Insider, p.1
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       Insider, p.1
 

         Part #1 of Exodus End series by Olivia Cunning  



  One

  Toni placed a second wide-angle lens into her gargantuan camera case and shut the lid, locking both clasps with her thumbs. She glanced around her office to make sure she hadn’t overlooked anything. It was imperative that she remembered all her equipment. She’d be gone for weeks with no access to any gear she left behind.

  “I don’t want you to go,” Birdie said, grabbing her hand and giving it a hard yank. Toni winced. Birdie never meant to hurt; she simply didn’t realize how strong she was.

  Rubbing her smarting elbow with her free hand, Toni said, “It’s only for a few weeks.” Four to be exact, but Birdie didn’t deal well with change, and Toni figured it was best to understate her absence. “You and Mom will have a great time without me.”

  Birdie shook her head. “Who will read me a story?”

  “Mom will.”

  Birdie’s face scrunched into a pout. “She doesn’t do it the fun way.”

  Toni tugged one of Birdie’s pigtails. She was nine, but emotionally and mentally she was closer to five.

  “Maybe you can read it to her, Buttercup. You know every word by heart.” Toni must have read The Princess Bride to Birdie a thousand times. Her sister never grew bored with the tale. Toni, on the other hand, had started making up weird voices and progressive changes to the story to keep from going insane from the monotony.

  “I will try.”

  Toni smoothed a palm over Birdie’s cheek, pausing to rub at a smudge at the corner of her mouth. “Don’t forget your chores. I won’t be there to remind you.”

  “Feed the chickens.” Birdie smiled that heart-stealing, ear-to-ear grin of hers.

  “Good. What else?”

  Birdie pressed her lips together around the tip of her tongue and scrunched up her round face in concentration. After a long moment, she said, “I can’t ’member.”

  “What are you supposed to do when you can’t remember?”

  Birdie’s face lit up, and she pulled a piece of paper out of the back pocket of her jeans. “My list!”

  “That’s right.” Toni kissed Birdie’s forehead and hugged her tight. “You’ve got this, Buttercup.”

  “How many days until you come home?”

  “I gave you a calendar. It’s on your message board.”

  “I’m supposed to put an X on each day until I is on the red square.”

  “Until I am on the red square,” Toni corrected automatically. She came from a long line of English majors, and she saw how their mother cringed every time Birdie used improper grammar. Poor kid. “Only mark out one day each morning. Don’t cheat.” Toni made Birdie calendars for birthdays and Christmas countdowns so she didn’t have to answer “How many days?” questions every five minutes. Birdie often tried marking out extra days, thinking it would make the anticipated event arrive sooner.

  There was a knock on her door and it opened an instant later. Her mom poked her head into the room. “Are you ready?”

  “I think so,” Toni said, giving her office yet another scan. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was forgetting something. Or maybe she was just nervous.

  “Hi, Mommy!” Birdie waved.

  “Good evening, Bernadette.” Mom immediately turned her attention to Toni. “Julian insisted that he drive you to the rendezvous point. I hope you’re not offended that he didn’t have to ask for my permission twice.”

  Toni grinned. Julian would make the trip interesting. And it was probably best for Mom and Birdie to head for home; I-5 traffic could be a bear, and Birdie got antsy on long car rides.

  “Also, Susan wants to talk to you before you leave,” Mom added.

  Toni’s heart plummeted. Her first meeting with Nichols Publishing’s newest editor had not gone well. She doubted this one would prove less traumatizing.

  “Okay. Thanks.” No thanks.

  “Come, Bernadette,” Mom said, holding out a hand. “We’re heading for home.”

  Mom looked as nervous about taking care of her youngest daughter as Toni felt about hanging around with four living legends for a month. It wasn’t that Mom had never cared for Birdie before. She’d just never done it without Toni’s assistance for more than two days at once. The next four weeks were going to be rough on everyone. But Toni was more than ready for a little adventure. And Birdie had to learn to trust Mom to meet her needs.

  “I want to go with Toni,” Birdie said, grabbing Toni’s hand and shaking her head.

  “You can’t,” Mom said. “Toni needs to get out and gain some experience so she’s ready to take over the company someday.”

  Yeah, about that . . . Toni didn’t want to take over her mother’s company. But who else could? Sadly, Birdie would never be capable of the onerous job, though she could help with many tasks. Dad was gone. There was no one but Toni available to walk in Eloise Nichols’s footsteps, and everyone knew how hard her mother had worked to build Nichols Publishing from the ground up. Toni felt obligated to keep the business in the family. But that wasn’t why she wanted to go on tour with the most famous metal band on the planet. Nope. Her reasons for touring with Exodus End were entirely selfish. This project would launch her career. The career she wanted, not the career her mother wanted for her.

  Toni wanted to design interactive electronic biographies about famous people—rock stars, presidents, actors. She hadn’t even realized her aspiration until her mom had mentioned the Exodus End project over dinner one evening—Toni had known instantly it was the perfect career for her. She’d majored in all the relevant fields and had loads of experience, she just hadn’t been able to figure out how to make her eclectic education and strange skill set mesh into a viable career. This assignment was tailor-made for her, and she was going to blow everyone’s mind with her creative genius.

  Assuming she didn’t pee down her leg the first time she met the band.

  “I want to go with Toni,” Birdie said. “I can help.”

  Toni tried imagining her sweet, special needs sister living with a group of raunchy metal musicians for several weeks. Uh yeah, no. Imagining immersing herself into the band members’ lives was challenging enough.

  “Mom needs your help more than I do, Birdie,” Toni said. “Who will feed the chickens? Mom doesn’t know how.”

  Birdie chewed her lip, obviously torn between the well-being of their chickens and her desire to be with the sister who’d raised her.

  “Okay, Toni,” she said haltingly. “I’ll help Mommy.”

  Toni gave her sister another tight hug and a kiss on the forehead. “I’ll be home before you know it.”

  Birdie didn’t look quite convinced, but she ambled over to Mom and took her hand. “I’ll show you how to feed chickens, Mommy. So next time you can feed them and I can go with Toni.”

  Mom patted her youngest daughter’s back and smiled, but Toni knew the woman wouldn’t go within ten yards of the coop. It had been her father’s idea to buy the little farm an hour east of Seattle, and after he’d passed away, Mom had wanted to sell it and move closer to the office. But Toni had convinced her to keep their idyllic property. For Birdie’s sake and for hers. Anything that allowed Toni to keep the memory of her father alive was worth the effort to maintain and the loss of any chance at a social life.

  “Call if you need anything,” Mom said.

  “I will. Love you both.”

  “Love you too, Toni!” Birdie yelled in what most would consider an outside voice. But Birdie only had two volumes—loud and whisper.

  Toni waited a few moments before collecting her gear and heading to Susan’s office. Toni didn’t want Birdie to see her again and be forced to go through their goodbyes twice. And maybe if she dawdled enough, Julian would come collect her for their drive to the arena, helping her keep her interaction with her ov
erbearing editor as short as possible.

  The ten-yard journey down the hall was just enough to get Toni’s heart thudding and her palms sweaty. How could her mom possibly think Toni was capable of being the boss of this place? She’d never been like her ambitious mother. Toni took after her father—laid back, creative, and painfully shy. She hoped her shyness didn’t hinder her interactions with the members of Exodus End. What would she do if she froze up and couldn’t say a word to any of them? That would make conducting interviews rather challenging.

  Toni took a deep breath and tapped her knuckles quietly on Susan’s thick wooden door. Maybe Susan wouldn’t hear her knock over the heavy metal music she always blared into her ears via earbuds.

  “Come in,” Susan called.

  Dammit.

  Toni eased the door open and peered anxiously inside. “My mom said you wanted to see me before I left.”

  “I do,” Susan said.

  Toni pushed her glasses up her nose with the back of her hand.

  “Well, are you going to come in or are you going to stand there staring through me?” Susan snapped.

  Toni entered the room, deposited her cases, and closed the door.

  “Sit.” Susan waved to a chair across from her desk.

  “I don’t think I have time. Julian—”

  “Sit!”

  Toni perched on the edge of a blue club chair and clenched her fingers into her long skirt. She wasn’t sure what it was about this woman that ratcheted her anxiety into the stratosphere. Toni didn’t handle disapproval well. She always strived to make everyone happy, and she couldn’t figure out how to make Susan happy with her—besides giving up her assignment with Exodus End and allowing Susan to take her place. But Toni refused to back down in this case. She wasn’t afraid to go after what she wanted; she just didn’t want much. But she did want to make this interactive biography a success, even if it meant telling Susan to go fuck herself. Toni rubbed her lips together. Okay, no, she doubted she’d ever be able to say something so crass to anyone’s face, but she’d think it, by God.

  Susan slid a legal pad across her desk. “Here are the interview questions I came up with.”

  Toni read upside down. Which musician living or dead would you most want to spend a day with? She blinked hard so she wouldn’t roll her eyes. She was pretty sure fans didn’t care which musician the members of Exodus End would want to hang out with. She sure didn’t. Toni picked up the legal pad, however, and stuffed it into her messenger bag.

  “I still don’t think you’ll be able to handle this job,” Susan said.

  “I disagr—”

  “You’ll probably spontaneously combust at the sight of them.”

  Well, they were incredibly attractive men. All four of them, but—

  “And the way you dress?” Susan shook her head. “You won’t fit in with a group of rock stars. They’re not going to open up to someone like you.”

  Pressure began to build behind Toni’s eyes. “Someone like—?”

  “You have absolutely no experience as a reporter. I’ve interviewed hundreds of musicians over the years. How many have you interviewed?” Susan’s voice was beginning to rise, and that scary vein over her left eye bulged.

  “Well—”

  “Zero! That’s how many. You know you wouldn’t have gotten this assignment if your mother didn’t own the company, right? I mean you hardly ever come in to the office . . .”

  That was because Toni did most of her work from home so she could take care of Birdie.

  “. . . and you have no field experience. So what if you can code and do graphic design and write? You can’t talk. Journalists have to know how to talk.”

  She might have talked if Susan had shut her mouth for more than half a second.

  “If you can’t talk, you can’t ask questions. So what good are you?”

  Susan actually paused long enough for a response. What good was she? Toni didn’t know. She wouldn’t know until she tried. But every point Susan made was valid. Toni didn’t have any experience interviewing musicians—or anyone famous, for that matter. She wouldn’t fit in with the crew on tour with the band or the fans and definitely not four famous rock stars. Toni’s chest tightened, and she fought the flood of tears that suddenly burned her eyes. What she needed right now was a pep talk, not to be berated and belittled by a jealous cow.

  “Are you seriously going to cry right now?” Susan asked, tilting her head forward so that her silky burgundy hair swung over one sharp blue eye. The silver hoop that pierced the corner of one of Susan’s nostrils caught the light and Toni’s attention. Susan would fit in better with a rock band. Toni couldn’t deny it.

  “No.” Not at that very minute. Toni could at least hold it together until she found a bathroom before she unleashed a torrent of tears.

  “I don’t know why I’m so worried that you’ll fuck this up.” Susan laughed hollowly. “You’ll take one look at the tour bus and flee in terror.”

  Toni lifted her chin, which betrayed her by quivering most annoyingly. “I won’t.”

  “We’ll see. You mother already told me that if you fail, I can take back the job I was hired to do. I guess I’d better start packing. You’ll be home by midnight.”

  “You only know how to do interviews. You don’t know how to do anything else this job requires,” Toni said.

  “I’ll send all the information to you and you can make it pretty and flow together into a book. That’s what you’re good at.”

  It was what she was good at. Design. In the past, Toni had been forced to use the information, photographs, illustrations, videos and audio clips that someone else had decided were important for making an amazing interactive book. For this project, she was in charge of collecting everything necessary to capture the men behind the rock stars. And she was determined to wow everyone with this biography. Even Susan. And maybe her mom would realize that Toni was most valuable as a creative asset to Nichols Publishing, not as the head of it. Toni had to get this book right the first time. Mom wasn’t big on second chances.

  “Call me on Monday to check in,” Susan said dismissively. “Unless you’re already back in town. Then let me know so I can meet up with the band at their next tour stop.”

  “I’m not going to fail,” Toni said. She lifted her chin another notch. “I can do this.”

  Susan rolled her eyes and turned toward her computer, dismissing Toni without a word.

  Toni scooped herself out of the chair, uncomfortably aware of her trembling knees. If Susan intimidated her this easily, how would Toni ever hold her own with a bunch of cocky rock stars?

  She lifted her camera case and slung the strap of her bag over one shoulder. “I’m not going to fail,” she said resolutely and rushed out of the office, slamming the door on the corner of her messenger bag, completely negating the finality of her angry exit.

  She fled to the bathroom down the hall. Hot tears slipped down her cheeks as she shut herself into the largest of the three stalls. She dropped her case on the floor, then yanked toilet paper from the roll and dabbed at her eyes beneath her glasses. Why was Susan so mean to her? Toni was nice to everyone, whether they deserved her kindness or not. She didn’t understand how anyone could say such cruel things to someone else. It was almost as if Susan wanted to rattle her. Wanted her to fail. No one could really be that much of a selfish jerk, could they?

  Toni dropped the tear-soggy toilet paper into the bowl and yanked another length off the roll.

  “Are you in here, Toni?” a familiar, masculine voice called into the bathroom.

  “You can’t come in here, Julian,” Toni called to him. She blew her nose before reaching for more toilet paper.

  “Did Susan make you cry again?”

  “N-no.”

  She heard the door close and took a deep, shaky breath, glad Julian had left. She wasn’t quite ready to face him yet. Her tears had stopped, but her nose was still running like a leaky faucet. He’d recognize that she was
lying as soon as he saw her.

  “Toni, she’s a horrible jealous bitch,” Julian said through the crack in the stall door. “Don’t let her hurt your feelings.”

  “Julian! This is a women’s restroom.”

  “Trust me, honey, there isn’t a thing in here that interests me,” he said.

  She could picture the disgusted sneer on his pretty boy face.

  “Except making you smile. Now come on out of there.”

  “In a minute.” She blew her nose again and rubbed her face with the palm of her hand.

  “What did she say to you this time?” Julian asked.

  “That I’m g-going to f-fail.” Toni dashed away a stray tear. God, why did she have to be so soft-hearted? It was a freaking nuisance.

  “You aren’t going to fail,” Julian said. “You’re going to kick ass. I guarantee it.”

 
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