he said, raising two fingers, “you owe me two episodes.”
“You gave me a foot massage while I was asleep?”
And she’d missed it? So unfair. Sometimes she wondered if Dylan liked to give her foot massages to make sure she had no lingering pain after what had happened.
“I couldn’t resist. Your feet are delightful.”
She snorted. “My feet? Seriously, Dylan, get an appointment with an optometrist. Then again, maybe it’s better you can’t see my gross dancer’s feet, because I do so love your foot massages. For that, I’d have given you three episodes.”
“Damn. Clearly I need to get glasses and learn to play poker, because it’s obvious I’m not getting all life has to offer.”
She laughed and Dylan placed one arm on the back of the sofa behind her and leaned back in his comfy jeans with legs stretched out, bare feet on the coffee table, stomach flat as a washboard, strong, lean muscle next to her feminine more delicate body.
She looked up at him. “Yeah?”
“Don’t call your feet gross,” he said firmly. “Every part of you is beautiful.”
She swallowed hard, savoring the affection in his gaze, then leaned over and kissed his cheek. “Glad you’re here, Dylan.”
“Glad to be here, babe.”
After turning on their favorite new show, she cuddled up against Dylan and they watched the show in companionable silence, eating their pizza and drinking their beer. At one point, Dylan laughed at something the actor said, something she missed but laughed anyway to pretend like she was paying attention, but the truth was, she was distracted. By his body. By her body and everything he made her feel.
And by the knowledge that this was wrong.
Dylan was a red-blooded, passionate man in his prime. He was a good friend who spent far too much time with her because he cared and wanted to help her through a difficult time. But while she’d healed significantly since her injury, she was never going to be the same, certainly was never going to be with Dylan the way she’d once hoped, and it wasn’t fair to hold Dylan back. She assumed he slept with women now and again—he’d certainly slept with Ginger even after their last official break up years ago—but how could he start something serious when he spent so much time with Marina?
She should let him go.
She should, she thought sleepily, and she would. Soon. But since he was here now…
She instinctively burrowed closer. His arm tightened around her.
For now, she could have this. She could have Dylan.
She just couldn’t have all of him.
*I hope you enjoyed this sneak peek of Dylan and Marina’s story. If you’re not caught up on the series, you can read about all the books here.