She might be the biggest star in Australia, but she never forgot the small town she came from, or the man she left behind...
Peta Johnson may be rich, famous, and adored, but it doesn't protect her when the man she married turns out to be a monster. With her little girl missing, Peta will do anything to get her back – including returning to the small Western Australian town she vowed never to see again.
Jaime Caruso left his heart in Williams when he left to pursue a military career, but it soon shrivelled and died when he discovered the girl he loved didn't love him enough to wait. Back in town to help his ailing father, Jaime struggles with the memories and plans to leave – permanently – as soon as possible.
But then Peta returns and Jaime gets swept up into the nightmare she is living. Feelings long buried soon bubble to the surface, and as they race to save the life of the daughter Jaime doesn't know is his, they must decide if life – and love – really does give second chances.
About the Author
Born in Port Elizabeth, South Africa and now proudly Australian, Juanita is a freelance editor and proofreader. She escapes the real world by reading and writing romantic fiction. The year 2012 was a turning point in her writing career, with her debut novel Fly Away Peta released in August. Her short story Rough Diamond also made the finals in the Romance Writers of Australia Little Gems competition and was published in their Diamond Anthology. Juanita is a keen volunteer and member at the Romance Writers of Australia. When she's not writing, editing or proofreading, Juanita is the cleaning fairy and mother to three boys (hubby included, his toys are just a little more expensive). Her not-so-miniature dachshund, Sam, is her critique partner and keeps her company while writing.
Read an Excerpt
Under Shadow of Doubt
By Juanita Kees
Harlequin Enterprises LimitedCopyright © 2017 Juanita Kees
All rights reserved.
Peta Johnson shivered at the feeling of desertion on the street below her hotel room window. The town was neither growing nor dying, but ticking over at its own pace. No different from what it had been in the days when she'd lived here.
Where was Bella? Her little girl would be so scared right now. She'd already seen too much. If Paul harmed her ... no, she couldn't afford to think he would. If she gave him what he wanted, Bella would be okay. He resented Peta enough to take his revenge, but surely he wasn't evil enough to harm an innocent child.
The hot sun beat down on the small wheat belt town of Williams, Western Australia. Dust devils swirled around tufts of grass struggling to survive in the red sand. Down in a paddock, sheep lazed in the shade. Main Street meandered quietly through town, almost empty except for the line of massive gum trees, the monotony of peeling silver bark occasionally broken by the flash of colour of an Illawarra Flame Tree or the purple and green contrast of a Jacaranda. The only sounds filling the air were the buzzing of the bees, the call of a kookaburra and the occasional blast of a road train horn in the distance.
It all looked so peaceful, so normal, yet somewhere out there her little girl was alone with a dangerous, volatile man who could snap at any moment. Being held ransom for a sum he'd named, a reason she wished she didn't know. Cold fingers of fear dragged on her spine at the thought she might never see her daughter alive again.
Paul had never shown interest in attending school functions, let alone picking Bella up from school. Nothing he'd said or done had ever hinted at him snatching Bella in such a cruel and desperate attempt at blackmail. Not when he'd chosen to merely tolerate her existence.
I'm sorry, Peta. Her father came for her. He said you knew he was picking her up from school today, that it was okay.
It wasn't the grade four teacher's fault. She only had herself to blame. She should have applied sooner for the AVO that would deny Paul access to Bella. And while the process remained tangled up in red tape, he'd taken her.
She hadn't made her divorce from Paul public knowledge. She could imagine the headlines if she did. Golden Diva splits from Perth's most notorious nightclub owner. The press would have a field day with the news if they found out, smearing Paul's lies all over the tabloids, dragging her daughter into the damaging spotlight, splashing their personal business all over the news, exposing secrets that were better off staying buried.
If you want to see your daughter alive, bring everything you have to Williams. I mean everything. Don't play games, bitch. You know what I want.
'Bella is safe for now. She's Paul's insurance, he won't hurt her. You have to trust me on that. He has too much at stake.' Her brother's voice interrupted her thoughts.
She rubbed the goosebumps from her skin. 'I wish I could believe that, Mark.' Even with Perth's most awarded detective on Bella's case, she would only believe that once she could hold her daughter again. She turned into his arms and pressed her ear to his chest, listening to the soothing beat of his heart, trying not to count the number of times she'd had to rely on his strength. 'I really want to believe it.'
'I promise I won't let anything happen to Bella. Has anyone ever been hurt on my watch?'
'No. And I hate every moment you put yourself in the firing line to stop it from happening.'
Each day he was out on the street, she dreaded that he too might not come back and she'd lose everything she had left. Like she'd lost Jaime Caruso when he'd left her to the mercy of a cruel man who'd changed her life for the worst.
But it hurt too much to think about what had happened back then — a lifetime ago. It hurt more to know that, somewhere out there, her daughter was at the mercy of a psychopathic narcissist who needed to be in control more than he needed his next hit.
All her ex-husband had on his mind was to make sure that the security footage of him doing drug deals with outlaw motorcycle gang, Beyond Hell's Reach, and their dirty, scumbag lawyers never surfaced again. Men who used runaway kids as traffickers because it gave them a kick and they wanted to keep on doing it — because no one asked questions when the homeless went missing. She shivered.
Mark rubbed warmth into her arms. 'You need to tell Jaime about Bella.'
Peta's heart thudded as she pushed out of his hold. 'No. No way.'
Panic gripped her throat. She was in Caruso territory now. This was Jaime's home town, his turf. Was that why Paul had led her back to Williams? To play a cruel game that would expose the secret she'd fought so hard to keep, force her to confront the past, use her daughter as punishment for always loving Jaime more than him?
And the Carusos had money. Plenty of it. Enough to pay his ransom demands if he asked them for it. Enough to fight her for custody of Bella in court if they knew the truth. Enough to tear her daughter from her arms again either way. She'd fight them every step of the way if they tried. All she wanted was her little girl home and safe.
'He has a right to know.'
'He has no rights.' Frustration and fear-driven anger raged inside her. Every day without finding Bella was a day longer she was at risk. Paul's actions and his commitment to the underworld of crime placed her daughter in a danger so real the consequences didn't bear thinking about. 'Jaime gave up his rights to everything when he left town without even saying goodbye and never bothered to contact me again.' When he'd ignored every attempt of hers to contact him.
'I'm not saying what he did was right, but since then he's spent the last nine years in volatile and remote areas of Afghanistan. Communication with the outside world wasn't high on his list. Survival was. How much longer can you keep it a secret?' Mark checked his watch. 'In about an hour from now you'll be appearing at the shire hall to open the Bushman's Ball. Jaime will be there. Tell him, Peta. Before this blows up in your face. If this deal with Paul goes wrong, everything will be out in the open. Is that the way you want him to find out?'
Her heart raced, blood roared in her ears and foreboding churned in her stomach. No, she didn't want him to know at all. Nor did she want to appear at the ball, especially now that she knew Jaime would be there. What she wanted was to find her daughter — safe, alive and well — and get the hell out of the town that had destroyed her life. To get as far away as possible from Paul Price and the underworld that threatened her and Bella's lives every day, and start a new life with a new identity where her child would be safe — from Paul Price, his buddies, and the Carusos.
And this whole idea of pretending everything was normal, that she was in town as a special guest at the ball, the cover they were using so the press didn't get hold of the real story — what was her brother thinking? How could he even suggest something so ludicrous when her world had been turned on its head? Now, when a most precious part of her life had been stolen.
'I'm not opening the ball. My daughter Is missing. This Is not the right time for me to be out there pretending everything is normal.'
'You want to break cover? Now when we're so close to contact with Paul.' Mark shook his head, a furrow forming between his eyebrows. 'It's not going to happen, Peta. We have to go through with this. In fact, this is the perfect time to be out there performing as usual. If you don't see this through, the press will be all over you like blue-arsed flies for failing to appear and your name — The Golden Diva's name-will be mud with the Twitter trolls for letting this town down. And then the truth about what happened to Bella will have to come out.'
Damn him for being right. That was how Detective Mark Johnson's mind worked. Failure wasn't in his vocabulary. Tenacity his middle name. A skill he'd honed to make him both a formidable enemy and a trustworthy ally. It depended on whose side you were on. She was glad she had him on hers.
Still, she crossed her arms and eyed him defiantly. There had to be another way. Some way where she didn't run the risk of bumping into Jaime Caruso and where the eyes of the whole town wouldn't be on her, waiting to see her reaction having been privy to her emotional breakdown ten years before. The thing with small towns was everyone knew your business. And remembered it.
'This is one time I can't let you back down, Peta.'
He rubbed a hand across his face, the stubble on his chin. The week of strain and lack of sleep had drawn tired lines on his face. She regretted being the reason they were there at all, but at least with Mark in charge of the investigation, there was a glimmer of hope at finding her daughter alive and unharmed. He wouldn't let anyone get away with putting the niece he loved so much in danger, especially not Paul and the people he was involved with.
'All I'm asking is that you keep with the cover we've arranged and sing at the dance tonight. Let's not waste the resources we've put into this case so far. Sitting holed up in this hotel room won't help us find Bella any quicker. Any changes to the plan can make things go wrong, and then all the hard work we've put in will be undone.'
'I can't, Mark. Not while Paul has my baby. And not when Jaime —' Not when appearing at the ball would bring her face to face with the man she still loved despite what he'd done in the past. Certainly not when she was beside herself with worry for her child, the one it was so important to keep secret from the town's most powerful and influential family. She'd already lost too much.
Peta turned back to the window. Heat shimmered up off the pavement below, warming the glass. She rubbed at her chest to ease away the pain that stabbed at her heart. She'd tried so desperately to bury the memories along with the lies and deceit that lay simmering in the dust, waiting to be stirred up again.
Memories of Jaime and those sultry summer nights — their wild youth, her naive belief in happy-ever-afters, and the painful partings when reality beckoned. She didn't want to remember. Nor did she want to have to face the past that had burned a hole in her heart and destroyed her dreams.
'I'm here to find my daughter. Not for business, not for promotion and definitely not for fun. I have to concentrate on finding Bella and getting her home safely. That's all I want from this town. And then I want to leave and never come back here again.'
'Peta ...' Mark's comforting hands rested gently on her shoulders as he drew her back into a hug. 'You have to do this. There is no choice. Don't you want this stand-off to be over? Hasn't Paul controlled you for long enough? I want his arse in jail and this is the best way to make it happen.'
'He told me to stay out of the spotlight. He hates to be disobeyed.' Peta dashed a tear away from her lashes. 'You've seen the terrible things he's capable of. What if he hurts Bella?'
'It's not like you're going on national television or hosting a massive concert. He won't hurt Bella. She's too valuable as a bargaining tool. He wants that evidence a lot more, I promise you that. Stick with the plan. It fits perfectly. All the band is asking for is one gig with the girl from their small town who hit the top of the charts internationally. No one will ever know the real reason you're making this appearance tonight.'
'What if it all goes wrong and they do find out?' Peta lifted her head, a headache starting a slow pound behind her eyes. 'Imagine what the Twitter trolls would say to that. They'll think it insensitive and shallow of me to perform while my child is missing.'
'We'll do everything we can to keep Bella's disappearance out of the media, you know that. We've had to so we don't compromise the investigation into Paul using the nightclub as a cover for his illegal activities.' Mark raised her chin and looked her squarely in the eye. 'This is a charity event. It's good for the town to have someone as successful as you are opening the Bushman's Ball.'
'Success,' Peta scoffed bitterly. 'Look at the cost of it. My daughter now has a price on her head.' She pushed out of his arms again.
Success should be celebrated. The mantle above her fireplace lined with Grammys and ARIAs paid testament to her achievements. The walls of her city penthouse apartment were decorated with singles that had gone platinum and gold. She'd worked hard for that so-called fame, paid a higher price for it than she'd ever expected to, and carried the weight of it on her shoulders.
She owed the successes — and the failures — to Paul Price; her ex-husband, the man who'd come to her rescue and picked up the pieces after that awful summer. It should have been a dream come true, instead it had stretched into a never-ending nightmare with no way to escape.
Peta shook her head. 'I can't do it. It feels wrong. If something happens to Bella while I'm out there —'
Mark sighed and tugged at her hands until she turned to face him. 'This will mean so much to those people out there who love you. These are the people who helped you achieve your dreams. Just for tonight, help them fulfil their own.'
'I don't know, Mark. What if Paul's out there, watching? If he does something to endanger the lives of the people of this town, I'll never forgive myself.'
'He won't. His fight isn't with them. I wouldn't encourage you to do this if I thought anyone was in danger.'
'I know you're right, but ...'
There was a release she found in music despite the pain it brought with it. But with Bella out there at the mercy of a madman, the rules had changed. She was nothing more than a pawn in Paul's game. This wasn't a stage where the show had to go on. This was a reality so cruel it made you wonder at the existence of God.
But she owed it to Mark not to blow their cover. He'd put his own life on hold for her many times. He hadn't bargained on having to protect his sister from a monster driven by jealousy and greed. And she owed it to Bella to do everything she could to end this nightmare and get her home safely.
Maybe it was time to face Jaime Caruso too, and the memories she'd locked away in her heart. Jaime whose abandonment had delivered her right into Paul's trap and condemned her to a life in hell. She'd already lost so much. If she lost Bella, she'd have nothing left.
'All right, let's do it.'
'That's the Johnson spirit right there.' Mark hugged her tightly. 'I've got to go and check in with security and make sure the local cops have been briefed on the real situation. Try to get some rest while I'm away? I know you're not sleeping.'
'How can I? Every time I close my eyes, I see her at Paul's mercy. She must be so scared, Mark.'
'I know,' he said, releasing her. 'I promise you it will all be over soon. I'm doing everything I can to make it so.' With a reassuring pat on her shoulder he called out to his partner, Detective Harold Jones, 'I'm leaving now, mate. Tag, you're it.' He crossed the room and left, closing the door behind him.
She prayed Mark was right. That this nightmare would end soon. That they could close the door on Paul Price's cell and lock him away forever. She'd unleashed a monster on this tight knit community, a ticking time bomb with a short fuse and a long memory.
How could the man who claimed to love her be so cruel? Paul had always known her heart belonged to Jaime and when he couldn't change that, he'd chosen to punish her for it physically, mentally and emotionally. With each blow that fell on her arms, legs or back, he'd remind her why.
Jaime had walked out of her life leaving her alone, lost, pregnant and scared. No call, no messages — only a silence that screamed with unanswered questions. Now all she had left of his memory was Bella — her life, the thorn in Paul's side.
Everything always came back to Jaime and this town. She'd come full circle. There was a time when life had been free of complications and greed, when love had been passionate and driven. A time when she'd believed in happy endings.
At a bush dance much like the one planned for tonight, she'd been destined to meet two very powerful, yet very different men. One would break her heart, the other would destroy her soul. Both would change her life forever.
Excerpted from Under Shadow of Doubt by Juanita Kees. Copyright © 2017 Juanita Kees. Excerpted by permission of Harlequin Enterprises Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A powerful reunion story! We're met with intrigue from the start as they search for her kidnapped daughter. There are some holes in the plot throughout the book when big things are brought up and never developed, but overall it was a fast paced, action packed story with interesting characters. Peta Johnson wanted a good life and thought she would enjoy that with her daughter and husband, but instead he turned into a man she didn't recognize. Now her daughter is in danger and she'll do anything to get her back! Jaime Caruso was Peta's high school sweetheart, but he walked out on her to join the military and never looked back ... or so she thought. He happens to be back in town to help his ailing father just when Peta needs him most ... to help rescue the daughter he didn't even know he had!
Kidnapping, abusive relationship, second chance at love, manipulative families and more made this an action packed story from the first to the last. In a few pages much happened and for some reason I came away asking, “Why?” or “That is impossible, isn’t it?” way too many times. First up was the idea that the uncle of a kidnapped child would be lead in the investigation – I thought that family were not allowed to take part let alone be lead when family is involved. Second thought was why anyone would go to the effort they did to get back taped copies of illegal actions when copies are no doubt just as valid as the real thing. Third that came up was that a gunshot wound that required surgery would not see the wounded up and about and making love quite so rapidly. There were more but three mentioned are enough for now. I did like the concept and flow of the story but felt there should have been “more” background, character development and believability to certain aspects of the story. As this is the first book in a series perhaps some of the questions I had while reading will be fleshed out in future books. Thank you to NetGalley and Escape Publishing for the ARC. This is my honest review.