Title – Toxic
Author – Rachel Van Dyken
Publication Date – March 4, 2014
Series – Ruin #2
Everyone has a secret…
Gabe Hyde is on borrowed time. He’s been hiding his identity for over four years-hidden from the world that used to adore him–obsess over him–driven to the edge of insanity by one poor choice.
But that one choice, altered the course of his life forever.
Pretending isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, especially when pretending means hiding your real self from the people that care about you the most. But if anyone ever discovered the truth it wouldn’t just be his life at risk–but hers.
Saylor doesn’t hate men.
He’s a reckless, happy-go-lucky, silver spoon fed pain in her ass. Everything about him makes her more and more confused. Unfortunately they both donate time at the same Group Home. If she wasn’t afraid of flunking, she’d be long gone. She hates that she’s attracted to him almost as much as he hates that he’s attracted to her–and she can tell, especially since their first encounter ended up making her knees so weak she couldn’t form coherent sentences for weeks afterwards. But the closer she gets to him, the more confused she becomes. He isn’t who he says he is, and he’s hiding something big.
What happen when two worlds collide? Two worlds that never should have met in the first place? Some secrets are too big to be hidden forever–the only question? Will his destroy everyone he loves? Or finally bring about the redemption he’s been craving for the past four years?
Everyone has a secret…What’s yours?
Well, Rachel Van Dyken has done it again. She has taken my heart and shattered it with her words. She left me so emotionally raw at the end of this story that I had to take a moment to sit in silence and process what had just unfolded in the pages of Toxic. She has once again raised the bar for all NA authors and redefined the term “book hangover.” I loved Ruin and I fell hard for Wes, Kiersten, Lisa and Gabe. So I was excited to see more of them and figure out what kind of man Gabe was. I also adore a good bromance and the love and friendship that Wes and Gabe have for one another is nothing short of incredible. I envied their bond and their ability to provide balance for one another throughout their journeys. I didn’t think it was possible to love the characters more than I did in Ruin, but Toxic managed to permanently embed them in my heart and soul.
I knew Gabe’s story was going to be a bit darker, that his past held some serious secrets and that Toxic would have a completely different feel than Ruin. I was prepared for things to be different, to see the world through Gabe’s eyes. I was not prepared for the extent to which I would grow to care for and connect with Gabe, maybe even more than I did with Wes. Complicated cannot even begin to describe the life Gabe has been living. His past has a hold on him, one that has been slowly suffocating him for years. He is beyond damaged and yet he manages to be a good friend, to allow Wes’ story to inspire him to live a better life, and to give up his whole world to take on the responsibility that he feels is his.
Saylor is a girl after my own heart. She strives for perfection. She needs to succeed in order to take care of the people that she loves. She is devoted to her family and to her music. She is the kind of girl who doesn’t take no for an answer and won’t back down from Gabe without a fight. Her appearance in Gabe’s life forces him to confront his need for music and the role it plays in defining who he is. Her presence forces him to give in to the music trapped inside of him, opening up his emotional vault and leaving his story exposed to her. This was definitely my favorite part of the story. For as long as I can remember, I have worshiped at the alter of music, reveling in its ability to speak for us and release our emotional chains. Rachel took music and carefully wove it throughout this beautiful book, giving this story gravity. It grounded Gabe and his story and made it whole. From the beginning, Gabe grabbed a hold on my heart and no matter how many times he destroyed it and picked up the pieces again, I couldn’t help but feel like in the end, he owned every jagged little piece of my heart.
This is one of those books that is hard to review without giving away any spoilers, so I’ll do my best. Much like Ruin, Toxic is not your average fairy tale. It opens us to the world of Gabe, which I can promise you, is nothing like you would have expected. I was hooked from the Prologue. After reading that, I just could not get enough of Gabe and his story. I wanted, no – needed, to hear his story. I needed to know why he was the man that he was.
There is a major overall theme of the power of music in Toxic. As someone who is really healed through music, the words and the images they conjured really resonated with me. I loved that we got to see this side of Gabe that turned to instruments rather than girls when he was troubled. It completely changed my perspective of him from Ruin. I could totally see (and hear) him sitting down at the piano and letting every ounce of feeling flow from his fingertips releasing his pain. Just the thought brings me to chills from how moved I was at the experience of this book.
For those who were fans of Ruin, we do get a little of Wes, Kiersten, and Lisa. However, this is really about Gabe’s journey to where he is and who he is – so it’s not a ton of them. We are introduced to Saylor though who is probably one of my new favorite heroines. I was skeptical at first because of the name, but it makes for some cute banter and jokes! The way she is able to put all of her “stuff” aside in order to just be a source of strength and a friend is truly admirable. It’s a beautiful feeling to watch develop.
Warning – this is a sad story, but it is a different type of sad story. When Rachel described it that way, I didn’t understand. After you read, you definitely will. You will absolutely be satisfied and completely fulfilled in the end – it’s just a ride to get there. Rachel has a beautiful way with words – she is truly gifted. Some of the things that she says is just so profound and inspiring that you can’t help but to reread it and take it to heart. I’ve never come across an author who is able to touch my soul with words the way that hers do. Now I’m just counting down until the novella, Fearless, where I get more of these amazing characters!
With slight pressure, Gabe moved my hands to the piano, slowly, effortlessly placing them on each key.
He was playing through me, using my body as an instrument to convey the story of his life. Each time he pressed down on one of my fingertips or guided me to another area of the piano, I felt the sadness of the song clench deeper. The notes became floating tendrils of pain, each one of them slowly invading my body and taking hold until it hurt to breathe.
He moved faster and faster, my hands couldn’t keep up. I pulled back as he continued the song, in such a rush it was like he was yelling but doing it with music. Unable to convey it in any other way.
With a final burst of movement, he lifted his hands off the piano and smashed them against the keys, causing a chaos of notes to burst forth.
Gabe’s breathing was uneven, ragged as he leaned heavily against me, his chin resting on my head, and he whispered brokenly, “I can’t.”
“You were doing so good.”
“It’s like getting into a car with suicidal tendencies. You keep going faster and faster, needing the adrenaline to keep you alive until suddenly you turn the wheel and everything goes black. The notes, they go higher and higher, and right when I feel like I can change the outcome — I panic. Some things…” He sighed and pulled away. “Some things are better left in chaos.”
“Are you sure about that? Are you sure about perfection?” I folded my hands in my lap, but didn’t turn around.
“Sure.” He moved from behind me and sat on the bench. “If life was perfect, how in the hell would we ever learn to depend on someone other than ourselves? If anything, that’s what life’s taught me. The need to be perfect is stemmed in the very belief that it’s actually something we can achieve. Self-actualization — doesn’t exist.”
I licked my lips and looked down at the keys. “Does that mean we don’t try then?”
“No.” Gabe tickled a few of the ivory keys in front of him, the music note tattoos on his fingertips looking darker against the white of the piano. “It just means when you reach the end of your rope, you shouldn’t regret a damn thing, but applaud yourself for trying to do the impossible.”
I felt like he was using double meanings. The philosophical Gabe was a bit terrifying because he made me feel more insecure than the jackass Gabe. But the guy sitting next to me right now? I was beginning to understand, he wasn’t just one person. He was every person, everything, whatever he needed to be, he was.
Like a chameleon.
And suddenly the ending to the story made sense.
Ten different notes all clamoring at once.
Gabe was Chaos.
“So.” He sniffed and cleared his throat. “Now that I’ve totally ruined the moment by talking in my serious voice and scaring the shit out of you — why don’t we work on one of your performance pieces?”
“Okay.” I placed my hands on the piano again, careful to angle my wrists at the perfect degree and keep my eyes on the music ahead. Sometimes I wondered if my posture was better than my playing.
“What the hell are you doing?” he asked in calm voice.
I turned and gave him a firm nod . “I’m getting ready.”
“To go to battle?”
“What?” I relaxed my hands a bit. “No.” I straightened. “This is the right posture, it’s—”
“If you say perfect, I’m going to kill myself.”
“Someone should have majored in drama.”
He burst out laughing. “Oh, honey, you have no idea.”
“So?” I lifted my wrists again and looked ahead.
“Fine.” He smirked. “Play just like that.”
“Okay.” I started one of my harder pieces, Piano Sonata 14. It felt exactly the same. The movement wasn’t as fast as some of the others, but the timing for it had to be perfect.
“Close your eyes,” Gabe instructed.
He swatted my wrists. “No arguing with your piano master.”
“Say ‘yes, master’.”
I smiled tightly, my eyes focusing on the music in front of me. I started slowly playing. “Not in this lifetime.”
“Bet I could make you say it.” His voice had an arrogant lift to it, which made me all the more irritated. Master? Um, no.
“Eyes.” He growled again.
With a resigned sigh, I closed my eyes. “Better?”
“Immensely,” he said smoothly.
Darkness enveloped my world. All I had were the notes at my fingertips. All I had was the music — that and Gabe.
He wasn’t saying anything.
Which killed me.
It also made me want to open my eyes, but I knew he’d probably just tell me to close them again, so I kept playing.
And then, with a teasing touch, his fingers grazed my chin, slowly tilting it down toward the piano while his other hand went to my upper back then slowly moved down until it was in the middle, with a gentle push, he urged my body closer to the keys.
Eyes closed, posture completely off, I leaned over the piano. Everything felt wrong as I continued playing.
“Slower,” he said softly.
With a sigh, I started playing slower. His hands moved to my hips. And stayed there. Other than jumping a foot, I was still able to concentrate.
“The music,” he whispered, “It’s not just your story — it’s your lover.”
“Okay,” I squeaked. Heat washed over me as the word lover bounced around in my brain. I knew it, but I’d never experienced it. How was I supposed to use something I didn’t know how to use? And how embarrassing was it that I was stuck in that tiny room having never been… stuck in a tiny room with any guy? Lover. I’d take him. If I got a choice. It would be him. But people like Gabe, beautiful people who had music in their soul, who knew how to speak without words… they weren’t for girls like me.
“Each stroke…” His hands pressed against my hips making me gasp. “You need to feel it not just on your fingertips — but everywhere.”
“Feel it here,” he squeezed and then ran his hands lightly up my sides, then resting right underneath my breasts, he pressed again. “And here.”
My breathing picked up speed, as did my music.
“Slow down,” he commanded in that same irritating patient tone. “Where is this story taking me? Where are you taking your lover?”
“Huh?” I breathed.
“Use your hands to tell me the story — use your body to propel the story forward, what happens next… Tell the story, Saylor. Make me feel it without even touching you.”
“But — that’s impossible.”
“You can feel a kiss without touching someone’s lips.”
“Concentrate.” Gabe’s voice was firm. “I want to kiss you.”
“What?” He was lucky I didn’t actually collapse against the piano this time.
“In the story.” He chuckled. “I want to kiss you in this story, so kiss me.”
“You want me to get up and kiss you?” Mind you, I was still trying to play a difficult piece as he was asking me this, which basically meant I must have had talent, because my body was on fire.
“Without our mouths meeting.”
“Through the music.” I clarified in a doubtful voice.
I could hear the smile in his tone as he answered. “Yes, through the music, show me what the kiss would feel like. I want to taste it.”
He laughed softly. “I’m touching them.”
“My lips,” he countered. “They’re soft, open, wet…”
I squirmed on the piano bench, squeezing my eyes shut. “What else?”
“As I part my lips… I wonder what your tongue tastes like, what type of pressure you’d use as you pressed your velvety smooth mouth against mine. I imagine exploring your mouth not just because I want to — but because I can’t help it. I’m lost. And your kiss is my salvation… so, Saylor, will you save me?”
My fingers glided effortlessly over the piano as I imagined his mouth — the way he smiled, the way he took his lower lip hostage when he was deep in thought. The dark look he got in his eyes when there was something he wanted. Our kiss would be epic.
The music picked up speed as I leaned over the piano, pounding each note with the rhythm of my footsteps as I approached him.
His hands would reach for my hips as he pulled me closer. My hands hovered over the keys making my hesitation known.
And then I pressed softly against the ivory, leaning forward as if I was leaning into Gabe with my body pressed against his. My breasts brushed the keys. I moved closer to the piano and then slowed the music.
His eyes would close.
His lips would part.
And we’d meet in the middle — because both of us wanted the same thing. Both of us wanted to taste, to explore, to feel.
I slowed my left hand as my right hand moved quicker across the keys, to show the anticipation.
And then, our mouths would touch.
I pounded the keys with my left hand, making it the loudest part of the piece which wasn’t normally how it was done.
Our tongues would tangle.
I pounded the piano harder.
His fingers would dig into my arms as he lifted me into the air.
I pulled back from the piano, stopping the music, and then gently started the rhythmic cadence again.
Our kiss was the perfect joining of music.
He was the left hand, I was the right.
Separate they sounded like silly scales.
Together — they were beautiful.
When I stopped the piece, I was sweating.
“Open your eyes,” Gabe whispered.
He was breathing so heavily it looked like he’d just run a marathon. With a smile he tucked my fallen hair behind my ear and tilted my chin toward him.
“That…” He leaned in. “…is how you perform. Like every kiss is both your first and last — like you’re saying both hello and goodbye — like you’ve just been born… like you’ve just died.”
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Check out the rest of the Ruin series:
Ruin (Ruin #1)
Fearless (Ruin #2.5)
Shame (Ruin #3)
The Ruin Series Box Set (Ruin, Toxic & Fearless)
Rachel Van Dyken is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, and USA Today Bestselling author of regency and contemporary romances. When she’s not writing you can find her drinking coffee at Starbucks and plotting her next book while watching The Bachelor.
She keeps her home in Idaho with her Husband and their snoring Boxer, Sir Winston Churchill. She loves to hear from readers!