HQN / December 31, 2013 / $7.99 print & digital
Every day, bodyguard Owen Jackson puts his life on the line—and keeps his feelings for Penny Sandoval locked away. Assigned to protect Penny's father, a presidential candidate, Owen can't get emotionally involved. That is, until Penny and her young son, Cruz, are abducted and taken deep into the California badlands.
Owen knows the bleak territory from his childhood. Worse, he knows the gang leader making ransom demands—his own brother, Shane. When a terrified Penny escapes into the desert with Cruz, Owen has to save her: from the elements and from the gang in close pursuit. Owen has hidden the darkness in his past from Penny. Now his only chance of keeping her alive is to let her see the man he really is—even if it means losing the only woman he'll ever want.
You cannot throw a rock these days without hitting dozens of ongoing series within the romance genre. Even though we all like to complain that there are too many series and whatever happened to the stand-alone romance, we readers are our own worst enemies. The truth is, we love series. Not only do we want to get hooked, we secretly hope that the author will create a power couple. The future romantic couple that is introduced early on in the series that works us up into a frenzy for their promised future book.
That is exactly what Jill Sorenson was able to do with her Aftershock series. As much as I enjoyed the first two books, it was the introduction of Penny Sandoval and Owen Jackson that had readers marking time until their romance, Badlands, made its debut. Readers met Penny and Owen in the first book, Aftershock, a story that centers around a group of people trapped under a mountain of freeway rubble after an 8.5 earthquake hits the San Diego area.
Penny is a very pregnant teenager, kicked out of her parents’ house, living with an aunt who dies when the freeway collapses. Owen Jackson is a convict, complete with a wide array of Aryan Brotherhood tattoos, whose prison transport bus was on the freeway when the whole thing collapsed. Circumstances bring Penny and Owen together, and they forge an unlikely friendship that eventually blooms into full-blown attraction.
Badlands takes place five years after the earthquake and a lot has happened to both Owen and Penny since those terrible days. Owen got most of his tattoos removed or altered, worked as a park ranger in northern California and is now serving as a bodyguard for Penny and her son, Cruz. Penny has been welcomed back into the family fold, finished school, and has become a valuable asset to her conservative father, who is running for President, having just won the Republican primary. It is her father’s political ambitions that drive the action to the story, leading to the kidnapping of Penny and Cruz.
This story is all about the choices we make and the various devils we sometimes find ourselves getting in bed with. While having proven himself time and again, it doesn’t change the fact that Owen has a criminal record. Making a deal with his brother got him in prison, making a deal with the Aryan Brotherhood got him protection behind bars, and making a deal with Penny’s father gets him out of prison. Owen now has ambition to become a firefighter, an extremely competitive career path in California. Someone with his past is not going to get his foot in the door without some help, and that’s why he takes the bodyguard job with Penny’s father. The man’s recommendation will grease a lot of wheels for Owen, even if Owen finds himself tormented by his attraction to Penny, a woman he can never have, for too many reasons to name.
When Penny got pregnant she was effectively disowned by her father. The natural disaster of the earthquake and the birth of his first grandchild brings him around. As happy as that makes Penny, and as much as she craves the safety of her family after those terrible events, she gives up an awful lot for that security. Yes, she finishes school and yes, Cruz is a happy, healthy little boy who wants for nothing. However, she is now being used by her father’s campaign and she is in love with Owen, a man that her father would in no way find acceptable even if he does employ him. She’s a pretty bird trapped in a gilded cage. Yes, the cage is comfortable but it is a life that does not bring her much joy.
Everybody in this story has their devil, even Penny’s father. It is the alliances he makes very early on in his candidacy that lead to Penny and Cruz getting kidnapped. As his campaign wears on, he tries to distance himself from these more extremist ties to attract broader appeal, but by then even more extreme factions are displeased with a Hispanic man winning a major party nomination. While the author, wisely, keeps the political commentary to a bare minimum, it is an aspect of the plot that hits close to reality thanks to the current partisan political lines being drawn in Washington, DC.
In real life we make choices every day. These choices can range from simple things that have little to no impact on our future lives, to things that may seem gift horses at the time but ultimately have long-reaching effects. That is what Penny and Owen learn in Badlands. They learn that the choices they made following the extreme events of the San Diego earthquake are now affecting their ability to be together. Lucky for them, and for the reader, that they find themselves in a romance novel. It is a tough road, but Owen and Penny finally get the happy ending we’ve all been waiting for.
Learn more or order a copy of Badlands by Jill Sorenson, available December 31, 2013:
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