Fans of Jill Sorenson’s Caught in the Act have long been awaiting the story of Maria and Ian, a couple who were parted at the end of that book. I am happy to report that their story, Off the Rails, is finally here and that it does not disappoint.
Off the Rails picks up literally days after the events of Caught in the Act. As a result, this review will necessarily contain some spoilers for that novel. I would recommend reading the two in order although that isn’t absolutely necessary; it just makes the reading experience better in my opinion.
Maria Santos had not intended to go back to Mexico but living in the U.S. as an illegal is no longer an option for her. Her position as a maid ended when she passed crucial information regarding a drug delivery to DEA Agent Ian Foster, leading to a deadly gun fight at the hotel where she worked. Ian was the one wounded during the battle but it is Maria who has found herself entangled in the war. During the altercation, she was given a letter by one of the dealers involved in the shooting, a letter she is to take to the man’s daughter, who is in a boarding school near Maria’s small hometown in Mexico. She would normally not do such a man a favor but in this case she owes a debt: Armando Villarreal had placed himself between her and the kingpin about to shoot her.
Ian torpedoed his career to keep Maria safe during that gunfight. He has been suspended from the DEA as a result but now finds himself in the employ of ICE, working on the very case that had cost him his position. His new boss is none too thrilled to need him but need him he does. Ian knows Maria – intimately. And ICE knows that Maria is the only person with the location of the daughter of Villarreal, a leader in a cartel they are anxious to destroy. They send Ian to Mexico to get whatever information he can from Maria. Ian is happy to go. He wants Maria back in his life.
For her part, Maria longs to be back with Ian as well but sees no clear path to that. She delivers the letter and then returns to her family home, where bad news awaits her. Just days before, her younger brother left to join her in San Diego, taking La Bestia to get there. This series of freight trains is a dangerous mode of transportation used by illegal immigrants coming from as far south as Guatemala to enter the U.S. Every year there are dozens of fatalities – some are crushed when trying to get aboard, others fall asleep and roll off, others are victims of the bandits who prey upon the desperate passengers. Maria’s own father had died riding La Bestia. For a young boy alone, it’s extremely hazardous. For a young woman, it would almost certainly mean gang rape followed by murder. She will have to find a way to locate her brother and stop him, but what good will she be to him if is attacked and killed trying to save him?
When Ian comes to her house looking for the location of Villarreal’s daughter she finds her way. A quick trip to the girl’s school reveals that since receiving the letter she has run away from that establishment and has also boarded La Bestia. Now it is up to Maria and Ian to find the two teens and return them to safety. But they are not the only ones looking for Sarai Villarreal.
This is a fast paced action-suspense story; Maria and Ian are constantly on the go, from the first page to pretty much the last one. Yet the author somehow manages to turn all that action into a moving, believable love story packed with the just right amount of angst.
Both characters are deeply wounded. Maria had a horrific experience the first time she crossed into the U.S. and Ian, as the border guard who rescued her, has a tough time seeing her as the independent, competent woman she has since become. His knowledge of just how dangerous the world of La Bestia is has him constantly trying to send her home to keep her safe, but Maria is calmly tenacious in the midst of his blustering and he slowly starts to acknowledge her as a partner in the endeavor. But their close proximity adds heartache to his already bruised emotions. Maria, having taken the letter to Sarai, could be considered an accomplice to the cartels and may never be able to re-enter the U.S. legally – so his pursuit of her might never have a happy ending. That tug of war between his intellect and dedication to his career and his growing love for the beauty by his side adds a gritty authenticity to an already realistic tale. I loved it. While most of us don’t face international immigration law problems like these two do, it is not unusual to have to weigh career trajectory or other factors against love and to face a difficult decision while doing so. This is a romance novel so of course it will work out but I appreciated the in-depth look at the struggles our two characters face. I was also grateful that real problems were the source of the conflict as opposed to a trope like a big misunderstanding.
Another feature which was a plus for me was the fact that Ian and Maria are both flawed characters. Maria can be impulsive, stubborn and too sacrificial in her care for others. Ian is a maverick and the author does an outstanding job of showing us why this isn’t always a positive trait in a police officer. Neither of them is a perfect, goody-goody and that makes them seem more real and approachable.
I haven’t mentioned secondary characters but there are several excellent ones here; namely Villarreal, his daughter Sarai, Maria’s brother Hugo and Caitlyn Weis, a veterinarian who gets caught up in Villarreal’s escape. The author does an outstanding job of making them three dimensional and using them to flesh out her tale without letting them take it over.
I also have to give major kudos to Ms. Sorenson’s world building. As a suburban housewife the universe I inhabit is far different from the one in which Maria and Ian are forced to live. Yet the author makes it so real, so relatable that I found myself fully immersed in it throughout the tale. She also helped me to understand that world, to acknowledge why men like Villarreal make the decisions they do and the impact those decisions have on their families and communities. When Ian thinks:
The poverty he’d grown up in was nothing like this. There was a difference between trailer park poor and third world poor, and he was looking at it.
I completely got what he was saying. The author does a great job of painting a clear, precise portrait of the way these people live and how it differs from ours but she uses a judicious hand. Setting and the issues surrounding it never get in the way of our love story.
By turns sweet, sexy, and funny with nail-biting, non-stop thrills, this novel is a complete gem. If I could, I would pass a law demanding that everyone purchase Off the Rails and read it. Since I can’t pass a law I will simply pass along a strong recommendation: Read this book. You are not likely to peruse a more timely, thought provoking, relevant romance this year (or maybe any year.) Strong, sexy romances that are pertinent to the times are rarer than gold – but twice as valuable – and that is exactly what Ms. Sorenson has delivered in this story.
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