“My name is Cole Stephens, and I'm an addict. I've been clean for eighteen months now, but I'm struggling. Someone from my past has come back to haunt me, and I've been tempted to slip back into my old habits. The only reason I haven't, is because of a woman. I know it sounds cliche, but it's the truth. Getting sober was my choice, but staying sober? I do that for Harper.”
There were twenty of us sitting in the room, last week there were twenty three. The thing about NA, you lost members almost daily. Drug habits were hard to kick, and for some people, it got the better of them. I was determined not to let that happen to me. I had too much to live for now that I'd turned my life around. But before I tell you about that, you need to know what brought me here.
Two years ago, I was California's drug kingpin. It sounds a lot more glamorous than it actually was. You see, it wasn't by choice, hell it wasn't even by chance. It was all part of some convoluted plan hatched up by Vanessa Blue, my brother's former foster sister. She was the real drug kingpin, although she hid behind the rouse of a man named Robert Drake.
Vanessa blamed my brother Wes for things that happened to her, and her sister in a foster home that the three had shared. She'd done her homework, and knew I was using. She also knew that Wes was constantly bailing me out. So, she used that knowledge against me, and I was dumb enough to fall for it.
I met her in a bar one night. I was nursing my fourth or fifth beer, when this beautiful raven haired woman approached me. We got to talking, and then flirting, and the next thing I knew she was taking me down the block to her “bosses” yacht. It was bigger than any house I'd ever lived in, and I was awe struck. We were both pretty wasted, and she let it slip that her boss had an entire shipment of product below deck.
That's when I got an idea. I thought I was completely in charge. I convinced her to come below deck where it was more private, and we hooked up. She fell asleep almost immediately after, so I got dressed, and went exploring on my own. It didn't take me long to find the room where the product was being stored. Looking back now, I should have known better. There were no guards, no alarms, it was all too easy. I was too high to care, I grabbed everything I could, and hid it in my trunk over night. I thought, there was no way it could come back on me. If anything, the woman still asleep in her boss's bed would take the blame.
I owed Wes a lot of money, this was my chance to pay him back. At first, I thought I'd just unload it, collect the money, and be done, but that's not what happened. I split it up among some dealer friends, made millions, and bought a house, all within a few weeks time. I was sitting high on my throne, literally, and I had alienated everyone who loved me, including Wes.
I turned into someone that I didn't recognize, and the more Wes tried to help me, the worse it became. I called his girlfriend a whore, and even compared what I was doing to Wes' former job. Saying that I was risking my life for a better cause than he ever would. Wes was a US soldier. I just couldn't shut the cocky off. I let the money, and the power go to my head, and it wasn't until his girlfriend Zoe was kidnapped, that I finally started to listen to him.
He warned me about Vanessa as soon as he found out, but I didn't believe him. I thought he was jealous, and just like the rest of California, I thought Robert Drake was the man who ran things. No one had even heard of the name Vanessa Blue. After Wes called me frantically searching for Zoe, I looked into her. When I realized that they had shared the same foster home, I dug deeper. Using my new found resources, I realized that Wes had been telling the truth.
I gathered up my guards, and we drove as fast as we could to the address I found on Vanessa's sister Harper. When we arrived, it was to the sound of a gunshot coming from inside. Without hesitation, we stormed through the front door, and my men were able to take out all of the threats. My eyes caught Wes' for only an instant, before I tucked tail, and ran like the coward that I was. I didn't have the guts to stick around. He'd been shot in the arm, but Zoe, and her brother Jake were with him. I knew he was safe, and that he didn't need me.
A few days later, Wes came home from the hospital. Vanessa was MIA, and the guilt was eating me alive. I decided that I was going to put a wrench in Vanessa's plans. I went to the police, and I told them everything. I turned myself in, turned over all of my assets, and even the folder I'd started on Vanessa. I knew I was in deep shit, but I couldn't let that woman hurt my family again, especially when I was the one to blame.
Vanessa may have been searching for Wes for a reason, but she was only able to use me against him because I was weak enough to let her. I ended up striking a plea deal for turning Vanessa, and Robert in. I had to give up my house, and anything associated with the money I'd earned from dealing. I had nothing, and to my surprise when I walked out of the police station Wes, and Zoe were waiting for me.
After everything I'd done to him, he was still there for me, offering me a place to stay. I worked my ass off helping he, and Zoe finish Harper's House. It was a center for troubled kids that offered solace. A place where they could go when things were hairy. All of us, Wes, Zoe, her brother Jake, and his wife Evie, have all been involved with the foster system in some way or another.
The grand opening was a year ago. The more work I did there, the more I thought about it's name sake. Wes had decided to name the center after Vanessa's little sister, Harper. I found myself drawn to her, needing to know her story. I felt like I owed her something. I had been the one to put her only family in prison. Her legal guardian, the only woman who has ever been a constant in her life.
I made it a point to reach out to her. We started spending a lot of time together, and became friends. Soon, it started turning into more. I knew that I was in love with her after six months, but she had been through so much, and had experienced next to nothing. I was taking things slow with her. We'd kissed, and groped to the point of blue balls, but we hadn't taken the next step yet.
It was Christmas day, and I'd brought her with me to Wes' house to celebrate. She was welcomed with open arms. She didn't remember Wes, but it was still hard for her to be there. A part of her felt responsible for what Vanessa had done, even though we all assured here multiple times that no one blamed her. It was one of the best days she'd ever had. We were laughing on the way back to her house, joking, teasing each other. It was the most beautiful sound in the world, until she answered the phone.
Her tone of voice changed from happy, and carefree, to quiet, and monotone. A series of yeses, and I understands slipped from her lips before her trembling hand placed her phone back into her purse.
“Harper?” I asked reaching for that same hand, and giving it a little squeeze. “What is it Sweetheart?” I tried again, softer, brushing her hand with my thumb.
“Vanessa.” She whispered, as a tear fell from her eye. “She's escaped.”
I pulled the car over to the side of the road as calmly as I could muster, and the minute I put it into park she began to hyperventilate. She suffered from PTSD and severe anxiety attacks due to trauma from her childhood. Luckily, I knew how to calm her down. I exited the vehicle, and ran to the passenger side unfastening her seat-belt. Crouching down in the snow, I placed my hands on either side of her face until her eyes were locked on mine.
“Look at me Sweetheart. I need you to breathe OK?” I said softly taking in deep breaths of my own, my eyes never leaving hers.
She nodded frantically, as she began matching her breathing with mine. After a few minutes, she'd calmed down enough to shiver from the cold air rushing in from outside. “Cole.” She sighed, “you're knee deep in a snow bank.”
“Don't worry about me. Are you alright?” I asked brushing a strand of her hair from her face, and tucking it behind her ear.
“I – I can't go home.” She stammered. “What if she's there? I'm not ready to see her Cole. I can't.” She rushed out, her breathing getting shallow once again.
“Hey, it's alright we'll go back to my place OK?” I asked, in a soothing tone.
“Yes.” She breathed out, the relief evident in that small word.
Fastening her back in her seat-belt, I shut the door and slid back into the drivers seat. My legs were freezing, so I cranked the heat up, and waited until it was safe to turn the car around.