The Courage Tree

By Leroy Allen,2014-11-04 18:56
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Amazon.com ReviewIf you start your novel with a terminally ill child and a last-chance herbal remedy, chances are you've got a story. If you have the terminally ill child survive a car accident and become lost in the remote West Virginia woods you've got some stressful reading. If, for kicks, you put a psychopathic murderer in the woods, you've got Diane Chamberlain's nail-biting drama The Courage Tree. Sophie Donohue is the wise-beyond-her-years child. Janine is the mother wolf who courageously admits her child into the clinical trial of a new medicine against the advice of her ex-husband, Joe, and her cynical parents. Lucas Trowell is the literally tree-hugging love interest who supports Janine. Chamberlain knows how to place her characters in internal and e Published by MIRA on 2009/04/01

The Courage Tree

    Also by Diane Chamberlain BEFORE THE STORM










    Watch for Diane Chamberlain’s SECRETS SHE LEFT BEHIND

    June 2009


    The Courage Tree

You cannot be a hero without being a coward.

    —George Bernard Shaw





    She would have no music where she was going.

    Zoe stood in the center of her living room, with its vaulted ceilings, white carpeting andglassed-wall view of the Pacific Ocean, and stared, transfixed by the huge speaker in thecorner of the room. She’d come to terms with the fact that she would lose the beach and thesmell of the sea. She knew she could live without television—gladly without television and itsbevy of new, young talent—and she could live without newspapers and magazines. But no music?It suddenly seemed like a deal breaker. But then her eyes drifted to the picture of Marti,where it rested on the top of the baby grand piano. Marti had been twenty in that picture,standing next to Max on the beach. She was near Max, but not touching him, and there was nosense of connection between father and daughter, as though each of their pictures had beentaken separately and then spliced together. It disturbed Zoe to see that distance between them.If the picture had been of herself and Marti, would they look equally as detached from oneanother? she wondered. She feared that they would. It was time to change that.

    In her boyish way, Marti looked beautiful in the picture. Zoe studied the short cap of blondhair, the compact, small-breasted body, huge blue eyes and long dark lashes that gave awayMarti’s identity as a female, and Zoe knew she was making the right decision. In a choicebetween music and Marti, there was no contest. Everything else in the universe paled incomparison to Zoe’s need to save her daughter.

    She turned away from the wall of stereo equipment and began climbing the broad spiral staircaseto the second story, her resolve once again intact. It was quite simple, really, leavingforever. She had planned well ahead and now had no need even to pack a suitcase. What could shepossibly put in a suitcase that would last her the rest of her life? Besides, someone mightrealize a suitcase was missing. Unlikely, since she had an entire room on the third storyfilled with luggage; but still, it was possible, and she couldn’t take that chance.

    She walked into Max’s bedroom. She and Max had slept together for the forty years of theirmarriage, but they’d each had their own bedroom in addition to the master suite they’dshared. Their separate rooms had been for times alone, times of renewal and refreshment, forreading without disturbing one another, for making phone calls late into the night when one ofthem was working on a project. It was in Max’s room where she knew she would find exactly whatshe needed.

    Opening the door to Max’s walk-in closet, she was startled by the spicy aroma that envelopedher. Max’s aftershave still filled this room, four full months after his death. She had nottouched the clothes that hung in neat rows along the walls of the closet since that miserableday in November, and they slowly took on a blurred, surrealistic shape before her eyes. How wasit that scent could instantly evoke so much pain? So many memories? But no time for them now.She brushed her hand across her eyes as she pulled the step stool from the corner of the closettoward the shelves in the rear. Climbing onto the stool, she reached toward the back of the topshelf.

    Her hand felt the soft-sided rifle case, and she wrapped her fingers around it and drew it downfrom the shelf. Climbing off the stool, she rested the green case containing Max’s riflecarefully, gingerly, on the carpeted floor of the closet, then returned to her perch on thestool. Reaching onto the shelf once again, she found the box of bullets, then the Berettapistol and a few loose clips. Never before had she touched these guns, and she hadn’t approvedof Max having them. Probably the only thing they’d ever disagreed about.

    “Max Garson’s death marks the end of one of the longest running and, by all accounts, mostharmonious marriages in Hollywood,” People magazine had written.

    For the most part, that had been a highly accurate assessment. And right now, Zoe was glad Maxhad defied her when it came to the guns. She was doubly glad she had told her friends about therifle and the pistol and where they were hidden. They would tell the police, and the policewould discover the guns were missing. Perfect.

    The police would no doubt talk to Bonita, the therapist Zoe had seen for “grief counseling,”as well. Zoe had not needed to employ her acting skills to fake her symptoms of depression.

    “Do you think about suicide?” Bonita had asked her on one recent visit, when Zoe had beenparticularly tearful.

    “Yes,” she had nodded truthfully.

    “Do you have a plan?” Bonita asked.

    The question had shaken Zoe for an instant. How could Bonita possibly know? But then sherealized Bonita was asking her if she had considered how she would end her life. Nothing morethan that.

    “No,” she had answered, knowing full well that if she said she had a plan, Bonita would

    thatarrange to have her locked up someplace, and wouldn’t the tabloids have a field day with . Zoe most certainly did have a plan. Just not the sort of plan to which Bonita was alluding.

    She carried the guns into the bedroom and caught sight of herself in the mirror above thedresser. The image horrified her. She looked completely ridiculous. Her long blond hair fellacross the rifle case, her deep bangs hung all the way to her eyelashes, and there wassomething about the lighting in the room that made her skin look sallow, her eyes sunken. Shewas a large woman. She’d always been tall and full-figured, and back in her James Bond days,she’d been considered voluptuous, but now she was simply big. Amazonian. An aging sex goddess.

    She had bristled when she’d read those words about herself somewhere, but suddenly, sheunderstood them to be the truth. Who had she been trying to kid, still wearing her hair the wayshe had when she was twenty-five, coloring the heck out of it to mask the gray? She looked awayfrom the mirror and headed for the stairs. There would be no more two-hundred-dollar trips tothe beauty salon in her future, and the thought was rather liberating.

    Downstairs, she walked through the kitchen and out into the garage, where she rested the gunson the back seat of her silver Mercedes. Returning to the house, she sat down at the diningroom table and gave her attention to what would be her final—and most difficult—task in thishome she had cherished for so many years.

    Staring down at the sheet of cream-colored parchment on the table in front of her, she pickedup the Pelikan fountain pen Marti had given her several Christmases ago, on a day when theworld had still seemed benevolent and the future still held promise. She rested the nib of thepen on the paper.

    I see no choice but to end my life, on this, the eve of my sixtieth birthday, she wrote.

    Leaning away from the paper, cocking her head to the side, she noted that her penmanship lookedlike that of an old woman. Her hand quivered above the page.

    “Pathetic old cow,” she muttered to herself, then continued writing.

    My life is not worth much anymore. My beloved husband is dead; my daughter has been wrongly,cruelly imprisoned for the murder of Tara Ashton; the tabloids persist in noting each newwrinkle on my face, and I’m losing my singing voice. Although my acting skills are at theirpeak, they go unrecognized these days. Parts that once would have come to me are now given toactresses much younger than myself.

    Zoe stopped writing for a moment and looked out the window toward the ocean. That last sentencemade her sound small and bitter. She could leave it out, but then she would have to start theletter all over again. And what did she care what anyone thought of her at this point? Shelaughed at the bruised ego, the irritating narcissism that had dogged her these past few yearsand that seemed intent on following her to her counterfeit grave.

    What do I have left to live for? she began writing again. I hope to take my life somewhere

    where I won’t be found. I don’t want to be seen in that condition. Marti, I’m sorry,darling. I’m so sorry I failed you. I tried every possible avenue I could to help you prove

     The tears were quick to come this time.your innocence, but the system has failed both of us.

    One fell on the paper, and she blotted it from the word innocence with the side of her hand.

    had failed Marti—in far too many ways—choosing the demands of her career over the needsShe

    of her daughter at every turn, placing Marti’s day-to-day care in the hands of nannies,sending her off to boarding school to let someone else deal with her moods and her mischief.

     she wrote. Zoe’sSuspicion would never have fallen on you had you not been my daughter,

    daughter. Zoe’s breath caught in her throat, and she stared out theI love you, dearest.

    window at the sea for a long moment before continuing. she wrote. Be strong,All my love,


    Moving the sheet of paper to the center of the table, she stood up, blotting her damp palms onher khaki-covered thighs. Her knees barely held her upright as she walked toward the garage,and her entire body trembled now, from the gravity of the lies she had just committed towriting, and from the fear of the journey she was about to make.


    The guest cottage seemed stuffy, its four small rooms over-flowing with sunlight. At two-thirty, Janine turned off the air-conditioning and opened all the windows, starting in herbedroom and Sophie’s room, then the kitchen and finally the living room. Although it becameinstantly warmer in the cottage, the air was arid, a remarkable phenomenon for June in northernVirginia, and the faint breeze carried the scent of magnolia and lavender into the rooms.

    Janine sat sideways on the sofa in the living room, her back against the overstuffed arm, barefeet up on the cushions, gazing out the window at Ayr Creek’s gardens. In fifteen minutes shecould leave, she told herself. That would make her early, but there was no way she could waithere any longer.

    The view of the gardens was spectacular from this window. Bands of red and violet, yellow andpink dipped and swirled over more than two acres of rolling landscape before losing themselvesin the deep woods between the cottage and the mansion. The nineteenth century, yellow frame,black-shuttered mansion could barely be seen at this time of year due to the lush growth on thetrees, allowing Janine to imagine that she was master of her own life and not living on herparents’ property. Not that Ayr Creek truly belonged to her parents, who were little more thancaretakers. The house was owned by the Ayr Creek Foundation, which was operated by thedescendants of the estate’s original owner, Angus Campbell. The Foundation had deeded enoughmoney to the county to keep the garden and a few of the mansion’s rooms open to the public onweekends. And through some quiet arrangement, Janine’s mother, Donna Campbell Snyder, had beengiven the right to live in the mansion until her death, although she did not otherwise have acent of her family’s fortune. This, Janine had always thought, was the source of her mother’sbitterness.

    Nevertheless, Donna and Frank Snyder adored the Ayr Creek estate. Retired history teachers,they relished the task of over-seeing the upkeep of the house and gardens. And they willinglyallowed Janine and her daughter, Sophie, to live rent-free in the “guest cottage,” aeuphemism designed to masquerade the true history of the diminutive structure: it had once beenhome to Ayr Creek’s slaves.

    There was a tear in the window screen. Just a small one, and if Janine closed one eye andleaned nearer to the screen, she could see one perfect, blue-blossomed hydrangea captured inthe opening. If she leaned a little farther to the left, she could see the roses Lucas hadplanted near the wishing well. She should get up and repair the hole instead of playing gameswith it, she thought briefly, but shifted positions on the sofa and returned her attention tothe gardens instead.

    This restlessness, this stuffy, claustrophobic feeling, had been with her all weekend and sheknew it was of her own creation. She had not drawn a full breath of air since Friday evening,when she’d watched her daughter ride away in the van with the rest of her Brownie troop.Sophie had grinned and giggled with her friends, looking for all the world like a perfectlyhealthy eight-year-old girl—except, perhaps, for the pallor and the delicate, willowy, whitearms and legs. Janine had waved after the van until she could no longer make out Sophie’s redhair against the tinted window. Then she offered a quick smile to the two other mothers in theparking lot of Meadowlark Gardens and got into her car quickly, hoping that the worry hadn’tshown in her face. There hadn’t been a day in the last five years that she had not worried.

    She’d planned to use this weekend alone to clean the cottage from top to bottom, but she’dgotten little done. She’d spent time on Saturday with her mother in the mansion, helping herresearch historically accurate wallpaper patterns on the Internet for one of the mansion’sbedrooms, and listening to her complain yet again about Lucas, the horticulturist in charge ofthe gardens. Janine knew, though, that she and her mother were both preoccupied with thoughtsof Sophie. Was she all right? Eight years old seemed far too young to be spending the weekendat a Girl Scout camp nearly two hours away, even to Janine, and she knew her mother was furiouswith her for allowing Sophie to go. Sitting in the office, which was part of the mansion’stwentieth-century addition, Janine had tried to concentrate on the computer monitor while her

mother leaned over her shoulder.

    “It’s hot out and she’ll drink too much water,” her mother said. “She’ll forget to takeher pills. She’ll eat the wrong things. You know how kids are.”

    “She’ll be fine, Mom,” Janine had said through gritted teeth, although she couldn’t helpbut share her mother’s concerns. If Sophie came back from this trip sicker than when she went,the criticism from her parents would never end. Joe would be furious, as well. He had calledlast night, wanting to know if he could come over to see Sophie after she got home tonight, andJanine knew he was feeling what she did: the deep love and concern for the child they bothtreasured. Like Janine’s mother, Joe had expressed strong disapproval over Sophie’s going onthis trip. One of many things Joe was angry with her about. Joe’s anger was hard for Janine toignore, because she knew it came from a place of caring, not only about Sophie, but aboutherself, as well. Even in the ugliest moments of their separation and divorce, she’d beenaware that Joe still loved her.

    At two-forty-five, Janine left the cottage and got into her car. She drove down the long graveldriveway, banked on both sides by boxwood as old as the estate itself, and looked toward themansion as she passed it. Her parents would be inside, waiting anxiously for her to bring theirgranddaughter home. She hoped she’d have some time alone with Sophie before she had to shareher with them and Joe.

    Meadowlark Gardens was less than half a mile from the Ayr Creek estate, and the parking lot ofthe public gardens was as full as she’d ever seen it. As Janine turned into the lot fromBeulah Road, people dressed in wedding regalia spilled out of one of the brick buildings,probably getting ready to pose for pictures. In the distance, Janine could see another weddingtaking place in the gazebo by the pond. A beautiful day for a wedding, she thought, as shedrove toward the southeastern corner of the lot, where she was to meet the returning Brownietroop, but her mind quickly slipped back to her daughter. Suddenly, all she could think aboutwas scooping Sophie into her arms. She pressed her foot harder on the gas pedal, cruising fartoo fast through the lot, and parked her car near the corner.

    Although Janine was early, one other mother was already there, leaning against a station wagon,reading a paperback. Janine knew the woman, whose name was Suzanne, vaguely. She was pretty, abit older than most mothers of children Sophie’s age, and it was hard to tell if her chin-length hair was a pale blond or actually gray. Janine smiled as she walked toward her.

    “They certainly had great weather, didn’t they?” Suzanne asked, shading her eyes from thesun.

    “They did.” Janine joined her in leaning against the car. “I’m glad it wasn’t too humid.”

    Suzanne tossed her paperback through the open window of her car. “Oh, that wouldn’t havebothered them,” she said with a wave of her hand. “Kids don’t care whether it’s humid ornot.”

    Sophie would have cared, Janine thought, but she kept the words to herself. She tried

    unsuccessfully to remember what Suzanne’s daughter looked like. In truth, she’d paid littleattention to the other girls in Sophie’s troop. It was so rare that Sophie could take part inany of their activities that Janine had had no opportunity to get to know any of them or theirmothers. She looked at Suzanne. “Has your daughter…” she began. “I’m sorry, I don’tremember her name.”


    “Has Emily been on one of these camp-outs before?” Janine asked.

    “Yes, she has,” Suzanne said. “But none this far away. And I know this is a real first forSophie, isn’t it?”

    “Yes.” She felt somehow touched that Suzanne knew Sophie’s name. But, then, the othermothers probably talked about her.

“It’s wonderful she could go,” Suzanne said. “I guess she’s feeling better, huh?”

    “Much better,” Janine admitted. So much better it was scary.

    “I heard she’s receiving some sort of experimental treatment.”

    “Yes.” Janine nodded, then hesitated a moment before adding, “She’s in a study of analternative medicine. She’s only been in the study a couple of months, but she’s had somedramatic improvement. I’m just praying it will last.” It was hard for Janine to give words toSophie’s improvement, to actually hear herself say those words out loud. She lived in terrorthat it might not last. Since being in the study, Sophie had not only remained out of thehospital, but had finally learned to ride a bike, had eaten almost anything she wanted, and hadeven attended the last of week of school. For most of the year, she’d been tutored at home orin the hospital, and last year had been equally as bad. Most indicative of Sophie’simprovement, though, was the fact that she no longer needed to spend every night attached toher dialysis machine. For the last couple of weeks, she’d required treatments only two nightsa week. That had given her the freedom to do something she’d never before been able to do:spend the night away from home with her friends.

    Sophie’s astonishing improvement seemed miraculous, although Dr. Schaefer, the researcherbehind the study, had warned Janine that her daughter still had a long road ahead of her. Shewould need to receive twice-weekly intravenous infusions of Herbalina, the name he had givenhis herbal remedy to make it more appealing to the pediatric population of the study, for atleast another year. Despite the ground Sophie had gained, her own nephrologist, the doctorshe’d been seeing for the past three years, scoffed at the study, as did every otherspecialist with whom Janine had spoken. They’d pleaded with Janine to enroll Sophie in adifferent, more conventional study of yet another experimental drug, but Sophie had alreadyparticipated in several of those studies, and Janine could no longer bear to see her daughtersuffer the side effects of the toxic drugs they gave her. With Herbalina, Sophie had onlygotten better. No rashes. No cramps. No bloating. No sleepiness.

    The positive results were merely a temporary reduction in symptoms, Sophie’s regular doctorand his colleagues had argued. Beneath the surface, the disease still raged. They claimedSchaefer offered false hope to the hopeless, but stopped just short of calling the small, wiry,soft-spoken doctor a charlatan. Janine could easily see the situation from their perspective.After all, the medical profession had been grappling with Sophie’s form of kidney disease fordecades, searching for a way to turn the tide of its destruction. Then along comes somealternative medicine doctor, with his combination of tree bark and herbs, and he thinks he cando what no one else has been able to do: cure the incurable. Sophie’s regular doctor saidSchaefer’s treatment was nothing more than a Band-Aid, and it terrified Janine that he mightbe right. She was just getting her daughter back. She could not bear to lose her again.

    “Where are the other parents?” Janine looked behind her toward the parking lot entrance. Itwas nearly three.

    “Oh, I think it’s just you and me. I’m going to drive a couple of the girls home. Gloria andAlison will take the rest, but we figured you’d probably be anxious to be with Sophie, so wedidn’t think to ask if you wanted one of us to give her a ride.”

    “You’re right,” she said. “I can’t wait to see how she made out.”

    “She looked so excited when she got into the van Friday evening,” Suzanne said.

    “She was.” Janine was glad she was wearing sunglasses, because her eyes suddenly burned withtears. Her baby girl. How rare it was to have seen such unfettered joy in Sophie’s face ratherthan the usual lines of pain and fear. The sort of fear no child should have to endure.

    “She’s so cute,” Suzanne said. “Where’d she get that red hair?”

    “It’s a combination of mine and her dad’s, I guess,” she said, touching her hand to her ownstrawberry-blond hair. Joe’s hair was dark, his eyes blue, like Sophie’s.

    “It’s her kidneys that are the problem, right?” Suzanne probed.

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