Escaping too You ~book 3

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Chapter fifty-eight

It’s been speech after speech, and I’m nervously waiting backstage for my turn to speak.

To get this little shindig started, Teresa went out on stage like she owned the fucking room. She didn’t care the amount of people out there or even who they were. That’s one of the many qualities I like about Teresa, she doesn’t look at the title you hold as a person, but for the person you are. Teresa, like Ryann, sees people as equals. Not one person is above the other. And not one addiction is above another.

Teresa is a woman who is filled with so much wisdom and experience, and I can see that influence in Ryann every single fucking day. Ryann was and is very much blessed to have two strong women in her life, and even though the third is gone, her grandma is still around to this day and helping Ryann when she needs it.

Speaking of which, I’m going to need all the help I can get after this event. Because Ryann still very much hates surprises. And I’m not sure how she took seeing Teresa up on stage, introducing this event, and asking everyone to take their seats. I mean, the cat is out of the bag for both Andrew and I as our names were blasted through the PA system along with the official name of our foundation.

The Monarch Foundation.

A dedication to Ryann for her love of the Monarch Butterfly and teaching me the true meaning and beauty behind the beautiful creatures. They represent a new direction in your life or transformation. And I’d like to think that with each new path laid out in front of me, I’m being guided by my grandma. She’d always say, follow the Monarchs. For the days, months, and years I’m not here, when you need me the most, and you spot a Monarch, follow her. It will be me guiding and helping you to a new direction and giving you the hope you may have lost on your journey.

And I lost hope long before Ryann crashed into my life, and she brought it back and shoved me onto a new path. Ryann is the butterfly in my life…..in so many lives. And her efforts and determination are being thanked tonight.

I’m the last the speak following Xayla. Who is currently on stage talking about her experience with her addiction and her journey through rehab and sobriety. Xayla is still newly sobered and, like me, is still dealing with the challenges sobriety brings. Especially during high tense and stressful events. We used to drown out those feelings with alcohol and or drugs. It was a coping mechanism, an old friend. Well, now we’ve cut that old and toxic friend from our lives. Each day poses new risks and challenges that we have to try and overcome and pray we have the strength to stay on the sobriety path.

“Thomas?”

My hands are twisting inside themselves with a nervous energy. It’s crossed my mind a time or two that I may end up ripping off a fingernail or actually make the palm of my hands raw. Ryann normally helps me cope during events like these. She senses my nervous energy, and with just one touch, it’s instant calming because she gives me the hope that I can do anything.

But tonight, she’s not backstage with me. Tonight, she’s sitting front row at our table with Teresa and Val beside her. She’ll have all the support she’ll ever need by the time I get on stage with Andrew, Sasha, and Xayla all sitting at our table. I just pray I don’t end up vomiting on stage.

“Travis, shouldn’t you be at the table?” I know Ryann begged him to come and find me. Or maybe she could sense my anxious energy and sent him to help. Travis is no Ryann, but I’d like to think of him as a dad I never had. While I may not always agree or like what he says, Travis’s words are filled with wisdom and love. I know that now. “Ryann sent you?”

“Kinda,” he admits. “But everyone is at the table, comforting Ryann. Which means no one is back here with you.” And I know he’s referring to Ryann.

“How is she?” The real question, does she look pissed?

“How are you?” I hate the whole answering the question with a question.

Looking down at my hands, “Nervous. What if she hates this. All of this? This event is like surprise overload.”

Travis gives me a slight yet confident smile. “Oh, she’s gonna be upset….” I can feel my heart thudding hard against my chest and plummeting. I should have just fucking told her the truth, not bombard her with all of this extravagance. “But……she’s proud of what you and Andrew have accomplished. Everyone you’ve gotten to speak and the work you’re doing. She is blown away. And I’m proud of you too, Thomas.”

It’s an approval I’ve never had. Or at least, this feeling feels different. So different. I can’t remember a time I ever had my father’s approval, and here is Travis, standing in front of me, telling me he’s proud. The words engulf me like a strange yet welcoming wildfire I’ve always wanted. “That really means a lot to me, Travis. I can’t thank you enough for everything you’ve done for me. I really mean it, and I know I’ve gotten you in trouble a time or two with Ryann for my asshat behavior.”

Travis lets out a low and amused chuckle, “The worst was when you pulled that bottle of alcohol from under the driver seat.”

“When did she confront you on that?” Because that was that day, she gave me the biggest fucking case of blue balls I’ve ever had, and I wanted to get back at her, and it went soooo damn wrong.

“She didn’t. But you didn’t see the pure loathing disappointment of revulsion in her eyes. Ryann has a way of not saying a word, but at the same time, saying so damn much with her eyes.” Yes, yes, she does. Ryann doesn’t have to speak, and you know you’ve stepped in dog shit. “When you step onto that stage, lock eyes with Ryann. She’s going to want that connection the moment she sees you.”

“Travis, can I ask you a question?” With a slight head nod, he urges me to ask whatever is on my mind. A question that’s been lingering for some time now. “Why did you stay on? With me? You had plenty of opportunities to walk away, and I thought you weren’t going to return after the passing of your daughter.”

He gives me a sad smile and closes the gap between us, a hand resting on my shoulder. “There was a time or two I thought about it, and I almost didn’t come back after Lila’s funeral. But it was like she was guiding me in a sense.” I never met Lila. And Travis and I’s relationship was just that, employer and employee. He did his job and what was asked of him without question. He didn’t really start to defy me until Ryann. “I wanted to help you. I saw you crying out for help, and Pearl and Dax only fueling an addiction you no longer wanted. I just…….I didn’t know how to help. I mean, Val and I tried and failed several times, and then Ryann came into everyone’s life. She was the game-changer for you. For us all. And I thank God every single day for bringing her into not only your life but ours too.”

Looking down at my hands, “I owe you my gratitude for a role you didn’t have to fulfill. I never really had a father until you.”

Embracing me, “Thomas, I will always be here for you and Ryann. You two will always hold a special place in my heart, and I can’t thank either one of you enough for allowing me to fill that role.” At the sound of applause, I look over my shoulder towards the stage entrance as my name is announced. My heart pounding in my chest. “Now, before we get too sentimental, go out there and show the world you’re not the same man. Prove to everyone beyond that room that change is possible. You and Ryann are evident of that.” I watch him swallow hard. “And Xayla.”

I can’t help but laugh, “That was painful to say, wasn’t it?”

“It was something,” he chuckles. “Now get out there before they announce your name again because we both know if that happens, I don’t think even Teresa will be able to contain Ryann.”

Giving him another hug, there will never be enough I could possibly do to repay Travis back for everything he’s done. He’s decided to make the move out to Tennessee with us, and whether he liked it or not, I paid for his tiny cabin in the middle of the mountains. He’s about an hour’s drive from us. But Travis came, not for security or driving us around, but because he wanted to be close to us. To a family he found himself in, and now, he can’t seem to leave. Travis will solely be in Tennessee as a family member because he will no longer be under my employment after we leave California.

Taking a deep, shaky breath, I walk out onto the stage, nearly blinded by the sudden brightness of the lights, but my eyes immediately lock with Ryann’s wide hazel eyes. A tissue in her clutched hand with Val and Teresa on either side of her. She’s not pissed or upset, but I can tell she’s feeling slightly overwhelmed from the attention and gratitude she’s being thanked for. But the moment our eyes meet, I feel this instant calmness take over, almost like Ryann is the only person in this vast room.

The clapping slowly dies down around me, and I can feel my nerves slightly build back up. But nowhere to where they were a few moments ago. Taking another deep breath in, “First off, I’d like to thank everyone for coming out tonight and giving us your money.” A roar of laughter erupts through the large room at my lame joke, even a slight smile across Ryann’s lips. “No, but in all seriousness. You’ve heard the stories of those who we’ve asked to share tonight. People, some of us know, and others we just met. All of our stories are different but connecting us through a plague that is slowly taking over the world. One, we, as a society are so readily able to brush under an imaginary rug and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

Hell, sometimes we, as addicts, even believe the addiction doesn’t exist. That we as celebrities or because we come from wealth, we’re the exception. But we aren’t. If anything, we can lead by example and be loud to bring more awareness to an illness.

“When we started the Monarch Foundation, Andrew and I discussed in length what we wanted to do. If we only wanted to focus on the addiction that ailed us, but we knew the scope expanded outside of just alcoholism.” Pausing, I relock my eyes with Ryann, her eyes still wide and starting to gloss over. “See, the thing is, addiction isn’t just plagued by one substance or situation. As you’ve heard tonight, each person’s experience is unique and different. Their circumstances and reasoning are different than the last. But within those stories, you heard hidden stories. Ones the dive deeper into manipulation and abuse that we may not see from the outside as a society. Or maybe we do but chose to ignore it.”

Ryann takes her lower lip between her teeth as a tear breaks free. Teresa leans in and whispers something into her ear as Val nods for me to continue.

“Each color represents what we wanted our foundation to represent. The red, for alcohol and drugs. The hidden purple in the flowers, opioid use. And the teal…..” I pause, letting my echo die down. “To bring awareness to sexual assault.”

Ryann’s tears break free as she starts to dab at her eyes with the tissue in her hand.

“I’m not going to lie; none of this used to matter to me. I was perfectly happy in my unhappy way. I drank, I partied, and I did whatever I wanted. I didn’t care who I hurt along the way. Until one person came into my life. That’s all it takes, one person to come into your life to change it for the better. And I found my one the moment Ryann came into mine.” I want to walk off the stage and kneel down in front of Ryann and tell her everything I’m feeling. “Babydoll, the idea for this foundation came from you. You brought awareness to a struggle we didn’t know existed and opened our eyes. Because of you, I’m sober, Xayla is sober, and you helped Val find an even sassier side of her personality.”

The room bursts into a soft murmur of laughter.

“And because of you, Oak and Pine Rehab will be able to keep their doors open for years to come. Because of you, Colfax will have a facility that will help those with addictions, mental health problems, and sexual assault survivors will now have someplace to go.” Ryann covers her mouth in shock before whispering to Teresa and Val. Both of them nodding their head with soft smiles to whatever she asked.

I took Jen’s advice and bought Maxwell’s land. At first, I didn’t want my hands on it, but the more I thought about it, the more the idea kinda just stuck. Ryann isn’t the only one from that town who’s been a victim or wanted help, but the resources weren’t there. Now, the facility will be built by Alex and ran by Jen and Teresa to be opened seven days a week and three hundred sixty-five days.

“Because of you, Ryann, we’ve been able to keep ten in and outpatient facilities from closing their doors. We’ve been able to help hundreds of individuals seek help who may not have been able to afford it. And because of you…..well, I think Alison Drake should tell you the rest.”

With my introduction, Alison gets up from a table off to the side, looking slightly uneasy as she straightens the front of her flowy golden/yellow gown.

And by the sheer shock on Val’s, Ryann’s, Teresa’s, and Xayla’s faces. They didn’t see her in the room. This was a secret I managed to keep between Alison and me. Well, Andrew knew, and that was only because he had to know. Alison will now be heading the sexual assault cases that come through the foundation and helping victims. She’ll also be handling the department at the new facility in Colfax.

Stepping off to the side and back from the podium, I hand the mic over to Alison. “Well, this is slightly awkward. Half of you in this room I’ve trashed talked or dug up some personal piece of information on, and for that, I’m truly sorry. I had a job, and as everyone in this industry knows, sometimes you have to do a job even when you don’t want to. Ryann changed that for me. Well, gave me the courage to make that change for myself.”

Ryann looks to me, not pleading for me to make her stop, but incomplete and total astonishment. I don’t think she had any idea the impact she’s had on so many people.

“I was given an ultimatum at Up Entertainment. Either report Jamie’s side and only Jamie’s side of events or be in breach of my contract. That was even after the research I presented to the executives. I knew then what I had to do. An easy decision that should have been made long ago, but I fully believe that I just needed the right push. And Ryann gave me that push. She’s one of the only people I’ve ever met who wasn’t afraid to stand up to me. So protective over those she loves, and for some unknown reason, she truly does love you, Thomas.”

Even I can’t help but laugh because there are days I still can’t believe I’m waking up beside her. Looking to Ryann, I mouth, I love you, and she repeats my words back with a smile across her face.

“And I love seeing the love that these two share. I love seeing the strength Ryann possesses to fight for what she wants and prove all those damn naysayers wrong. I love that even after all she’s been through, Ryann doesn’t allow it to defy her and scare her, that she dares to still do what’s right. Because let’s face it, we all would like to think we’d do the right thing, but could you when the situation presented itself, would you?”

Alison pauses to let her words sink in. I know where she’s getting at, the point she trying to make. It’s one many women ask when there has been witnesses, and they didn’t do anything; why? A question you’d think would have a simple answer, but it doesn’t because the question is far from simple. It’s complex, and no answer or reason and individual gives will ever be good enough.

“There was a moment in my career where I knew what was right, but I did the opposite because it was easier. Life isn’t meant to be easier. It challenges us daily, and we can only strive to be like those stronger than us. Because all it takes is one person to speak out and defend a victim, to give them that support and hope they so desperately search for because it’s not always there. Unfortunately, I know several who didn’t have the support that you have, Ryann, and they didn’t make it out of the mental and physical trauma.” Alison quickly wipes away a tear and swallows back a lump in an attempt to keep her emotions in check. “From this point on in my journey, I’ll be working hand in hand with Monarch Foundation. Heading the sexual assault cases that come in and helping women and even men who are victims of sexual assault. Who may be trying to seek justice or just looking for a supported community because they don’t have one. Because of you, Ryann, people who may not have a voice, will now have one. And we owe you our undying gratitude. Thank you.”

At the sound of the room erupting into an applause, Alison walks off the stage with me following behind her and immediately embraces Ryann into a hug, the two women softly crying. Catching movement from my eye, the next sight, is something I never thought imaginable. A standing ovation.

“You’re a strong and incredible woman, Ryann. Thank you so much for giving me a piece of my own medicine.” Alison says, holding Ryann at her shoulders. “I mean it. And I want you to hear it from me. I’ll be working with your sister and Benjamin back in Indiana on your case and working with other victims who have come forward and are now accusing Jamie and Max of assault. From this point on, unless you say otherwise, I got this. You won’t have to do anything further.”

Ryann looks to me, unsure if she heard Alison correctly. With tears running down her face, and I’m waiting for Xayla to smack me again for ruining her makeup, she looks between us frantically.

Ryann kept saying she wasn’t going to testify. That she was done with the whole ordeal and wanted to move on, but I think deep down, she wasn’t a hundred percent sure the legal process would leave her alone.

“Are you……Thomas is she…..” Ryann covers her mouth to hide her sob. “Teresa? Is this…..is this real?”

“It’s real, Hunny. Alison is taking over. You don’t have to do anything. No testifying, no more interviews with investigators, nothing.”

Ryann looks back to Alison and essentially jumps into her arms, “Thank you…..Oh, my, God, thank you so much.”

And Alison, well now she’s looks lost for words as she attempts to keep her tears from rushing back down her face, and ushers me into taking over the embrace, and I do.

“Babydoll.” Ryann collides into me, her lips instantly on mine, leaving behind a shimmer of pink glossiness against my lips. She must have reapplied since our kiss on the carpet. Pulling away, I brush away the small lock of hair framing her elegant face perfectly, “Are you okay?”

“I hate surprises.”

“I know you do, but I…..”

Placing a finger to my lips, she ends what would have been my incoherent blabbering. “But I loved this one. Thank you for making my wildest dreams come true.”

Smiling, “Babydoll, it’s you who made my wildest dreams come true.”

“I love you, Mr. Copeland.”

With my lips poised just above hers, I can still see the longing behind her hazels, and I know the expression on Ryann’s face is the exact same as mine. “And I love you, future Mrs. Copeland.”

Placing a soft kiss on her lips, I know this is far from the end for us. In a way, our journey is just beginning because we’re both no longer escaping.

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