BY: TONYA ROYSTON
On her own since Noah walked away, Laken finds her resistance to Xander crumbling. As she turns to him for comfort, the stranger in the woods reappears, threatening Xander and his father, Caleb.
When Caleb reveals the secrets he and Xander have been protecting, Laken realizes she must stop at nothing to help them defeat the stranger. But Xander eludes him, and Laken is captured instead. Facing an unknown fate at the hands of a mad man driven by greed and jealousy, she resolves to fight to the bitter end for her life and her love.
The stakes are high, and no one, including Dakota, is safe. Will Laken survive, or will the curse she tossed aside as a fairy tale prove to be true?
(Twenty-five cents for every print and ebook copy sold will be donated to the Ian Somerhalder Foundation.)
TAYLOR JONES SAYS: In Surrender at Sunrise by Tonya Royston, we get the third installment of Laken, Xander, and Noah. In this version, we discover why Noah has been acting so strangely, and what Xander and his dad have been hiding. You just can’t help feeling for Laken as she uncovers one dark secret after another. Is there anyone who hasn’t been lying to her? She has to grow up in a hurry, while protecting herself and those she loves from danger. A hard row to hoe when you are only 18.
Like the first two books in the trilogy, this one is well-written with a number of twists and turns that keep you guessing—and turning pages—from beginning to end.
REGAN MURPHY SAYS: Surrender at Sunset by Tonya Royston is a worthy addition and a satisfying conclusion to the Sunset Trilogy. Our heroine, Laken Sumner, is mourning her breakup with Noah, the sheriff’s deputy, who left her with no explanation. But she can’t be too down as Xander is still making his interest known. Laken finds herself drawn to Xander for reasons she can’t explain, but she doesn’t completely trust him. And why should she? She knows he’s hiding something, but then so is Noah. Men! It seems the only one she can trust is Dakota, and he’s a wolf. As Laken struggles to discover what Noah and Xander are hiding, and who the stranger is who seems to be stalking her, she uncovers some dark secrets that shake her faith in what she believes. Now she is fighting for her life and the lives of those she loves, including Dakota.
Royston’s love of animals, especially wolves, comes through clearly in this exciting tale of love, loss, courage, and forgiveness. The Sunset Trilogy is a page-turner that will appeal to animal lovers, romantics, and suspense fans of all ages, easily crossing the YA, NA, and adult genres.
My world was falling apart. The morning after the stranger appeared in my backyard, I woke up wishing that the night had been a bad dream. But the man, his threats directed at Xander and his father, and Noah’s confession that there was someone else were all very real. I was living my worst nightmare, and I didn’t know where to turn.
I tried to use my calculus problems and the English essay due on Monday to distract me, but it was hopeless. Giving up on my homework, I called Brooke and relayed everything that happened with Noah after she and Ethan left. It helped to hear her voice, though she offered me little reassurance that Noah would be back soon, as she had over the last few weeks.
Later that evening after a long day of wondering what else would go wrong in my life, I returned to my homework. As I stared at the empty computer screen, the cursor blinking in the top left corner, my mind drew a blank. I lifted my eyes to the gray sky looming outside the window. Despite my leggings and sweatshirt, a chill raced through me. I felt as though the world was closing in on me. So much had happened in a short period of time. I had met Noah, fallen for him, and then lost him. I had learned that my mother wasn’t my birth mother, and I had discovered that I’d been used as bait to lure Xander and his father to our sleepy town, although I still wasn’t quite sure why. The last thing I could think about today was my homework.
I pondered over every word the stranger had said, trying to piece the clues together. The only thing that made sense was knowing that Ryder’s disappearance had been carefully planned. It was somewhat of a relief to know his abduction hadn’t been random, but it weighed on my shoulders now that I knew it had to do with me.
Something else nagged at me. The stranger said he’d watched Ivy from a distance. I wondered if she had known who he was and what he wanted. There was only one way to find out. I tore my eyes away from the computer to glance across the room at my dresser.
I jumped up and rushed over to it, pulling the top drawer open. After grabbing the shoebox containing memorabilia of my birth mother, I carried it back to the bed and sat on the edge. I held my breath as I removed the ragged lid, wondering what answers I might find.
Rummaging through the photographs, I paid no attention to Dakota, who watched me from his bed, a curious expression in his amber eyes. Finding the envelope that held Ivy’s letter, I lifted it out from under the pictures. Then I set the box down beside me, forgetting about it as I ripped open the envelope and pulled out a handwritten letter.
After unfolding it, I began to read.
I trust that by the time you receive this, you are grown up and your father has explained why I had to give you up. I won’t go into those details except to tell you that I loved you very much from the moment I felt you growing inside me until you were born. I also loved your father. He was everything to me. When I found out I was sick, I couldn’t watch him suffer as I slipped away from this world. So I made the very difficult decision to leave. I know what it feels like to lose someone you love. I lost my mother to cancer when I was five years old. I remember the unbearable pain and sorrow it put me through, but I also remember the torment my father endured as he watched her fight a losing battle. I couldn’t put you both through that. Gwen was an angel to take you into her arms as if she had given birth to you herself. I’m sure you would agree that she was the perfect woman to raise you as her own. I believed that she would care for you and love you as only a mother can.
Now that you are older, you may have noticed that you have a very special talent to communicate with animals. Don’t be frightened of this. I, too, could talk to them, and they understood my thoughts. It was a gift my mother had, that she inherited from her mother. I’m not sure how it all started or when, but I believe that this ability was bestowed upon our bloodline centuries ago. It has been passed on from mother to daughter, and you will pass it on to your daughter. Perhaps by the time you read this letter, you already have a little girl of your own.
I paused, lifting my tear-filled eyes to glance at Dakota. I wondered what my birth mother would have thought if she knew that her love of wolves lived on in me. Dakota raised his head, his ears up and pointed at me. He watched me, as if listening to me read the letter. My eyes met his for a brief moment before I dropped my gaze back down to finish reading.
I hope this helps you understand where you came from and how you can talk to animals. At least you know that it’s not just you, and I’m sure that’s reassuring. I wish I could be there for you, to talk about all the wonderful things you can do with this gift, and to tell you some of what I experienced because of it. But life has dealt me a bad hand, and I will soon move on in death. I will watch over you from the stars above and, perhaps someday, only after you’ve had a lifetime of love and happiness with your own family, we will be reunited.
She had signed the letter, All my love, your mother, Ivy.
Nowhere had Ivy mentioned that a stranger would use me to find two people I had never known. If she hadn’t warned me, then she must not have known anything about him. At least the letter reinforced what my father had already told me. There was no doubt in my mind that she had wanted me, but had made her decisions based on what was best for those she loved.
I carefully folded the letter back into place and slid it into the envelope. Someday, I would read it again. But for tonight, it was time to return the shoebox along with all my questions to the dresser and attempt to write the essay due tomorrow.
I expected Xander to ambush me at my locker the next morning before homeroom but, to my surprise, he never appeared. His absence meant I would be spared his sarcasm and condescending remarks about Noah or anything else that came up in conversation. It also meant that I couldn’t warn him about the stranger before the first class of the day as I had planned.
I tried calling him, but got his voice mail. Then I sent him a quick text. Where R U? We need to talk. But he never answered me. Several times, I debated telling him about the stranger in a text. More than once, I worried that the stranger had already found him and my warning would be too late.
I was tempted to leave school and drive up to his house, but fear held me back. I finally decided that if I didn’t hear from him by the end of the day, I would tell my father everything and let him and Noah take it from there.
I trudged through my classes as best as I could, turning in my essay with little confidence that I would get anything higher than a B minus grade, if even that. The day passed by slowly, and I caught myself dozing off in class several times due to my last two restless nights of little to no sleep. By the time the final bell rang, I still hadn’t heard from Xander. I quickly rounded up Ethan for the ride home, reminding myself to act as if nothing was wrong. The less he knew, the better.
I said little on the way home. Instead of talking, we listened to the radio as a comfortable silence hung between us. When my house came into view in the distance, I immediately recognized Xander’s black pick-up parked next to our mailbox. Relief settled over me. He was safe. But as I sighed with a silent thank you, I frowned. Why hadn’t he responded to my text?
When I pulled into the driveway, Ethan asked, “Isn’t that Xander’s truck?” He turned to stare at it as I eased the Explorer to a stop facing the garage.
“Yes,” I said, shutting off the engine and not bothering to give the pick-up another glance. I was exhausted and overwhelmed with conflicting emotions after such a long day. I’d been prepared to tell Xander about the man this morning after rehearsing what to say all night. But my carefully crafted speech suddenly escaped me, and all I wanted to do was rest.
“I wonder what he’s doing here when he didn’t show up for school today,” Ethan mused.
“He probably wants me to give him my class notes from Friday and today.”
“Or maybe he wants to ask you to the Halloween dance again,” Ethan suggested with a teasing grin.
“If that’s it, then he’s wasting his time,” I declared before hopping out of the SUV. I closed the door and grabbed my book bag from the back seat as Ethan jumped out on the other side.
When I turned away from the Explorer with my bag hanging from my shoulder, Ethan stood before me in the late afternoon sunshine. I squinted up at him, the descending sun behind him nearly blinding me as it hovered above the mountain.
With all the distractions from the weekend muddling my thoughts, I had left my sunglasses on my dresser this morning.
“Do you want me to stick around?” he asked.
“No. I can handle this. But thanks for the offer.”
“Anytime. See you tomorrow for another fun day at school.” Ethan smiled and raised his eyebrows for a moment before turning. His backpack hoisted over his black jacket, he headed across the lawn. I watched him stop at Xander’s truck to look in the window. “He’s not here,” Ethan called over to me.
“He must be out back. I’ll find him,” I said before hurrying up the sidewalk to the front door, my keys jingling in my hand.
As soon as I let myself into the house, I locked the door and wandered into the kitchen where I dropped my things on the table. The house was warm, but I kept my parka on and went straight to the back door.
I stepped outside to find Xander sitting on the patio steps. His back was turned to me, his dark hair shining in the slanted afternoon light. Dakota lay beside him, basking in the sun as Xander rubbed the fur between his ears.
Hearing the door, Xander stood and turned, his black trench coat falling to his knees. His clear blue eyes met my curious gaze, and he smiled. “I hope you don’t mind me waiting out here.”
I stood a few feet away from the house and glanced at the patio table where a big silver box with a red ribbon tied around it had been placed. Then I looked back at Xander, noticing that Dakota lingered beside him, seeming hesitant to leave his side. “No, I guess not. I mean, if Dakota’s okay with it, then I am, too.” I didn’t know what else to say since our last conversation had ended so abruptly when he’d told me I was naïve for believing that Noah would come back to me. But I could hardly stay mad at him. Not only had he been right, but now I was worried about him. I just hoped that my warning would keep him and his father out of harm’s reach. “Come on in. It’s pretty cold out here. I want to hear about your trip.”
I gestured to the house before turning to lead the way. Dakota trotted across the patio and slipped inside while Xander went to the table to pick up the box. I held the door open for him as he carried the package into the house, our eyes meeting for a quick moment when he walked past me.
Once inside, I shut and locked the door. Leaning against it, I watched him set the box next to my book bag on the table. He slipped off his coat and hung it on the back of a chair.
Then he smiled across the kitchen at me. Even against his black shirt, his skin seemed darker than I remembered, kissed by the California sun from his weekend trip. “Don’t you want to take your coat off?” he asked, breaking me out of my trance as I studied him.
“I guess so,” I said, removing my parka to reveal the burgundy sweater I wore with jeans and tall black boots. I folded the parka over my arms as I lingered by the door. “You look like you got some sun. Did you have a nice time?”
“Aside from missing you?” he asked with a sly grin that faded into a wistful look when he continued. “Yeah, it was awesome to be home. A storm churned up the ocean and the waves were huge. I didn’t realize how much I missed it until I got out there in the water.”
“Well, maybe now that you’ve been on good behavior, your dad will move you back.” The farther he and his father got from here and the man searching for them, the better.
Xander flashed a smile, choking out a laugh. “Not a chance. I hope that’s not what you want.”
“Well, no, I guess not. At least not until we’re done with the History project.”
“At least you’re honest,” he said.
I sighed with an awkward smile as I approached the table, dropping my coat on a chair. “What happened to you today? I thought you’d be at school.”
“We flew back on the red-eye and didn’t get home until about nine this morning. I went straight to bed.”
I continued standing, hesitant to sit down and get too comfortable. “Is that why you didn’t answer my text?”
“Sorry about that. I only saw it an hour ago, so I figured I’d meet you here.” He paused then changed the subject. “I suppose you’re wondering what this box is. It’s a gift for you.” He pushed it across the table until it reached the edge closest to me.
I glanced at him, not quite sure what to say or whether or not to accept it. “Xander, this is too much. I’m not sure I can take this from you.” I looked down at the box, admiring the huge bow tied in the center.
“I can’t return it. I picked it up in LA. It wasn’t something I planned, trust me. I just stumbled upon something that reminded me of you. It’s perfect for you, you’ll see. You can open it later if you’d like.”
I mustered up a weak smile. “Yes, I’d feel more comfortable waiting. You don’t mind?” As curious as I was to know what he had brought back for me, I couldn’t open it now, not when I needed to tell him about the stranger.
“No, not at all. I kind of figured you’d prefer to do that. Consider it a peace offering after the way we left things last week. Speaking of which, how’s it going with Noah?”
“It’s not,” I blurted out. “And I’d rather not talk about that.”
“Got it.” Xander studied me for a minute, his eyes holding a mixture of sympathy and satisfaction. In the end, his satisfaction won out. “Maybe now you’ll reconsider my invitation to the Halloween dance?” he asked, his voice hesitant.
“No,” I replied flatly.
Xander nodded with a thoughtful smile. “Well, I still have four days to try to change your mind.”
“I’m not going to change my mind.” I shook my head, trying desperately to figure out the best way to change the subject and tell him about the stranger. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Sure. I’ll have whatever you’re having.”
“Works for me.”
Without another word, I walked across the kitchen to get two glasses from the cabinet. After filling them with ice, I retrieved two Diet Cokes from the refrigerator. Wrapping my hands around the glasses and cans, I carried them all together to the table.
Halfway across the kitchen, the glasses shifted in my grasp. Before I could rebalance them, everything I was holding fell to the floor in an explosive crash. On impact, the cans rolled across the tile until they hit the wall, but the glasses shattered and sharp fragments scattered everywhere.
“Damn it!” I swore, kneeling down to pick up a piece of broken glass, careful not to touch the jagged edge.
Tears of frustration filled my eyes, and I nearly forgot about Xander as I scanned the mess of broken glass and ice littering the kitchen floor. Out of the corner of my eye, I spotted Dakota who had been standing near Xander this whole time. “Dakota, upstairs before you cut your paws.”
He promptly turned and trotted up the stairs, the familiar clicking of his nails on the wooden steps growing softer as he reached the top.
“Here, let me help you,” Xander offered as he approached me, stooping down to collect a few of the big pieces of glass.
My attention shifting for a moment, I felt a sharp broken edge nick my palm. “Ouch!” I winced as blood pooled on my skin. Tears finally burst from my eyes, and my pulse quickened with anxiety.
“Laken,” Xander said, looking at my cut. “You need to be more careful.” He reached over and gently touched my injured hand. “Here, let me–” He stopped when he noticed my tears. “Hey,” he said softly. “It’s okay. It’s just some broken glass. We’ll get it cleaned up. No big deal.”
“It’s not about the glass!” I cried. “And it’s not about my hand. A guy showed up here Saturday night looking for you and your father. I think you’re in some kind of trouble and I didn’t know how to tell you.” I watched him, wondering how he would react.
Xander’s face paled as he stared at me in shock, seeming to forget about the broken glass scattered all over the floor and the cut on my hand. “What?” For once, he didn’t have a snappy comeback. In fact, he didn’t seem to have any words at all.
“You heard me. Someone was looking for you. That’s what I wanted to talk to you about today. I didn’t know how to put that into a text. And then I was so worried all day that he already found you. If you hadn’t shown up here this afternoon, I was going to tell my dad.” I paused, gazing at him as I applied pressure on my palm, hoping the bleeding would stop. “Who is that man? What does he want with you and your dad?”
Xander took a deep breath, his brow furrowed in thought. “I’m not sure. My father has been a little on edge lately, but he hasn’t told me what’s been bothering him.”
“Well, the man told me he used me to lure you and your dad here. What is going on?” I felt like there was so much that Xander wasn’t telling me. And now that he and his father were in danger, it was about time he started explaining.
“Nothing you need to worry about.”
As Xander rose to his feet, I stood up beside him, the broken glass suddenly the farthest thing from my mind. “Like hell,” I gritted out. “Clearly, I have something to do with this. And if I’m involved, I think I should know how and why.”
Xander gazed at me thoughtfully. “I’ve already told you, it will be revealed soon enough. But right now, I don’t have time for a history lesson. I need you to tell me everything about this guy. Did you know him or recognize him? What exactly did he say?”
“I don’t know who he is but, yes, I’ve seen him before. Remember the night you gave me a ride home from the restaurant when Noah had to take Mark and Eric to the station?”
“Of course, I remember. Go on.”
“There was a man at the bar who helped. Noah was outnumbered, and a guy, the man who is now apparently after you and your dad, jumped right in without hesitating. I remember how calm he was about the whole thing when he held one of the boys back from taking a swing at Noah.”
“Had you ever seen him before that night?”
I shook my head. “No, never.”
“What does he look like?”
I described the man to Xander, cringing as a vivid image of him flashed through my mind. “Even though he was helpful that night at the restaurant, I remember he sent shivers down my spine. Now I know why.”
“Did he tell you why he was looking for us in your backyard?”
“I don’t think he was. I think he’s playing with all of us by scaring me. But here’s the really weird part. He thanked me for finding Ryder. He set up Ryder’s abduction. It was a trap. He said he had Ryder taken so that I would find him and bring you and your dad to town. Is that true? Did you and your dad move here because of me?”
“Yes, we did,” Xander replied steadily.
“Why? What do you want from me?”
A knowing grin swept over Xander’s face for a brief moment. “A date. What else would I want from you?”
“I don’t know. You tell me.”
An awkward silence fell between us before Xander’s apprehension returned. “We’re digressing here. We’ll have plenty of time to talk about that later.”
“Maybe you and your dad should leave town.”
“That’s not an option,” he said, without giving it a thought.
“Because we just found you. We can’t leave now.”
“Funny. That’s what he said.”
Xander frowned, averting his gaze away from me. “Well, I need to get home to talk to my dad. I’m afraid I can’t help you clean up. Sorry.”
He walked over to the table, stepping gingerly in between the pieces of broken glass. He reached for his coat and slipped it on, wrapping the long sides around his muscular frame. Then he returned to me, sidestepping around the glass again. “How’s your hand?” he asked, glancing down.
I held it up. Blood still seeped from the cut. “The bleeding is starting to slow down. I just need a Band-Aid. I’ll be fine.”
Xander reached for my wrist, lifting my hand to inspect it. His touch sent electricity up my arm, the shockwaves reaching my toes. He stood so close and, when I looked up, his gaze locked with mine.
The moment ended when a dark frown swept across his face and he let go of me. He looked around as if noticing the kitchen for the first time since he had arrived. A haunting silence loomed throughout the house. “Where are your parents?”
“At work, where they always are at this time of the day. My mom should be home within an hour or so. Why?”
“Because I’m not sure I should leave you here alone.”
“I’m not alone. Dakota’s upstairs.”
“And where was Dakota when the man showed up?”
“He–he took off after something in the woods. One of the other wolves, I think. But I won’t let him out this afternoon.”
“Hmmm,” Xander huffed.
“If you’re worried about leaving me alone for an hour, don’t be. That guy doesn’t want me.”
“I wish I could be sure of that. But I doubt he’s going to show up here in broad daylight when your parents will be home any minute. If he’s been in town for a few months, he knows your parents’ schedules by now.”
“Okay, that’s just creepy.” I shuddered to think that someone had been watching me and my parents for months, studying our daily routines.
“You sure you’ll be okay? I’ll stay until your mom gets home if you’ve changed your mind.”
I shook my head adamantly. “No. Like I said before, I have Dakota. I’m not going to let this guy scare me to the point that I need a babysitter in the middle of the afternoon. Go home to your dad. I know you want to fill him in as soon as you can.”
“For what it’s worth, I’d rather stay here with you,” he said with a faint smile. “Walk me out?”
I nodded and followed him out of the kitchen to the front door. Tiny shards of glass reached as far as the edge of the hallway, gleaming in the light. Xander unlocked the front door and stepped outside into the brisk fall afternoon. The light had softened from the setting sun, turning the sky to dusky purple.
“I’ll talk to you soon,” was all he said, his eyes meeting mine for a moment before he hurried down the sidewalk and disappeared around the corner.
As I closed the door and clicked the lock into place, I pushed my questions out of my thoughts. Then I returned to the kitchen to clean up the broken glass before my mother arrived home. I knew she wouldn’t be angry about an accident, but I didn’t want to have to explain why I was so jittery. I couldn’t exactly tell her the glasses had slipped out of my hands because a stranger lurking in our backyard Saturday night had frazzled my nerves.
After I dumped the last pieces of broken glass into the garbage can and wiped up the melted ice, I turned my attention to the silver box on the table. Hesitantly, I reached for it, not sure if I wanted to accept what I expected would be a lavish gift. But I had no choice. I picked it up, noting the medium weight. The contents seemed to fit securely within the box, not shifting from one side to another as I tilted it. Curious, I carried it up to my bedroom and placed it on my bed. Dakota paced in the room, as if he’d been locked in and not allowed to leave. I ran a hand along his head and neck, telling him he could return to the kitchen now that the broken glass had been cleaned up. He charged out into the hallway as I stared at the box, daring myself to untie the exquisite red bow.
Finally, my curiosity got the best of me. I slid the ribbon off the box, removing it without untying the bow. After discarding it, I lifted the lid and placed it on the bed. Then I unfolded the tissue paper to reveal red velvet material with sparkling rhinestones scattered along the edge. A small envelope poked out of the folds. I reached for it, ripped it open and pulled out a notecard.
I can’t think of a more perfect costume for you than Red Riding Hood. I hope you’ll wear this to the Halloween dance. And if I can’t convince you to be my date, perhaps you’ll at least save me a dance.
It was signed Xander.
I sighed thoughtfully, tucking the notecard back into the envelope. Then I covered the material up with the tissue paper, laid the envelope on it, and replaced the lid on top of the box. The costume was beautiful, at least what I could see of it without removing it. As much as I wanted to pull it out and admire every detail, it reminded me that Noah wouldn’t be going to the dance with me. Perhaps I would be ready to try it on in a few days. But for now, it had to stay in the box, at least until I decided whether or not to accept Xander’s invitation to be his date.
© 2016 by Tonya Royston