Desert Isle Keeper
I cut my teeth on historicals and romantic suspense, so I always enjoy an excuse to dive back into either of these subgenres. I’d read all but one of the books in Jill Sorenson’s Aftershock series and inexplicably the one I’d neglected was the one that intrigued me most.
Badlands reunites Owen Jackson and Penny Sandoval, two of the most fascinating characters from Aftershock. When readers last saw these two, they were trapped together in an earthquake – an ordeal which drew the young, very pregnant Hispanic mother and the convicted felon member of a white supremacist gang together. I enjoyed seeing them dance around one another and open up to having their assumptions about people challenged in that first book and I longed to see them get together.
This novel picks up five years later. Owen has completed his prison sentence and now works security for Penny’s wealthy father. Penny is now the mother of 5 year old Cruz and finds herself more in need of security than ever as her father runs for President. As the book opens, Penny is on the verge of speaking at a campaign event when she and her son are kidnapped. While trying to protect Penny, Owen gets swept up by the kidnappers as well.
To his horror, the gang holding Penny and her son for ransom are led by Owen’s older and more hardened brother. So begins a story that took me not only on a wild chase through the remote badlands of California, but also into the darkness of Owen’s past. In some ways, this book is a bit more raw than others in the series. However, considering the journey taken by the characters, particularly Owen, I think it needed to be.
The suspense portion of the book is tightly plotted. Like many criminal schemes involving multiple players, this one does not go off without a hitch. As Owen tries to escape to safety with Penny and Cruz, what ensues is a cycle of the bad guys trying to hold their scheme together while Owen and Penny each try to find the cracks in the plan and push through them. Even though I knew I was reading a romance and that it would presumably have an HEA, there were times that I honestly wondered whether these three were going to make it back home.
The action/suspense portion of the story isn’t the only place where tensions run high. After the experience they shared 5 years ago, we see now a Penny and Owen who aren’t quite sure how to approach one another. Their attraction and deep feeling for one another is blatantly obvious, yet neither seems to have the confidence to bring it out into the open. Owen feels keenly the difference in status between them,and his background stands between them in more ways than one. Not only did he grow up in poverty and brokenness, but there is his criminal history and his haunted memories of what he had to face while imprisoned. For much of the book, he just will not let himself step outside the role of providing security for Penny and I kept thinking that Penny had to see that this was more than just a job for him.
Penny has a loving family, but I enjoyed how the author showed how expectations, both internal and external can eat at someone. I could really believe that Penny felt pulled in different directions by her attraction to Owen and her family’s expectations that she marry a prominent man in the Hispanic community. She wants to please them, but she also has very definite opinions about what she wants in life. And I kept rooting for her to get the courage to tell Owen how she felt.
Badlands is one of the best constructed romantic suspense novels I’ve read in ages. And though it’s a 2014 release, I found it oddly prophetic, too, as the presidential election described in Sorenson’s book features tensions between establishment politicians such as Penny’s father and a hard right-wing faction with ties to racist groups and violence. I don’t know why I didn’t read this sooner, but I’m glad I picked it up now.