BY: TONYA ROYSTON
Eighteen-year-old Laken Sumner has just escaped from a stranger and a pack of wolves in the dark rain on a lonely mountain road. Normally, with her ability to communicate with wild animals, who can understand her thoughts, she wouldn’t worry about encountering the predators. But these wolves didn’t respond to her. She tries to shrug it off, afraid to reveal her fears to Noah, her boyfriend and the deputy sheriff.
But that’s not all she’s hiding. Drawn to Xander Payne, like a moth to a flame, she warns herself to stay away from him. She’s convinced he knows something, and she doesn’t trust him. Besides, Noah is the one she really wants…if only she could be sure of that.
When disaster strikes and Laken is forced to confess her secret to Noah, her worst fears are realized as he drifts away from her. Xander is more than willing to step into Noah’s shoes with Laken, but she refuses to give in to her feelings for him. Because Noah will be back, won’t he?
(Twenty-five cents for every print and ebook copy sold will be donated to the Ian Somerhalder Foundation.)
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Silence at Midnight by Tonya Royston, we get a continuation of the story started in Shadows at Sunset. In this book, Laken learns some dark family secrets that make her question who she is. Animals play a big part in this story as they did in the first book, and Laken is put into a situation where she has to confess her “gift” to her boyfriend, the town deputy, Noah. When he starts to back away from her, she is sure it is because of her confession, but he denies it. Meanwhile, Xander is still in the background, vying for Laken’s affections. Must be nice to have two hunks after you. (Sigh).
Like the first book, this one is well written with a strong, unpredictable plot and charming characters. You just can’t help rooting for Laken and wondering how the story will end.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Silence at Midnight is the next book in Tonya Royston’s Sunset Trilogy. In this second installment, Laken Sumner is still dodging passes from Xander Payne, still talking to animals, and still pursuing her relationship with Noah, the town deputy. But when Laken helps Noah rescue a moose caught in a fence, Noah becomes suspicious and Laken is forced to confess her ability in communicating with animals. Noah seems impressed at first, but then he starts backing away. His rejection leaves Laken questioning herself, especially when she overhears her parents discussing some deep family secrets that she wasn’t supposed to know.
Royston has crafted a complicated story of a charming and intriguing young woman, whose paranormal gifts are a mixed blessing, if not a curse. Silence at Midnight is equally well written and suspenseful, and you are left chomping at the bit for more.
It was like something out of a dream. Heavy rain pounded onto the pavement from the black sky. The desolate road twisted through the remote mountains, far from any semblance of civilization. Cold air stung my hands and face. I had just escaped the clutches of a stranger and a pack of wolves–only, what they wanted with me remained a mystery.
Rain pelted the pick-up truck as I stood frozen in front of it. Exhaust billowed out in a fog behind it, the monsoon streaks slicing through the headlight beams. Beads of water rolled down my slicker, and I shivered. Taking a deep breath, I wiped at the tears streaming down my face and shuddered at the memory of the wolves and the man, wondering when–not if–they would find me again. Shaking the images out of my thoughts, I forced a calm smile onto my face. I would have to decide how much to tell Xander about what had just happened, and soon.
The truck opened and Xander jumped out of the cab into the pouring rain. He slammed the door shut and rushed over to me, his dark trench coat glistening wet. Water dripped from his hair onto his forehead. “Laken! What are you doing out here by the road? Where’s your truck?”
My eyes locked with his as he stopped inches in front of me. I took shallow breaths, remembering how out of control I felt when the Explorer hydroplaned on the wet pavement and slid into the ditch. “There,” I said quietly, pointing to the side without taking my eyes off of him. “I went off the road.”
“I’ll explain everything once we get going. I just want to get away from here as fast as we can.”
Xander must have recognized the anxiety in my eyes and voice. “Of course. Come on.” He wrapped an arm around my shoulders and rushed me over to the passenger side of his truck. Without another word, he opened the door and helped me climb into the warm cab. As I leaned back against the seat, finally feeling safe, my trembling subsided.
“Will you get my book bag out of the Explorer? I didn’t think to take it with me.” My excuse was lame, but I didn’t want to tell him about the wolves and the man or that my book bag had been the farthest thing from my mind as I ran for my life. I pulled my keys out of my pocket. “Here. I can’t remember if I locked it.”
Xander smiled reassuringly as he took them. “No problem. I’ll be right back.”
Our eyes met for a quick moment before I looked away, still unnerved by the memory of the wolves and the man. Xander shut the door before disappearing and I locked the truck. Silence loomed through the dark cab except for the rain pounding on the roof. As I waited, I pushed the hood of my slicker behind my neck and wiped the water off my face. I hoped Xander would return soon. I hated to think that the wolves and the man were still out there, and I felt a little guilty for not telling him. But Xander was always so confident and strong. I couldn’t imagine even a pack of hungry wolves taking him down.
The locks suddenly clicked open. I gasped, my heart accelerating for a moment before Xander opened his door. “You okay?” he asked as he climbed in, tossing my book bag behind his seat. “You look like you just saw a ghost.”
I swallowed nervously, turning my attention to the dark windshield as rain pattered against it. I had hoped he wouldn’t notice my anxiety.
“Maybe now is a good time for you to tell me exactly what happened,” he said slowly as he shut his door. He started the engine and flipped on the headlights. Instead of pulling out onto the road, he turned on the heat and then looked at me, his blue eyes waiting.
I glanced at him, hesitant to answer. Finally, I explained, “An animal ran across the road. I didn’t see it until it was right in front of me. When I tried to stop, the brakes locked up and I lost control of the truck.” I didn’t know why I cared, but I didn’t want him to think I was completely incapable. I had driven these roads ever since I had gotten my license nearly two years ago and never had I come close to being stranded like this.
“An animal? Please tell me you didn’t wreck because of a squirrel.”
I rolled my eyes, groaning inwardly. “No. Why would you think that?”
“I knew a girl back home who totaled her Hummer, all because she swerved to avoid hitting a squirrel.”
I smiled, relieved to know his comment actually had merit. “Well, I assure you it wasn’t a squirrel or a rabbit or a mouse.” I paused, taking a deep breath before blurting out, “It was a wolf.” I looked at him, carefully studying his reaction.
Mild surprise registered in his eyes, but he seemed to believe me. “A wolf? I didn’t know wolves lived around here.”
“They don’t–or at least they didn’t used to.”
“You’re sure it wasn’t a big dog?”
“Yes, I’m sure. I know the difference. It’s not the first one I’ve seen.”
Xander watched me intently. “Really?”
I nodded. “Yes. I saw another one twice before tonight. The first time was at the bonfire right before I ran into you.”
He took a deep breath, seeming frustrated. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
I huffed as I turned to stare out the windshield. “I had no reason to tell you. Why would you even ask that?” I shook my head in disbelief. Then I looked back at him and changed the subject. “Where were you this afternoon, anyway? I waited at that old library for an hour.”
“I know and I’m sorry about that. I had to go home. The alarm went off this afternoon.”
“Oh,” I said with a sigh, trying to be at least a little understanding. “That can’t be good.”
Xander frowned. “No, it’s not.”
“Did you find out what set it off?”
He shook his head. “No. We didn’t find anything, and we inspected every inch of the house. It may have been a short somewhere. Dad’s having a technician come out tomorrow to look at it. Again, I’m sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me. I promise it won’t happen again.”
I smiled reluctantly. “Well, considering you just rescued me from being stranded, I suppose I can. But please don’t let it happen again. That library was really creepy. I don’t want to go back there alone.”
“Creepy?” he asked with a teasing smile.
“Yes. Trust me on this. You’ll have to see it to believe it. There were cobwebs in every corner and the books were so dusty, too, like they hadn’t been touched in a century. Then a black cat jumped out at me from the shelves. So the next time you can’t go, I’ll skip it and wait until you can.”
“Don’t worry. I’ll be there next time.” Turning his attention to the road, he shifted the truck into drive and pulled out, making a sharp U-turn to head back to our town. “Did you talk to your parents? Do they know about your truck?”
“No, I couldn’t. I didn’t have any cell service up here.”
Xander glanced at me curiously. “Then why were you up by the road? I just figured you were waiting for someone to come get you.”
“I didn’t know what else to do. The only option I had was to flag down the next car.” I flashed him a smile. “I’m just glad you came along when you did.” I hoped he wouldn’t ask any more questions about how I ended up there.
“Yeah. Me, too.”
“So I guess we’ll have to get a tow truck up here if it ever stops raining,” I mused.
“I can take care of that for you. I’ve got some chains at home. I should be able to pull your Explorer up to the road with this truck as soon as it dries up a bit. If it was a little drier, I bet you could have gotten up the embankment in four-wheel drive. You do have four wheel drive, don’t you?”
“Yes. That was the first thing I tried.”
“Well, I think the rain is supposed to move out of here tonight. If it dries out tomorrow, we should be able come back to get it on Saturday.”
“That would be great. Thanks.”
“No problem. I’m glad I can help. I feel partially responsible since I was supposed to drive this afternoon.” He smiled at me before returning his attention to the road as he carefully guided the truck around the hairpin turns at a safe speed. “Can I buy you dinner this evening? Make it up to you?”
I sighed, dreading his reaction to what I was about to tell him. “Actually, I’m meeting Noah for pizza. Can you drop me off at Mike’s in town?”
Xander’s expression darkened, yet he remained calm. “Sure.”
He frowned as he focused on the road. Silence fell between us and we rode the rest of the way to town without talking. I leaned my head against the seat, wishing he would say something, anything, to distract my thoughts away from the wolves and the stranger. But he didn’t. The only sound was that of the rain pounding on the roof of the truck and the windshield wipers moving up and down.
We pulled into town just before seven o’clock. A misty drizzle was all that remained of the rain. As we passed the shops, bed and breakfast inns, and local bank, I flipped the sun visor down to use the mirror.
“You look beautiful,” he said quickly as I tucked a few stray strands of hair behind my ear and wiped at the mascara smudged beneath my eyes. My hair had stayed mostly dry, and I didn’t look nearly as haggard as I felt.
I snapped the visor back into place as Xander parked the truck in front of Mike’s Pizza Shop. “You’re too kind,” I said as I eagerly unbuckled my seatbelt and tugged on the door handle.
“Hey, not so fast. Do you want me to walk you in just to make sure he’s here?”
I had already spotted Noah’s sedan among the cars lined up next to the sidewalk under the streetlights. “No. His car is here, so I’ll be fine. Thanks again for the ride.”
My eyes met his icy blue gaze for a quick moment, and I flashed him a grateful smile before hopping out of the truck.
As I pushed the heavy door shut with all my strength, I barely heard Xander’s last words. “Don’t forget your book bag.”
I ran through the mist to the other side of the truck to grab the book bag before heading down the sidewalk to the pizza shop. Xander’s truck roared behind me for a moment as he throttled past me. Then the engine noise faded to a soft whisper and the red taillights disappeared in the distance. I hurried into the pizza shop, the familiar chime of the bell hanging from the inside door handle announcing my arrival. My eyes adjusted to the bright lights in the dining area as I scanned the randomly seated guests. Roughly half of the tables were vacant, and yet the buzz of chatter rang out through the restaurant.
Within a few seconds, I saw Noah rise to his feet at a table in the back corner. He wore blue jeans and an untucked beige shirt. Our gazes met, and I instantly recognized the concern clouding his eyes. He rushed toward me as I crossed the dining area to meet him halfway. Without a word, he raised his hand to my chin and gently kissed me. When he lifted his lips from mine, a warm glow rushed through me, and I momentarily forgot about being chased by the wolves.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” I murmured.
“What happened? I was starting to get really worried. Come on, let’s sit down.” He took my hand in his, leading me to the corner table he had claimed while waiting for me. Two sodas, one half empty, sat upon the red and white checked tablecloth. “I ordered you a Diet Coke, but the ice may have melted a little.”
“Thanks.” I peeled off my stiff raincoat and hung it on the back of a chair. It had dried on the ride back to town but now glistened with a film of moisture from the mist. After dropping my book bag on the floor by my feet, I sat down across from Noah and took a sip of my drink. “I had an accident,” I explained, toying with the straw in my soda
“What kind of accident?” Noah asked with alarm. “Laken, I don’t like the sound of this.”
My gaze shifted to tablecloth. “I slid off the road somewhere between here and Littleton,” I said with a deep sigh. “The Explorer’s stuck in the mud. Xander came along right after it happened and gave me a ride.”
“What? How did that happen?”
“An animal ran out in front of me. Another wolf.” I glanced up at him as I said the last few words.
“Another one?” Noah asked, his jaw gaping open.
“Yeah. This one was white, so it isn’t the same one I saw at the bonfire.”
Noah frowned. “This is becoming a big problem. I’m starting to wonder if we should tell your father.”
“No!” I gasped, surprised that he would even suggest it. “Right now, I seem to be the only one who has seen them. He’ll either think I’m crazy or he’ll put me on lockdown and I won’t be allowed out of his sight unless someone is with me.” I paused, looking at Noah as an unsettled thought crossed my mind. “You don’t think I’m crazy, do you? You believe me, right?”
“Of course I believe you,” Noah replied quickly. “I heard at least one of them last weekend. There’s no doubt in my mind something’s going on out there. But like you said, as far as we know, you’re the only one who has seen them.”
Fear crept up my spine as his words sank in. It would be one thing if other people had reported sightings of wolves roaming the woods, but the wolves had seemed to have singled me out. I was sure that it had something to do with the stranger, but I didn’t want to worry Noah by telling him about the man I thought had seen up by the road tonight. He would certainly tell my father, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for that. Besides, how would I explain how I’d gotten away? I couldn’t tell him a moose charged out of the woods to protect me. “So what do we do?”
Noah leaned back in his chair and folded his arms across his chest. “I don’t know, but I sure wish I did. Until tonight, you’ve been safe. It’s a good thing Xander came along when he did, but next time you might not be so lucky.”
I nodded. “I don’t think I’m going to drive outside town again, at least not until things settle down. And I’m definitely not going back to that library alone.”
“That’s a start, but it’s not a long-term solution.” Noah sighed, lifting his eyes away from me as Mike’s full-time waitress, Katy, approached. She was in her forties with stringy reddish-brown hair and brown eyes. Smiling, she pulled a notepad and pen out of her apron to take our order.
My stomach growled as I suddenly realized how hungry I was. We quickly ordered a medium pizza, only resuming our conversation after Katy left. “I feel like a sitting duck,” I admitted. “And there’s nothing I can do about it. This all started when Ryder was taken. Do you think there’s a connection?”
Noah shook his head. “There’s no way to know. But speaking of Ryder, I have some news about the guy who took him. That’s why I wanted to meet you tonight.” He smiled sheepishly. “Well, it’s one of the many reasons I wanted to see you tonight.”
My heart swelled from his comment. It was nice to know he had been looking for an excuse to see me again. “What did you find out?”
“The FBI has been working this case and they found out that our guy received a pretty big bank deposit the week before Ryder was taken. Ten thousand dollars.”
“What? I thought people stole kids to hold them for ransom. How could the money have something to do with Ryder?”
“They don’t know. They’re trying to find out if he had any other deals going at the time. The money could be completely unrelated to Ryder unless…” His voice trailed off.
“Unless what?” I asked, curious to know where he was going with this.
“Unless someone paid him to take Ryder.”
“Why would anyone do that? That’s crazy.” I paused thoughtfully. “Of course, so are the wolves roaming New Hampshire that seem to only appear when I’m alone. What else is the FBI doing? Are they following up on the money to see if they can find out where it came from?”
“Yes, but they’re notoriously slow. Since Ryder was found safe and the guy died, it’s not high up on their list of priorities. So it may be a while before we learn anything else.”
I shuddered at the memory of Ryder’s abduction. It wasn’t that long ago that I felt completely safe in these mountains. Now I couldn’t go anywhere alone. Not for a hike in the woods or to the library in a neighboring town. We even locked our doors now, a first for me. My world was quickly crumbling at my feet, and I didn’t know how to stop it.
Noah reached across the table to grasp my hand. “It’s going to be okay, I promise.”
I met his gaze and smiled weakly. “I hope so.”
When the pizza arrived a few minutes later, we dug into it. Noah changed the subject, asking about my classes and the plans for homecoming weekend. I couldn’t have been more grateful to have something other than my accident to talk about.
After dinner, he drove me home through the misty rain. When we pulled into my driveway, the lights in the windows shone like bright beacons in the dark. A feeling of dread washed over me. My parents would be waiting inside, and I would have to tell them that the Explorer was stuck in a muddy ditch halfway between here and Littleton. The only problem was that I couldn’t tell them about the wolves. I’d have to blame my accident on something else like a moose, and I hated lying to them.
As Noah shifted into park, he turned to me with the motor running. “Would you like me to walk you to the door?”
“Yes, always. But I’m going to take a rain check for tonight. My parents are probably waiting for me and I just want to get this over with.”
“Okay. But the next time I bring you home, I’m walking you to the door like a proper gentleman. And I’m not taking no for an answer.”
I smiled as I unbuckled my seatbelt and released the strap over my stiff raincoat. It snapped back into place over my right shoulder. As soon as I was free to move, I leaned toward him. “Good. When will that be?”
“Saturday night? If you’re free, that is.”
“I am. Maybe we can pick up where we left off last Saturday night before we were so rudely interrupted.”
“Be careful what you wish for,” was all he said before he kissed me. When Noah pulled away, he smiled. “For the record, I’m just glad you’re okay tonight. I don’t like hiding all of this from your dad.”
“I know. Neither do I. But I know he’ll overreact.” I gazed at him, meeting the concern lurking deep within his eyes. Without looking away, I placed my hand on the door, poised to open it. “Call me?”
He nodded. “I will. Good luck with your parents tonight.”
“Thanks.” I shot him a faint smile before reaching for my book bag on the floor by my feet. Then I pushed the door open and slid out of the car. Waving, I crossed through the headlight beams on my way to the sidewalk. When I reached the front door, I paused, darting a quick look across the lawn into the darkness and wondering if the man who had been with the wolves a few hours ago was nearby. A chill raced down my spine as I realized I would never know.
Trying to push the memory of him out of my thoughts, I reached into my pocket for my keys. As I unlocked the door, I hoped my parents were home. I would feel safe once I got inside, as long as they were here. And even though I dreaded telling them about the accident, dealing with them would be a walk in the park after what I’d been through tonight.
© 2016 by Tonya Royston