During an aimless drive home from her job at Barnes & Noble in Bismarck, North Dakota, in 2003, 22-year-old Gina Wohlsdorf remembered Rainy Cain. Wohlsdorf had recently graduated from Tulane University in New Orleans with a liberal arts degree, but the job market was tight. She couldn’t find work with which to support herself. Convinced she was a failure, Wohlsdorf returned to her hometown of Bismarck, where she took on three part-time jobs and scrimped together a living. The pressure hit her hard, so much so that she started taking long drives—heading toward her house but then cruising her Honda Civic past the turn-off to her neighborhood. The sadness of these drives triggered a memory. She recalled an alcove at her high school, where she would sit in the sun and write about a girl named Rainy Cain.

“[Rainy] was so sad and so upset, and I just didn’t know why,” Wohlsdorf told 5280 in July, just days before the release of her second novel, Blood Highway, which centered around the character that so captivated her when she was younger.

It was a long road introducing Rainy to the world. Although the 17-year-old, smart-mouthed protagonist is undoubtedly what earned Blood Highway a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly this year—and a release party at Tattered Cover Aspen Grove on August 7—she wasn’t always so well-realized. The book’s first draft—tapped out on a public library computer—took Wohlsdorf only four months, but she put it aside for years when the sting of agent rejections left her a little too raw. It was only after brokering a two-book deal in 2014 with her first novel, Security, that she set to work honing Rainy’s story.

The thriller starts with Rainy attending high school in Minneapolis, where she lives with her mentally ill mother, who either refuses to acknowledge or is no longer capable of acknowledging her daughter’s existence. That kind of daily treatment has instilled Rainy with a keen sense of survival, and she uses it to become a petty thief, taking what she needs from restaurants and bystanders to get by. But that’s all disrupted when Rainy’s mother dies unexpectedly, and Rainy’s father suddenly reappears in her life. He’s not your typical doting dad; he’s an infamous criminal, responsible for an armored truck robbery that went wrong, resulting in the disappearance of millions of dollars. Convinced that Rainy can take him to the money, he kidnaps her, and thus begins the highway chase the title references. Not far behind Rainy is Blaine, a Minneapolis cop with his own fair share of baggage and a desperate desire to bring Rainy home.

Blood Highway is a captivating read that rarely leans on clichés despite the temptations of its genre. Although there are occasional lapses—a romance midway through the book shows potential but never quite comes together—it is far and away Rainy’s voice that carries the prose. Her conflicted, argumentative, yet somehow deeply empathetic personality is worth a whole series of books. “Self-understood as dangerous,” Wohlsdorf describes Rainy. And that danger is exactly what will keep readers hooked.

Now a Denverite for four years, Wohlsdorf is currently working on her third thriller, but in the meantime she’s enjoying Rainy’s success. When the author first heard that Blood Highway had captured the Publisher’s Weekly praise, she ran laps around the parking lot at her workplace, shouting, “We’re No. 1! We did it! Rainy, we did it!” It seems fitting, somehow, to have come full circle. After so many years keeping the character in a drawer, Wohlsdorf could only dream Rainy would see this moment in the spotlight.

“It’s her,” Wohlsdorf says. “It’s all her. I don’t know if I feel any victory about it for me. But I want it to be for her because she got me through a lot. And I owed her.”

If you go: Gina Wohlsdorf will release Blood Highway at Tattered Cover Aspen Grove, 7301 S. Santa Fe Dr., Littleton, on August 7 at 7 p.m. She will conduct a short reading followed by a Q&A.