Insider, page 29part #1 of Exodus End Series
“Are you okay?” she asked, leaning close to peer into his eyes.
He lifted a finger—a signal that he needed a minute to respond—as he sucked air into his lungs and huffed it back out painfully.
He watched in astonishment as she sprang to her feet and began jabbing an angry finger repeatedly into Steve’s chest as she told him off.
“You can’t just jump on people like that! What are you, eight? Learn to control your temper! Fighting is never the answer. If you have a problem with something I’ve done, then you need to take it up with me like a mature adult. Not attack Logan when he least expects it.”
“You could have seriously injured him, choking him like that. I understand that you’re mad, but how would you feel if you’d actually killed him?”
“You’d never forgive yourself, now would you?”
Logan sniggered at the astonished look on Steve’s face as he failed to get more than a word in.
“The two of you are going to apologize to each other and I’m going to apologize to both of you for being an inexperienced idiot who can’t—” She took a deep shuddering breath. “Who can’t even—” Her shoulders shook as her emotions finally got the better of her. “Even conduct a decent interview.”
She burst into tears and raced back to the lounge area, sliding the door closed behind her with a loud bang.
“What just happened?” Steve said, rubbing the red spot in the center of his chest.
“Seems she told you off for acting like a child,” Max said calmly. “Logan didn’t say anything to her about Meredith.”
“It was you?” Steve’s eyes narrowed.
“I panicked when she started asking me personal questions and it slipped out.”
“Poor Toni is obviously upset,” Dare said with a devious smirk. “I guess it’s time for my interview.” He rose from his recliner and headed toward the back of the bus.
Oh shit. Logan knew how Dare comforted women. As soon as he could find the strength to climb to his feet, he’d do something about it.
with Darren Mills
When the door slid open, Toni turned and looked up from her tissue. She’d expected Logan to come reprimand her for being ridiculously unprofessional—she didn’t deserve to be comforted after the foolish way she’d acted—but the man standing in the doorway was dark-haired and green-eyed, not golden-haired and blue-eyed. He was also the last person she’d expected to cuss her out and tell her to pack her bags immediately.
Dare Mills strode into the room and slid the door shut behind him. She supposed at least they’d have a little privacy when he fired her.
“Are you okay?” he asked.
She nodded, and his handsome face blurred out of focus as fresh tears flooded her eyes. On second thought, no, she was decidedly not okay. She shook her head, pursing her lips together to stifle the sob creeping up her throat.
“I must say, I never thought you had it in you.” He chuckled and approached her slowly. “You don’t get angry very often, do you?”
Actually, she rarely got mad. And whenever she did, she reacted to her own tirade by crying, which was flipping ridiculous.
She blew her nose and yanked another tissue out of the box to wipe at her eyes. “I’m so embarrassed.” Mortified was a better word, but she’d truly be showing her geekiness if she started using that kind of vocabulary. She’d actually put her hands on another human being and then she’d started spouting words that under normal circumstances she’d think but never say aloud.
“Why? Steve deserved to be told off. And I think after you give what happened a little thought, you’ll give Max the tongue-lashing he deserves as well. He should have never told you Steve’s personal affairs.”
She blinked at him, completely baffled. He’d come back here to praise her for behaving like a raving lunatic?
“Do you need a hug?” He opened his arms wide and flicked his wrists, directing her to the hard chest at his center.
She shook her head. Sniffed her nose and dabbed at her eyes. On second thought, yes, she definitely needed a hug. She nodded and took several steps in his direction. Closing the distance, he wrapped both arms around her and squeezed tightly. She relaxed against him, astonished by how quickly her cares melted away. She would have preferred Logan to be the one comforting her, but whenever she ended up in his embrace, sexual urges consumed her. Being hugged by Dare was different. It was almost like when she was a girl and her father had comforted her when the world had treated her unfairly. Except her father hadn’t had such a firm muscular chest and didn’t smell like a little slice of heaven. Being hugged by Dare was like being hugged by the gorgeous big brother she’d never had but had so longed for when the responsibility of taking care of the family had fallen on her after her father had passed away.
Dare rubbed her back, turning her muscles to butter. Toni appreciated that he kept his touch platonic and his embrace comforting. She’d done enough yelling for the day and if he tried anything, she’d be obligated to tell him off. She’d made a promise to Logan, and she didn’t take such things lightly.
“Feel better?” Dare asked, leaning back to look at what must be a tear-streaked disaster, aka her face.
“You’d better not be touching her, Mills,” Logan called hoarsely from somewhere in the bus.
“I don’t think we need two fights in one day,” Dare said. He released her and stepped away. “Guys like Logan don’t understand how it’s possible to touch a woman without trying to initiate sex.”
“According to him, we’re justfriends,” Toni grumbled.
Dare laughed. “Right. The two of you are much more than friends. Anyone can see that.”
The corner of Toni’s mouth curved upward. She thought so too, but she wasn’t going to press the issue with Logan just yet. She didn’t want to send him running for the Canadian border to escape her.
Dare took a seat on the sectional and made himself comfortable. “I’m ready when you are.”
“Ready for what?”
She scratched her jaw. Her confidence had been completely shattered by the fiasco of Steve’s interview and the lack of cooperation during Max’s. She doubted she was capable of attempting Dare’s session today.
“I’m not sure I know what I’m doing,” she admitted.
“I’m sure that you do. Sit down. Take a deep breath. And get to work.”
If she hadn’t just been wrapped in his comforting embrace, she would have hugged him for the vote of confidence.
She sat beside him on the sofa, pushed her glasses up her nose, and took a deep breath. She released it slowly and then reached for her legal pad, flipping to the second sheet of questions so that she wouldn’t be distracted by her margin notes about Dare’s deceased fiancée. Nope. She was not asking him that. There’d be only nice, safe questions asked in this interview.
“Okay,” she said, taking another deep breath, hoping it would steady her shaking hands. “Every member of the band is listed in the songwriting credits for all of Exodus End’s songs. Do you participate equally in writing music or do certain members contribute more than others?”
“That’s a loaded question,” Dare said.
She hadn’t meant it to be. Though now that she’d read it aloud, it did sound kind of rude. The undercurrent of who works hard and who skates along accepting undeserved credit was definitely there. Surely Susan, with her years of superior interview experience, could have worded the question better. The trembling of Toni’s hands intensified.
“I’m going to answer it anyway,” Dare said. “But I’m not naming any names. We basically lock ourselves in a room for twelve hours a day for several weeks. We start out with brainstorming and our ideas are practically flying from our mouths and fingers and everybody shows enthusiasm for each other’s thoughts. Then someone disagrees with someone else, we take sides, we argue, everyone decides they hate
Toni wondered which one of them usually started the arguments, which one threatened to quit the band, and which one of them was likely to get them back together. She was almost positive that Dare was the one who made them compromise and get over their differences. Or maybe Max.
“Which one of you threatens to quit the band?” she couldn’t help but ask.
Dare lifted a brow at her. “I said I wasn’t naming names.”
She lowered her gaze. There she went again, shoving her foot in her mouth. His answer had been vague, but a lot more descriptive than the answers she’d pried from Max and Steve.
“You really don’t know?” Dare asked after a moment.
She had a suspicion. “Logan.”
“When the going gets tough, Logan goes.”
Why did that sound like a warning?
The door slid open. “Sorry to barge in,” Logan said, rubbing his neck. “Just making sure I don’t have to punch Dare in the nose again.”
Dare’s look of annoyance sent Logan back a step.
“Everything looks fine back here to me.” Logan closed the door as he left them alone again.
“He’s different with you, though,” Dare said. “I never realized he was such a jealous son of a bitch.”
Toni didn’t particularly like Logan’s behavior when his jealousy got the better of him, but the idea that he was so possessive of her made her heart smile. She couldn’t deny it. Even if they were justfriends.
She turned back to her questions, hoping the next one was better.
“You supposedly own a legendary Flying V guitar that you use to compose all your guitar solos. Is that true?”
“It isn’t exactly legendary,” he said with a chuckle. He nodded to the guitar on the wall. “Does it look legendary to you?”
She glanced over her shoulder at the guitar in question. “Well, it doesn’t glow with a godly power or anything, but if it’s really responsible for the amazing guitar work you create, then yeah, I’d say it’s totally legendary.”
“It’s not even a quality guitar,” Dare said. “By my current standards, it’s a piece of shit. I’d never use it onstage or in the studio. But something about holding it takes me back to my roots. Back to when creating music was new and fun and magical instead of expected or required. Back when there were no expectations of quality. Back when I had no experience and very little raw talent. Back when everything I played came from the heart even if it sounded like shit. That’s where I always want my music to come from. That’s why I still use that cruddy guitar to compose.”
“Oh,” she said breathlessly, completely swept up in his words. In awe of him. This guy was the real deal. “Can I take a picture of you holding the Flying V for the book?” she asked a bit too enthusiastically. She was already picturing a video clip of it glowing on the wall and flying into his hands. A bit cheesy, perhaps, but she could have a lot of fun with it.
“I guess so.”
“I would love to be a fly on the wall when you guys are writing a song. I’d be the most privileged bug on the planet.”
“Maybe I can talk the guys into writing a song for your book while we’re on tour. We’ve got the guitar, after all.”
Every molecule in the room seemed to stop moving. She was so stunned by his suggestion, time had ceased to move forward.
“You okay?” he asked, his brow crumpled with concern.
“Are you serious? Oh my God, Dare, that would be amazing! I can’t . . . I can’t even . . .” She covered her thudding heart with one hand. “Oh!”
He smiled and reached over to pat her on the head. “That’s the heart I’m talking about, when excitement for your work isn’t fabricated. You’re still young enough that it comes naturally. I hope the real world never wears you down.”
She hadn’t really experienced enough of the real world to know how she’d fare. So far, she wasn’t doing particularly well in the career department. And her love life was a sham. But at least she was trying.
“So do you always compose here in this room?”
“We usually hole up at my place. But we could try to compose here for your book.”
“So why do you bring the Flying V on tour?”
Dare laughed. “This is going to sound stupid . . .”
Toni shook her head, doubted that anything the man said could possibly sound stupid. If he said two plus two was five, she’d have started a campaign to spread the word.
“I like to bring her out on the road so she remembers why we’re working so hard and what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Toni laughed. “You make it sound like it’s a living being, not an inanimate guitar.”
“Her name is Genevieve. And she never fails to come alive in my hands.” He scratched his jaw, smiling broadly. “I told you it would sound stupid.”
Toni shook her head. “I get it. Some people name their cars. Why not name an iconic guitar?”
“I also have a tattoo of good ol’ Genevieve on my back.”
“Okay, you’ve crossed a line. That’s definitely stupid,” she teased.
“Hey! I bet you have a tattoo of your precious camera on your ass cheek.”
“You would be wrong,” she said, her face flaming.
“Are you willing to prove it?”
Oh lord, Dare Mills was flirting with her. Completely harmless flirting, she was sure, but still, definite flirting. First Max and now Dare. Maybe guys had always flirted with her and she’d been too dumb to realize it.
“You could ask Logan,” she said. “He’ll vouch for me.”
“What?” Dare covered his mouth, pretending utter shock. “Logan has seen your ass cheek?”
Toni drew her eyebrows together. “I think he has. I’m not sure. He spends most of our naked time staring at my boobs.”
At Dare’s unexpected bark of laughter, Toni nearly jumped out of her boots.
“I’m sure they’re an eyeful.” He lowered a pair of invisible shades to give them an appreciative look.
Toni swatted at him. “Stop. These are supposed to be serious, professional interviews.”
“I thought you were looking for the real us.”
Rattled, she lifted her notebook against her chest like a shield. “Right. That’s the idea.”
“Then you’re going about it all wrong,” he said. “Just talk to us. We don’t bite.”
She nodded, knowing he was giving her good advice, but also realizing she’d be as exposed as they were if she just talked to them. She wasn’t sure she was prepared to open herself up to the scrutiny of four worldly men.
“Unless you really do have a tattoo on your ass,” Dare said. “Then I will bite.” He made a biting motion and produced a little growl.
Toni stood abruptly and headed for the nearest exit.
“Where are you going?” Dare asked.
“To the tattoo parlor. Where else?”
He was still laughing when she entered the bathroom and shut the door.
with Logan Schmidt
When Toni returned from the bathroom, she found Logan sitting with Dare in the lounge.
Logan noticed her standing in the doorway and smiled at her. “Is it my turn now?”
“Yes, Logan. You’re next.”
“We’re already finished?” Dare asked, his green eyes wide with
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