Read Courage Tree Online

Authors: Diane Chamberlain

Tags: #Mystery

Courage Tree

The Courage Tree
Also by Diane Chamberlain

BEFORE THE STORM

THE SECRET LIFE OF CEECEE WILKES

THE BAY AT MIDNIGHT

HER MOTHER’S SHADOW

KISS RIVER

KEEPER OF THE LIGHT

CYPRESS POINT

THE COURAGE TREE

SUMMER’S CHILD

BREAKING THE SILENCE

Watch for Diane Chamberlain’s

SECRETS SHE LEFT BEHIND

June 2009

D
IANE
C
HAMBERLAIN
The Courage Tree

You cannot be a hero without being a coward.

—George Bernard Shaw

CONTENTS
PROLOGUE

S
he would have no music where she was going.

Zoe stood in the center
of her living room, with its vaulted ceilings, white carpeting and glassed-wall view of the Pacific Ocean, and stared, transfixed by the huge speaker in the corner of the room. She’d come to terms with the fact that she would lose the beach and the smell of the sea. She knew she could live without television—gladly without television and its bevy 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 no sense of connection between father and daughter, as though each of their pictures had been taken 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 one another? 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 blond hair, the compact, small-breasted body, huge blue eyes and long dark lashes that gave away Marti’s identity as a female, and Zoe knew she was making the right decision. In a choice between music and Marti, there was no contest. Everything else in the universe paled in comparison to Zoe’s need to save her daughter.

She turned away from the wall of stereo equipment and began climbing the broad spiral staircase to the second story, her resolve once again intact. It was quite simple, really, leaving forever. She had planned well ahead and now had no need even to pack a suitcase. What could she possibly put in a suitcase that would last her the rest of her life? Besides, someone might realize a suitcase was missing. Unlikely, since she had an entire room on the third story filled 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 their marriage, but they’d each had their own bedroom in addition to the master suite they’d shared. Their separate rooms had been for times alone, times of renewal and refreshment, for reading without disturbing one another, for making phone calls late into the night when one of them was working on a project. It was in Max’s room where she knew she would find exactly what she needed.

Opening the door to Max’s walk-in closet, she was startled by the spicy aroma that enveloped her. Max’s aftershave still filled this room, four full months after his death. She had not touched the clothes that hung in neat rows along the walls of the closet since that miserable day in November, and they slowly took on a blurred, surrealistic shape before her eyes. How was it 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 closet toward the shelves in the rear. Climbing onto the stool, she reached toward the back of the top shelf.

Her hand felt the soft-sided rifle case, and she wrapped her fingers around it and drew it down from the shelf. Climbing off the stool, she rested the green case containing Max’s rifle carefully, gingerly, on the carpeted floor of the closet, then returned to her perch on the stool. Reaching onto the shelf once again, she found the box of bullets, then the Beretta pistol and a few loose clips. Never before had she touched these guns, and she hadn’t approved of 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, most harmonious marriages in Hollywood,”
People
magazine had written.

For the most part, that had been a highly accurate assessment. And right now, Zoe was glad Max had defied her when it came to the guns. She was doubly glad she had told her friends about the rifle and the pistol and where they were hidden. They would tell the police, and the police would 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 been particularly 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 she realized Bonita was asking her if she had considered how she would end her life. Nothing more than that.

“No,” she had answered, knowing full well that if she said she had a plan, Bonita would arrange to have her locked up someplace, and wouldn’t the tabloids have a field day with
that
. 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 the dresser. The image horrified her. She looked completely ridiculous. Her long blond hair fell across the rifle case, her deep bangs hung all the way to her eyelashes, and there was something about the lighting in the room that made her skin look sallow, her eyes sunken. She was 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, she understood them to be the truth. Who had she been trying to kid, still wearing her hair the way she had when she was twenty-five, coloring the heck out of it to mask the gray? She looked away from the mirror and headed for the stairs. There would be no more two-hundred-dollar trips to the 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 guns on the back seat of her silver Mercedes. Returning to the house, she sat down at the dining room table and gave her attention to what would be her final—and most difficult—task in this home she had cherished for so many years.

Staring down at the sheet of cream-colored parchment on the table in front of her, she picked up the Pelikan fountain pen Marti had given her several Christmases ago, on a day when the world had still seemed benevolent and the future still held promise. She rested the nib of the pen 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 looked like 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 new wrinkle on my face, and I’m losing my singing voice. Although my acting skills are at their peak, they go unrecognized these days. Parts that once would have come to me are now given to actresses much younger than myself.

Zoe stopped writing for a moment and looked out the window toward the ocean. That last sentence made her sound small and bitter. She could leave it out, but then she would have to start the letter all over again. And what did she care what anyone thought of her at this point? She laughed at the bruised ego, the irritating narcissism that had dogged her these past few years and 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 your innocence, but the system has failed both of us.
The tears were quick to come this time. One fell on the paper, and she blotted it from the word
innocence
with the side of her hand.

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

Suspicion would never have fallen on you had you not been my daughter,
she wrote. Zoe’s daughter.
I love you, dearest.
Zoe’s breath caught in her throat, and she stared out the window at the sea for a long moment before continuing.
Be strong,
she wrote.
All my love, Mother.

Moving the sheet of paper to the center of the table, she stood up, blotting her damp palms on her 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 to writing, and from the fear of the journey she was about to make.

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