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BADLANDS
by Jill Sorenson

Genre: General Romantic Suspense, Romantic Suspense

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Penny had never been more terrified.

Not even when she’d been under a freeway in the throes of labor without medical help. Her memories from the San Diego earthquake had faded with time, blending into a blur of unpleasant thoughts and images. She still smelled it, sometimes. The stench of gasoline and burning plastic, rainwater and decay.

A few years ago, her sister had broken her arm while Rollerblading. Penny had taken Leslie to the emergency room. Walking down the hallway, she’d detected the faint odor of singed flesh. Visions of her aunt’s death had come flooding back to her, sucking the air from her lungs. She’d fled to the parking lot, sat behind the wheel of her car and sobbed.

Moments like that were few and far between, however. She enjoyed a life of luxury, if not excess. Cruz had everything he needed and then some. They were insulated from harm, isolated in a home so large it could have been called a compound. She did volunteer work, and interacted with people of various economic levels in her college classes. But, for the most part, she was surrounded by wealth and privilege.

She’d never even been camping.

The days after the freeway collapse had been excruciating. This situation was worse. Or maybe it was just now.

Five years of being an adult, not to mention a single mother, had given her some perspective. She worried more than she used to, about her place in the world and Cruz’s future. She was no longer the center of her own tiny universe. What she remembered most about the disaster wasn’t death or terror or hardship. It was the miracle of Cruz’s birth. It didn’t seem possible to love a child more each day, but she did. Maybe her fears had grown at the same proportion.

She’d do anything to keep her son safe. Anything.

Owen sat beside her, stiff as a board. He must have been suffering with his arms wrenched behind his back. Hers had grown numb from holding Cruz’s sleeping weight. She had no idea where they were going or what they planned to do there. Would they kill her, torture her, hold her hostage? She took a deep breath, praying they wouldn’t hurt Cruz. She couldn’t bear it if they hurt Cruz.

She was afraid to examine either of the kidnappers. The driver had blue eyes, like Owen. They were about the same age and height. The thug sitting next to Owen was shorter, thick-necked and stocky with muscle.

She longed to rest her head on Owen’s shoulder to comfort him, but she didn’t want to draw attention. Her affection could put him in danger. The driver had already noticed Owen’s sweet interaction with Cruz, as well as his seething fury over the threats to Penny. The men had to know that Owen would fight for their lives, if he got the chance. She exchanged a glance with him, swallowing hard.

“I think these two are fucking,” Dirk said.

Penny’s stomach clenched with unease. She turned her head, staring out the window into the black night. Thank God Cruz was still asleep. He’d woken up early to watch cartoons and had spent the entire afternoon at the hotel pool.

The driver tugged down his mask and lit a cigarette. “Are you fucking your bodyguard, princess?”

“Leave her alone,” Owen said.

“I didn’t ask you, rent-a-cop. I asked her.”

Penny said nothing.

The driver looked in his rearview mirror, as if searching for the answer on her face. “They’re not fucking,” he said, taking another drag. “He probably wants to fuck her, but she’s too much of a daddy’s girl to let him.”

She tried not to flinch at the insult, which hit pretty close to home. The only men she’d gone out with since Tyler had been family-approved. Young Republicans from L.A.’s Hispanic Conservative Coalition didn’t count as real dates, either. Penny and her sisters attended a lot of events on her father’s behalf. She put on a pretty dress and smiled politely. None of her dance partners compared to Owen.

Even if Owen had been interested, her father wouldn’t approve of her dating an ex-convict. Especially not during the campaign. The media already scrutinized her choices, which reflected poorly on her parents. She’d shamed them by getting pregnant at seventeen. She also felt somewhat responsible for her aunt’s death. If she hadn’t taken Penny in, she’d still be alive. They’d been on the way to a doctor’s appointment when the earthquake struck.

Penny wasn’t deeply religious, but she loved her family. Her parents had been wonderful with Cruz. In return, she’d given up some personal freedoms. She didn’t have time for a serious relationship, anyway. Being single was part of her penance.

She snuck another peek at Owen, studying the pale tattoo scar on his neck. She’d often imagined putting her lips there and kissing away the hurt. Now the mark stood out in harsh relief against his flushed skin. Was he angry or embarrassed? If the driver’s words rang true for him, she wouldn’t have guessed it from his behavior. He never let his gaze linger on her body, never touched her for no reason.

Their trip through the desert ended at the mouth of a shallow, wind-carved canyon. The protected nook was surrounded by nondescript rock formations and covered with camouflaged netting. A trio of tents loomed in the shadows.

Penny counted three more men around a campfire. Most wore caps or beanies. Cowboy-style handkerchiefs shielded the lower halves of their faces.

The driver exited the vehicle, opening the door for Penny. It was difficult for her to maneuver with Cruz in her arms, but she managed. Dirk dragged Owen from the backseat and pushed him toward the campfire while the driver led Penny to one of the tents. She carried Cruz inside and laid him down on a soft blanket. As soon as he was settled, her captor gestured for her to come back out.

His crew gathered in a half circle around her. Although men had stared at her before, she’d never felt this vulnerable, not even in a boisterous crowd. Public reactions ranged from respectful comments to rude catcalls and blatant groping attempts. Owen had a hard elbow for the most aggressive types.

These men were more dangerous than a group of rowdy extremists. And Owen couldn’t help her if they got aggressive.

“Search her,” the driver said to one of the men. “And take her shoes.”

This order created a stir of excitement in the circle. Owen strained against Dirk’s hold, as if he wanted to kick and head butt and body slam everyone around him. His nostrils flared as a heavyset man in a fishing vest stepped forward.

Penny knew she couldn’t struggle. Triggering Owen’s protective instincts might prove fatal for him. If the kidnappers wanted to get paid, they had plenty of incentive to keep her and Cruz alive. Owen was dispensable.

She turned her head to the side, enduring the stranger’s touch. Her dress was thin and insubstantial, hiding nothing but expensive lingerie. He skimmed his hands along her curves quickly. His friends seemed disappointed when he did a perfunctory job instead of sexually harassing her.

“What a waste,” Dirk said.

“I don’t think Gardener has a dick.”

“Just a gunt,” another man said, and they all laughed.

Penny could only guess what that word meant. She removed her strappy high heels and handed them over, her mouth thin. They were worth a small fortune, but useless here. She couldn’t walk a quarter mile across the desert in those shoes. Barefoot, she’d encounter burrs and cactus needles in the first ten steps.

The leader gestured for her to go back in the tent, satisfied. “Make sure she stays there,” he told Gardener, who sat down on a crate nearby. He zipped up the opening, blocking her view of the men outside.

She curled up next to Cruz and hugged her arms around her middle. The tent appeared large enough for three people, at most. There were two blankets inside. She started to tremble from stress, rather than cold. Now that the men couldn’t see her, she had no reason to hold her emotions inside. Her face crumpled, and tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. She broke down in muffled sobs, her hand clapped over her mouth.

Someone switched on the radio in the SUV, settling for a Spanish-language station. She wiped her cheeks, listening. There might not be anything else available this close to the border, but she doubted these men enjoyed Norteño music.

They didn’t want her to hear them.

She scrambled toward the front of the tent and lay flat on her belly. Unzipping a tiny opening at the corner, she peered through it. Owen was on the opposite side of the campfire. His wrists were still cuffed behind his back. The leader stood before him, smoking. His body language conveyed a challenge.

Owen shook his head, denying whatever he asked for.

The man flicked away his cigarette and stepped forward. Cuffing his hand around Owen’s neck, he drew back his fist and punched him in the stomach. Owen doubled over, coughing.

Penny bit the edge of her fist to smother her scream.

*

Pain spread through Owen’s midsection, settling like a ball of lead in his gut.

Although the blow wasn’t unexpected, it hurt. It always hurt when his brother hit him. From a very young age, Shane had used brute force and intimidation to get what he wanted. He’d been violent and impulsive, quick to snap.

Owen had dismissed most of their childhood rumbles as sibling rivalry, fueled by testosterone and an extra dose of dysfunction. Boys were supposed to be physical. The toxic environment they’d been raised in had exacerbated the problem. Their father had instigated fights between them, encouraging Shane to attack weakness.

Back then, Owen hadn’t stood up to either of them. He was younger than Shane, and nowhere near as aggressive. He’d never understood the appeal of hurting someone he loved. He preferred to run, hide and avoid conflict.

Now they were both adults and closer in size. He was handcuffed and at Shane’s mercy, but he refused to cower. Owen might have a chance against Shane, one-on-one. He wasn’t a scared, skinny kid anymore.

“Is that all you’ve got?” he wheezed.

Shane’s eyes widened with disbelief. Instead of sucker punching him again, Shane squeezed the nape of his neck and let go, chuckling. “You’ve grown up, little brother.”

He couldn’t prevent the rush of warmth those words generated. Owen hadn’t realized how much he’d missed Shane—or how much he’d craved human contact. His father’s death had left a hole inside him. Shane’s lengthy incarceration had made another, and his own stint in prison had gnawed him down to nothing.

Owen didn’t trust Shane, but he would always love him.

Although they’d served time in different institutions, Shane and Owen had joined the same gang. The Aryan Brotherhood was the most popular white gang in the California penal system. Its members underwent a savage initiation process and swore allegiance for life. They were expected to continue to serve the AB on the outside.

After the San Diego earthquake, Owen had been transferred to a quiet, medium-security correctional facility. Penny’s father had used his political connections to make the arrangements after Owen had helped rescue Penny. Owen would be forever in Sandoval’s debt for the favor. At the smaller prison, he’d been able to distance himself from the AB. He’d taken advantage of college courses, therapy sessions and a work program. When he was released, he’d had a job waiting for him in a remote park where no one would find him.

Now, three years later, he was a security guard for a presidential candidate. He hadn’t been worried about the gang coming after him. His mistake.

“You turned your back on the AB,” Shane said.

Owen couldn’t deny it.

“There’s a punishment for deserters.”

“What do you want from me?”

“Your compliance.”

He wasn’t sure how to respond. Did it even matter? These assholes would never believe he was on their side.

Owen had become a member the Aryan Brotherhood of his own free will. He’d engaged in gang fights and color wars. He’d used racial slurs without batting an eye and littered his body with offensive epithets. Although he regretted the necessity of these actions, he’d seen no other solution. He’d been eighteen when he’d gotten arrested. Male inmates preyed on young, attractive boys. Owen couldn’t escape their attentions without help. And, unfortunately, only one group would accept him. There were no rainbow coalitions in prison. It was a segregated environment, and protection came at a price.

Owen wasn’t a white supremacist, but ideological differences hadn’t made it difficult for him to fit in with the gang. No, he’d adopted their ways easily. He’d been poor white trash his entire life. The men in the Brotherhood were just like him. They were the boys he’d played with after school, the desert rats with the faded clothes, the trailer park kids who came from nothing and ended up the same way.

Salton City was a backwards place, full of poverty and prejudice. His father had been a racist fool, spewing ignorance on a regular basis. His mother didn’t agree, but she’d known better than to contradict him.

Despite his upbringing, or perhaps because of it, Owen had rejected those views. He didn’t want to take after his father. Long before he reached adulthood, he’d decided to be whatever Christian Jackson wasn’t. Owen couldn’t change the fact that he was white, male and heterosexual. In all other areas, he would diverge.

That was the plan, anyway. But he’d gotten caught up in his brother’s world and drifted the wrong direction. He’d started drinking heavily in high school, and he’d been a regular meth user by the time he was seventeen.

Since he’d left prison, however, he’d stayed on the straight and narrow. He had a stronger sense of who he was as a person. The idea of pretending to go along with Shane’s scheme made him nauseous. Not only that, he doubted an agreement would give him any advantage. They wouldn’t remove his handcuffs or let him go.

This was all just bullshit posturing. Shane had to prove his loyalty to the gang, and he had to do it with his fists. Dirk cracked his knuckles in a threatening manner. Owen knew what was coming: an epic beat-down. He studied each set of boots in his vicinity, expecting he’d be seeing them up close in the next few minutes.

“I told you he was fucking her,” Dirk said.

“You might be right.”

“Looks like he’s had some tattoos removed.”

“Strip him,” Shane said.

Owen held still as one of the other men came forward, ripping his shirt down the front and letting it hang off his shoulders. The swastika on his hand and the script on his neck were gone. His other tattoos had been altered, rather than removed. He’d changed the Old English lettering that arced over his stomach to read Irish Pride, instead of White Pride. More telling, perhaps, was the cross on his chest. The flames were covered and the name Cruz was added underneath, transforming the hateful image into a tender tribute.

He still had a three-leaf clover on his shoulder, minus the AB initials. Green ink was hard to remove, and it was a symbol of his Scotch-Irish heritage, so he’d kept it. He was damned lucky to be alive after several close calls.

But maybe this was it. The last scrape.

Dirk pointed out the obvious. “This motherfucker isn’t one of us.”

“Are you with us?” Shane asked.

Owen didn’t answer.

“Stand him up.”

Two men dragged him to his feet. He looked Shane in the eye, his pulse racing. His brother hit him with an open hand across the face, knocking his head to one side. Pain exploded in his cheek and gums.

“Are you with us?” Shane repeated.

Owen spat a mouthful of blood on Dirk’s shoes. “No.”

“Son of a bitch!”

They took turns hitting him in the stomach and back, hammering his pride and bruising his luck. Shane didn’t participate as much as the others, and his blows weren’t quite as heavy. Owen wondered if he’d lost his appetite for violence. The malicious glint in his eyes had faded into resignation.

Whatever enthusiasm Shane lacked, his friends more than made up for. They held Owen upright and pummeled the hell out of him.

“Enough!” Shane roared.

They let him fall to the ground, writhing in pain.

“Leave us alone for a minute.”

“Are you going to finish him?” Dirk asked.

“How about I finish you?”

Dirk walked away with the others, grumbling.

Shane crouched down next to Owen and lit a cigarette, one hand cupped around his jaw to block the wind. “I don’t want to kill you.”

Owen struggled for breath, rolling over on to his side in the dirt. The punches to his rib cage felt like fire. It was difficult to anticipate Shane’s next move. He’d always been a loose cannon, acting in his own self-interests. But he’d defended Owen as often as he’d bullied him. He hadn’t been as cruel as their father.

Shane changed the subject. “How’s Mom?”

The question didn’t soften Owen’s sympathies any. Shane had a lot of fucking nerve, asking about their mother. “Better, now that Dad’s gone,” he said, spitting out another mouthful of blood. “I’ll send her your regards.”