Love is the most dangerous territory of all
Every day, bodyguard Owen Jackson puts his life on the lineand 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 demandshis 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 iseven if it means losing the only woman he'll ever want.
About the Author
Jill Sorenson writes sexy action/adventure romance for HQN. Her latest release, Aftershock, was given a starred review by Publishers Weekly.
Jill lives in the San Diego area with her husband and two daughters. She draws inspiration from the diverse neighborhoods and spectacular scenery of Southern California. You can find her on Twitter much too often. Her other hobbies include reading, hiking, and going to the beach.
Read an Excerpt
Penny still had nightmares about the earthquake.
Whenever she felt trapped, she thought of that horrible stretch of days. Eight months pregnant, buried under a massive pile of concrete, no fresh air or sunlight. She'd never take freedom for granted again.
"Almost done," the makeup artist said, aware that Penny was growing restless. "Purse your lips."
Penny made a dutiful moue, hoping the color wouldn't draw more attention to her mouth. She already had full lips and a wide smile. When she wore bright lipstick, it was like a neon sign on her face.
The chaos in the makeup room, along with her inability to move, increased her anxiety. Her mother was getting her hair styled in a chair nearby. Her sister, Raven, had shown up late. She was standing by the door, text-messaging her boyfriend on her iPhone. She seemed annoyed that she had to wait until Penny was finished.
Her youngest sister, Leslie, was trying to distract Cruz with a book. He didn't want to sit still in this cramped environment any more than Penny did. She hoped he wouldn't cause a scene during one of the speeches. In less than an hour, she'd introduce her mother in front of a huge audience at the San Diego Convention Center.
Millions would be watching from home.
"Done. You look beautiful."
"Thanks," she said, barely glancing at her reflection. She got up from the chair just as Cruz wiggled free from Leslie's embrace and grabbed a mascara wand. "Not so fast," she said, prying it from his little fingers.
"Mommy! I want to paint."
"Let's go for a walk," she said, putting the contraband out of reach. She shrugged out of the styling cape and grasped Cruz's hand. As she led him toward the exit, she smoothed the front of her jungle-print dress. It was green-swirled chiffon with a gathered waist and a halter top. The daring style wasn't typical for political conventions, but that was kind of the point. She'd been recruited to entice a younger, less rigid crop of voters.
Owen Jackson was standing by the door. He'd been a member of her father's security team for about six months. Now that Jorge Sandoval had Secret Service protection, Owen had been relegated to guarding Penny and her five-year-old son, Cruz.
Owen skimmed her body with the barest hint of interest before he moved on to Cruz. "What's up, little man?"
"It's boring here."
Owen's brows rose. "This place? It's a circus." Cruz studied a trio of men in suits passing by, as if searching for elephants. The convention center's main floor had an arched canvas ceiling that resembled a dozen circus tents, or maybe the sails of a thousand ships. It was full of interesting architectural shapes and bustling with people. Penny might have given him a tour if she wasn't worried about being recognized and accosted by reporters.
"Is there any space he can play?" she asked.
"Right this way," Owen said, leading them down the hall. He touched the communication device at his collar, relaying the details of their location change.
Tonight her father would be awarded the official nomination at the Republican National Convention. No Hispanic-American had ever won this honor. It was the most important evening of his life. His performance would have a direct effect on the outcome of the November election. The entire nation was watching.
Penny felt like throwing up.
She'd promised to attend for her father's sake, but she didn't care for the public scrutiny. Her status as an unwed mother hadn't gone unnoticed by her father's conservative base. He was known for "family values." Over the past few weeks, speculation about Cruz's parentage had run rampant. Religious groups had criticized her for having loose morals. Pro-life activists claimed her son was the product of rape.
Troubled by the rumors, Penny had agreed to a single on-air interview. She hadn't named and shamed Tyler, her son's father, but she'd been candid in her other responses. She'd even confessed that her parents had ordered her to leave their home when she was pregnant. Then she'd told the extraordinary story of Cruz's birthdays after the San Diego earthquake.
The public reaction to the interview had been overwhelmingly positive. Young people found her relatable. Everyone loved survivor stories. When her father had stood by her, expressing regret over his actions during her pregnancy, his approval ratings with women had soared.
It was just the boost he needed.
Although Penny hadn't wanted to get involved in the campaign, she felt obligated to make one last appearance on his behalf. It was the least she could do after he'd given her his unconditional support.
She followed Owen to a small outdoor terrace that offered a spectacular view of the San Diego Bay. It was closed in, with walls on both sides and a Plexiglas barrier in lieu of a guardrail. At sunset, the surface of the ocean rippled with golden highlights. Cruz's eyes lit up when he saw the fountain in the middle of the terrace. Water bubbled from the top of a stone pillar, cascading down its smooth facade.
"Let me take off your jacket," she said.
He endured the three-second delay with impatience, his little body leaning toward the fountain. As soon as he broke loose, he raced to the fountain's edge. She watched him play for a moment, her arms crossed over her chest. He gathered leaves from a nearby plant to make an armada of floating ships, sinking them with pebble bombs.
Focusing on Cruz helped her regain a sense of calm. He meant everything to her. Strangers said they looked alike, but his tawny-brown hair came straight from Tyler. It was thick and tended to curl at the ends, brushing the collar of his shirt. Sometimes, when his hair was freshly washed, she hugged him close and buried her face in it. Her love for him was boundless, almost frightening in its intensity.
She'd die without him.
Taking a deep breath, she moved her gaze to Owen. He was a tall, unobtrusive statue beside her. Away from the crowds, he didn't need to be on high alert. His manner wasn't exactly relaxed, but he seemed present. As if he wouldn't choose to be anywhere else.
His appearance never varied: smooth-shaven jaw, close-cropped blond hair, inexpensive black suit. She knew from experience that there were hidden depths to his pale blue eyes, dark secrets lurking beneath his ill-fitted jacket and white button-down shirt. The faint scars on his neck and hand, remnants from laser-removed tattoos, told a very different tale than his clean-cut image implied.
Cruz thought Owen was some kind of secret superhero. She'd told him that Owen had rescued them during the earthquake, and helped track down criminals in Sierra National Park. Her son had started making up elaborate stories of Owen's other assorted feats.
She wondered if Owen was aware of the latest rumors. A tabloid reporter had linked them romantically, suggesting he was Cruz's father. Which was impossible, because he'd been incarcerated at the time of Cruz's conception.
"My sister wants to pitch a family reality show to the cable networks," she said. "Keeping up with the Kardashians meets The West Wing!"
He arched a brow. "Sounds like your dad's worst nightmare."
"The White House would never allow that kind of filming."
"Do you think he'll win?"
"Yes," he said after a pause.
The polls were even, but her father was gaining ground. He had momentum. If he continued to perform well, he could be the nation's first Hispanic president. The thought made her heart swell with pride.
"Would you move to Washington, D.C.?" he asked.
"No. Cruz is starting kindergarten next week, and I don't want to leave Palos Verdes."
Owen nodded, scanning the space between Cruz and the door again. Owen was often too engaged in his duties to carry on a real conversation. At this secure location, she didn't think that was a problem. Since accepting the role of bodyguard, he'd put up a wall between them. He was polite and distant, as if they had no personal history. As if he'd never kissed her, or assisted her in childbirth, or been her unlikely confidant.
Their interactions had become stilted.
Maybe he wasn't interested in furthering their relationship. If he was, he wouldn't have been so eager to work for her father. He had a college degree and firefighter training. Instead of applying to the LAFD, as planned, he'd settled for this.
She'd settled, too. Over the past five years, she'd been a dutiful daughter, grateful to her parents for welcoming her and Cruz back home. They'd taken care of her financial needs and spoiled Cruz rotten. Between getting her degree and being a single mother, she'd been too busy to disappoint them.
They'd never approve of her dating someone like Owen.
She fell into a contemplative silence as the sun set over the bay. It felt odd to be back in San Diego with Owen again. Before the earthquake, Penny had lived here for several months with her aunt, who had died in the freeway collapse. The convention center was less than five miles from the interchange, which marked the epicenter. Most of the damage had been repaired years ago. The city showed no signs of its former devastation.
Owen fashioned a paper plane out of a discarded advertisement for the convention and handed it to Cruz. Instead of launching it off the balcony, Cruz ran around in circles, lifting the jet high overhead.
"The clinic offered me a part-time position," she said. "I'm going to be their new community health educator."
He looked impressed. "Congratulations."
She thanked him with a nod. Although she'd done a lot of volunteer work during her final semester of college, this would be her first paid job. She was freshly graduated, ready to make a difference.
"They're asking for you backstage," he said, touching the microphone at his ear.
Her stomach exploded with butterflies. She had the terrifying premonition that she'd trip over her dress, hyperventilate at the podium, or faint from an attack of nerves. "I can't do this," she said in a rush.
"You'll be great."
"Do I look like a clown?"
He examined her face, smiling. "No."
"You look good, Mama," Cruz said, gazing up at her. "As pretty as the ladies on Telemundo."
Owen laughed at this compliment. Perhaps he was familiar with the scantily clad female performers on the popular Spanish-language channel. When he saw her worried expression, he sobered, letting security know they were on the way.
An event organizer escorted the three of them through a maze of passageways until they reached the backstage area. Penny found her mark and stood there, taking deep breaths. She would enter on one side while her mother waited on the other. She didn't dare peek around the curtain to gaze at the crowd.
Cruz was supposed to sit with Leslie and Raven in the family balcony. When her grandmother came to retrieve him, he hid behind Penny's skirt and refused to let go.
"You can't walk out on stage with me," she told Cruz.
"I'll stay behind the curtain with Abuelita."
Penny's grandmother agreed to this suggestion; she rarely said no to Cruz. He stomped toward her, purposefully noisy in his shiny new shoes. She held his hand and let him wander around backstage.
Penny was too nervous to argue. She hoped he wouldn't cause a scene during the introduction. Cruz didn't throw temper tantrums as often as he used to, but he had a lot of energy and got into his share of mischief.
"He'll be fine," Owen said.
She practiced her lines, heart racing.
"Can I get you anything?"
For some reason, his polite offer bothered her. She didn't want a bodyguard or a servant. She wanted a friend. A man. "Do I really look okay?"
"You've never looked better."
"The dress isn't too much?"
His eyes traveled down the bodice and back up. "Not quite enough, I'd say."
The words held no judgment, only mild admiration. He was making a joke to put her at ease, not giving her his sincere opinion.
"I feel like a fraud," she whispered. "Or a whore."
This sparked an honest reaction in him: anger.
"They're using me for sex appeal. Selling my image, my.tasteful cleavage."
He said nothing, unable to deny the truth. "Do you think it works?"
"Are votes so cheaply had?"
"What about yours?"
His lips quirked into a smile. "I'd vote for you, if you were running."
She assumed he supported the opposition, but she didn't ask. He respected her father too much to admit it. Which was kind of ironic, considering the circumstances. It was no coincidence that her father had offered Owen a job as soon as he'd come to L.A. Jorge Sandoval expected his daughters to marry wealthy Latinos. He'd hired Owen to keep him under his thumband off-limits to Penny.
She was annoyed with her father for manipulating Owen, and with Owen for letting him. Most of all, she was frustrated with herself. She'd always felt stifled by her family's strict religious beliefs. If not for Cruz, she'd have left home long ago. She'd traded stability for independence, suppressing her own desires.
"People say I don't know who Cruz's father is."
"Fuck them," he said succinctly.
Her worst critics were members of the Freedom Party, an ultra-conservative group her father had courted and abandoned after winning the primaries. Now that he needed to focus on gaining ground with undecided voters, he could no longer afford to be affiliated with extremists. In recent weeks, his social media accounts had been inundated with suggestive comments about Penny, ethnic slurs and anonymous threats.
Maybe she'd spoken her mind during the interview in an attempt to break free from her family chains. But the move had backfired. Here she was, at another campaign event against her will. She didn't want to be put on display, or to help her father win. What she longed for was right in front of her. She wished she had the nerve to tell Owen how she felt. To shed her inhibitions and offer herself to him.
"What if they boo me?" she asked.
Penny pressed a palm to her stomach. If she choked, the media would have a field day. If she tripped and fell, the video clip would go viral.
"Try to picture the audience naked," he said. "I've heard it helps."
She started with him, her eyes trailing down his body. Years ago, she'd seen him bare-chested. He was lean and strong, built more like a runner than a weight lifter. She knew he'd had some of his tattoos removed. She remembered one on his shoulder, a three-leaf clover. It wasn't quite as offensive as the rest.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
4 Stars Badlands can stand alone but is better if you read the books in order. So you can see the changes in them. I have read all three books so far in the Aftershock series and have seen Owen and Penny grow and make changes in their lives. When we first met Owen he was a bad guy but it didn't take long for his true self to shine. Owen chose to help instead of destroy and think only of himself. Owen came from a poor rough background and made some mistakes. Since the earthquake he keeps making the right choices even if they are hard. He has proven to be a worthy hero time after time. Penny was a unwed teenage mother. She will do anything to protect her son. She is trying to make up for hurting her family. She keeps putting others first in her life. Cruz is a cute loveable child. He wants to protect his mom. He also wants a dad and would be happy if it was Owen. Their are other strong characters in the book that you wonder about them what side are they really on. Besides strong characters that I like there is plenty of drama, danger and action. You don't want to put it down. Their are some sex scenes that I skipped over. Their is some hard things that happened to Owen in his past. I can't wait till the next book in the series comes out Backwoods in 2014. The setting for this book is the Badlands. Which I did not know much about before I read it. Dry hot desert area. Pacing was good. I did not find any slow boring parts. Every time they handled one problem soon another came up. I was given this ebook for the purpose of giving a honest review by Netgalley and Harlequin. publication: December 31st 2013 by Harlequin HQN 384 pages ISBN 9780373778348
I read one of her books and then ordered several more, have not been disappointed yet. Lots of action and the dialog between the main characters is interesting and believable.
This was a very good followup story for Owen and Penny. It was very suspenseful and the interaction between the two of them was realistic and at times very emotional. I really enjoyed this followup to Aftershock and Freefall.
My rating: 4.5 of 5 ¿¿ Owen Jackson and a Penny Sandoval have a history. Five years ago he was a convicted felon and she was rejected by her parents due to her unplanned pregnancy when they where trapped together under an overpass after a massive earthquake. Owen had stood up for and by Penny through their ordeal and despite their vast differences in background, they came through close friends. Penny's father, already active in the political arena pulled some strings and managed to eventually have Owen assigned to their security detail. Despite having been within sight of each other for most of the past five years, Owen has always kept his feelings for Penny under lock and key. It hasn't always been easy, but at least he was able to show true affection for her son Cruz, who he had helped bring into this world. At times Penny would give off signals that indicated she might have more than just a friendly interest in him, but they both had too much to lose to act on a mere possibility. When an alarm at a political rally for her father causes chaos, it allows Owen and the driver to be overpowered and Penny and her son to be abducted. Owen is tied up and taken along as well as the group makes their way into the California badlands, country very familiar to Owen as well as the apparent leader of this operation. His family came from there. Owen was shocked to find his own brother behind the abduction plan, he was only released from prison a month ago. The gang is careful with Penny, since she is their bargaining tool for a substantial amount of ransom, but they have no such reservations for Owen and are brutal in their treatment of him. Terrified they have killed him, Penny finds an opportunity to escape with her son and flees the camp. When discovered, an attempt is made to use Owen to lure her back, but Owen is determined to foil the gang's plans and find Penny himself to help her and Cruz to safety. Under the direst of circumstances, and in the face of danger, the close mouthed Owen starts revealing some of his complicated family dynamics, along with the true depth of his feelings for Penny and his reasons for the years of emotional distance. Penny is thrilled to have finally broken through some of his carefully erected barriers, to see her feelings reflected back. If only they could find a way to stay alive long enough to enjoy the discovery..... **** Dangerous, disturbing, hot and heroic!! I have loved every book in this "Aftershock Series" by Jill Sorenson. The books are such a great blend of suspense, action, romance and some heat. Fantastic imperfect heroes with human flaws that make them all the more attractive and strong, capable heroines, not easily taken for a ride and often doing as much of the rescuing as being rescued. It is merely a matter of how one looks at it. Owen grew up on the wrong side of the tracks so to speak, not an ideal childhood, and he got in trouble through his involvement with his brother, who had less of a moral compass than Owen did. Being a young kid still, Owen's time in prison was not good for him, it scarred him emotionally and he did what he had to to survive, but somehow he never lost his moral compass. Penny had more of a privileged upbringing, but far more public, which is why her young unplanned pregnancy caused such an uproar and estranged her from her parents temporarily. Living through a disaster and giving birth mellowed out the situation and guilt kept Penny bound to her influencial father and unable to make many choices for herself. Jill Sorenson's great descriptive powers bring everything alive. From the desolate scenery, to the tension building in a scene, or feelings of utter fear and desperation, Her words have the ability to place you right inside the story, so much so, that the world around you seems to stop. ¿Fabulous writing, amazing characters and a thrilling story!!¿ **ARC provided by NetGalley and Harlequin HQN in return for an honest review.**