Anthony Brandt said “Other things may change us, but we start and end with family.” It’s true that family can have the most profound effect on our lives. In this novel, family is a tie that binds, in both good ways and bad.
Penny Sandoval has a complicated family life. On the one hand, her parents had rejected her when they first found out she was to be an unwed mother. That rejection led to her being caught in an earthquake and giving birth in a camper buried in rubble, her only helper an escaped con. On the other hand, that tragedy had helped her parents realize how much they loved her. They brought her back into the family home, doted on her son Cruz, paid for her college education and ensured that neither she nor her son wanted for anything. Now her father is running for his party’s Presidential Nomination and Penny has helped throughout the campaign. Today’s job is to introduce her mother at the convention.
Ex-con Owen Jackson helped Penny with her delivery while they were trapped in the earthquake. Now he is working as her body guard. The convention should be one of the easier parts of his job since it is a secure location with lots of police presence. When an alarm goes off Owen gathers up Penny and Cruz to race them to safety but instead he finds himself leading them straight into a trap. He is Tasered and rendered useless to the two people he cares for most. Adding to his misery is that he recognizes one of the abductors – his own older brother. The two have a long and violent history and it is unlikely that any mercy will come from that quarter. Knowing that he is the most expendable person in the car, Owen bides his time, hoping for an opportunity to rescue Penny and Cruz. When they arrive at the camp the kidnappers have established at the edge of the badlands his hope grows cold. The area had not earned its name by being an easy environment and he knows escape into that harsh terrain gives their tiny group little hope for survival. But when matters move beyond their control and they are forced to flee, Owen finds himself battling not just determined kidnappers but a terrain that seems specifically designed to make sure they don’t succeed.
Jill Sorenson is one of my favorite writers in the field of Romantic Suspense. She knows how to deliver a blend of action mixed with moments of calm which allows for a believable romance to blossom. That was the case here. While Penny and Owen spend much of their time running and fighting there are enough quiet interludes for us to see their relationship blossom beyond friendship. It helps, quite a lot actually, that much of the ground work for their love story was laid in Aftershock, the first book in this series. Right from the start of this novel we know that while the two have never acted on the love that began in that book the feelings are still very real and very present. It is also outlined in the first few chapters that the major obstacle to the romance lies with Penny’s family. While her father is grateful for all that Owen did – and still does – for Penny and Cruz, an ex-con with a moderate salary is not what he has planned for his daughter. Instead he wants Penny to fall in love with someone from the country club set and stay within the lifestyle which she is accustomed to. For her part, Penny feels a sense of debt to her family. She knows that her teen pregnancy looked bad to many of her father’s conservative backers and she has been desperate to make up for any impact her behavior caused to his career. This has kept her front and center in the public arena when in truth she is a person who far prefers life outside the spotlight.
Owen has family pulling him back from the commitment as well. His past is not like Penny’s, with loving parents and siblings who adore each other. Instead he grew up with an abusive father and a brother who let him go to prison for him and then wound up behind bars himself. It concerns Owen deeply that his brother is the kind of person who brings trouble not only on himself but on everyone around him, as the current kidnapping situation underlines. As Penny and Owen struggle with the danger of their current circumstances it enables them both to come to terms with the demands that their pasts are making of them. I loved the way the author used their deep emotional connection to not only aid them during the current catastrophe but to help them cauterize the wounds from the past that were keeping them apart. When we reach the final HEA we know the characters will truly have an ever after because of all they have experienced together.
Another aspect that I really appreciated about the novel is that Ms. Sorenson isn’t afraid to take us to dark places. The darkness that comes from Owen’s past is thoroughly explored here and is used to show us both the negatives and positives of a hard upbringing. I especially appreciated how the author shows that violence can be a two-sided coin; it can certainly be used for evil but it can also be used to protect those we love when no other option presents itself.
I also appreciated how the author dealt with the issue of racism and politics. Penny’s dad is a Hispanic American running for the most important job in the nation. The book deals with the issues that would revolve around his candidacy without ever derailing the story or shifting the focus of the tale to the politics of racism.
One of the authors many strengths is her ability to create fascinating secondary characters. In this book the villain and his hostage and the relationship between the two were what stuck with me long after I finished reading. Very probably it stayed with me because we receive no real revelations or resolutions regarding who the man is and what his role in everything happening is. I’ll be interested to know if other readers are left with the burning curiosity I felt for this character and I am anxiously waiting to see if he ever crops up again.
This book is a must read for fans of Ms. Sorenson. The plotting, the characters and the terrific romance make it among her best. For those who haven’t read her I suggest starting with Aftershock. While you don’t have to read it to enjoy this one, it is such a great book and provides such excellent background for Penny and Owen that I would encourage readers to start there and treat themselves to a set of books that will renew their faith in series.