BADLANDS

Harlequin HQN
January 2014
ISBN 978-0373778348

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Excerpt

Love is the most dangerous territory of all

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.


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.

He 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 birth—days 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 façade.

“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.”

“Mine, too.”

“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. T he thought made her heart swell with pride.

“Would you move to Washington, DC?” 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 job 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 towards 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. “Why?”

“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?”

“Yes.”

“Are votes so cheaply had?”

“Some are.”

“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 thumb—and 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.

“They won’t.”

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.

“Kiss me,” she said, meeting his gaze. “For luck.”

He stared at her in disbelief. She crossed her fingers and waited, pulse racing. When he realized she was serious, he glanced around to see who was watching. Her grandmother and Cruz were nearby, their backs turned. Her mother studied her cue cards on the other end of the stage, more than a hundred feet away.

She didn’t know if he did it because she asked, or because he wanted to. But he stepped forward and lifted his hand to her face, indulging her request. His fingertips skimmed the side of her neck as he leaned in. She held her breath, longing for a tongue-tangling kiss. At the last second, he moved to the left, brushing his lips over her cheek.

Chaste. Respectful. Distant.

But when he retreated, she saw the heat in his eyes. The want.

After they broke apart, her grandmother approached with Cruz. “Leslie can’t find Raven. I have to go look for her.”

“Cruz can hang out with me,” Owen said.

Penny didn’t challenge the arrangement. Babysitting wasn’t part of Owen’s job, but neither was kissing, and she’d only be on stage for thirty seconds. While her grandmother went to search for Raven, Owen chatted with Cruz, avoiding Penny’s gaze. His expression showed no indication that they’d just shared an intimate moment.

Penny focused on the heavy curtains, her anxiety spiking. An innocent peck on the cheek was the most action she’d had in the past five years. She could still feel his mouth on her skin, his thumb against her throat.

When the production assistant gave her the go signal, she glanced at Owen and Cruz. They both smiled at her encouragingly.

Taking the plunge, she walked out on stage. The crowd stretched into infinity, red signs waving, a blur of excited faces. She continued toward her mark, terrified. Don’t trip. Don’t forget your lines. Smile.

She reached the podium without incident. Gripping its comforting wood edges, she stared at the blinking red light on the center camera, aware that her image was being broadcast on a huge screen behind her.

Smile.

Her heart threatened to burst out of her chest. There were no boos or rude remarks. Someone in the far corner whistled, causing a ripple of laughter in the audience. Then her tension eased, and she stopped worrying about flubbing her lines.

She didn’t value the opinion of the bigots in the Freedom Party, a vocal right-wing minority. Let them criticize her wardrobe, her figure, or her conduct. The only thing that mattered was getting through the introduction and moving on with her life.

Channeling confidence, she leaned forward to start her introduction. Before she’d uttered a single word, an alarm sounded, splitting the air with high-pitched wails. She stepped away from the microphone, flinching at the loud noise.

The stadium erupted into chaos.

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