Insider, p.3

Insider, page 3

 part  #1 of  Exodus End Series


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  them? Goodness. What was up with her hormones tonight?

  Damn Julian for putting those kinds of thoughts in her head.

  “How come this is the first I’ve heard of this?” Steve asked. His long brown hair—stopping just below his collarbones—hung damp against his bare skin. Toni was uncomfortably aware of the drummer’s lack of shirt and his display of abs. Dear lord, the man had a freaking eight-pack. He was close enough that Toni could smell the clean soap scent of a recent shower on him. She was suddenly picturing him in the shower, water cascading over his long lean body. Naked and wet. And . . . and . . . naked. She gave herself a mental shake. She had not expected to react to them this way. Yes, she’d known they were all attractive, but she wasn’t the type of woman who lusted after men. Much. Well, maybe she lusted after them, but they never lusted after her in return.

  “Shit, guys,” Max said. “I have a lot on my mind. Just recovered from my surgery. Had to judge the guitarist contest to find my temporary replacement. Prepare for the new tour.”

  “Get a manicure,” bassist Logan Schmidt added.

  “And your hair highlighted,” Steve said, fluttering his eyelashes.

  Max ignored their taunting. “It’s no wonder I forgot about it.” He released a frustrated sigh and tilted his head back to stare at the dark sky. “Well, the contract’s been signed. We’ll have to make the best of this.”

  “We also have a pact that says no women ride on the bus between shows,” Dare said.

  “Yeah, all the riding must take place while the bus is stationary,” Steve said, making thrusting motions with his slim hips.

  Toni scowled with confusion. Riding while stationary was an oxymoron. Her eyes widened when she suddenly realized what he meant by riding. Not that any of them would want to ride her, but uh, yeah, she understood his sexual connotation. And only several seconds late.

  Toni looked from one man to the next. She supposed she could offer to follow the bus in a rental car, but how would she really get that insider’s point of view if she didn’t spend time with them in their element?

  “Reagan is a woman,” Max pointed out.

  “That’s different. She’s part of the band.”

  “You can pretend I’m a guy,” Toni interrupted.

  Five sets of eyes landed on her overly ample breasts. She crossed her arms over her chest. So maybe she wouldn’t pass for a guy, but she knew they wouldn’t have any problem treating her like one once they were around her for a few minutes. Men tended to see her as friend material. Only as friend material.

  “How long are you staying?” Logan, the golden-haired bassist, asked. Curls framed his handsome face as he tilted his head to look at her. His blue eyes trained mostly on her chest, but occasionally flicked upward to meet her nervous stare. He extended a hand in her direction. “I’m Logan.”

  “So glad to meet you,” she gushed.

  She grabbed his hand and shook it vigorously, grateful for his goodwill. When she continued to pump his hand up and down long after was customary, he laughed. “I need that arm to play. Don’t dislocate my shoulder now.”

  Her eyes widened and her cheeks went hot. She dropped his hand and immediately started to rub his arm to undo any damage. Wow, he had nice arms. So hard and smooth and warm. “I-I’m sorry. I’m just really really happy to be here, and I’m so incredibly excited to meet you all. I promise to do a great job. A really great job. The best job ever. You can count on me.”

  Logan smiled at her as if she were the village idiot. Not that she blamed him. She was babbling like the village idiot.

  A sudden commotion near the wall behind the stadium drew Toni’s overly divided attention. The buses were parked in a walled alcove, and a barrier had been erected to keep the crowd from harassing the band after the show. As Toni’s unexpected intrusion had kept the group outside longer than usual, they’d been spotted by fans leaving the concert.

  “Get on the bus, guys,” Butch said. “You can figure out what to do with her inside.”

  “I’ll have no problem figuring out what to do with her,” Logan said, his lips curving into a suggestive smile. “No problem at all.”

  Toni stiffened. Was that a come-on? Surely she was imagining things. She glanced at the other members of the band, but no one else seemed to have heard his offhand comment.

  “The fans have seen us,” Max said.

  Dare grinned. “Can’t be helped.”

  All four of them made a beeline for the crowd, their entire security team scrambling after them in a panic. Toni reached into her bag for her small camera and her audio recorder. Most of her gear was in the giant camera case that had been placed under the bus by the helpful security guard who had shown her to the bus, but she didn’t have time to grab superior equipment. She switched on the recorder and pinned it to the turtleneck collar of her burnt-orange sweater. She spoke into the microphone as she hurried after the group: “I think they want to interact with their fans. Security doesn’t look too pleased with their decision to approach the crowd.”

  Toni snapped a picture of Steve signing the back of a pretty fan’s Drummers Bang Harder T-shirt. The young woman shuddered as he slowly tugged the silver marker tip over the soft cotton. Mr. Abs grinned mischievously as the hand he used to hold the young woman’s shoulder stationary inched down her chest. Toni’s eyes bulged when his questing fingertips finally reached their target and finding no resistance to his fondling, he cupped the woman’s breast, brushing its tip with his thumb. Oh my God. Did he even know this woman? Maybe he did. She didn’t smack him. Instead she covered his hand with hers and encouraged him to squeeze her boob while he eased in closer behind her and whispered into her ear. Toni wondered if she should include something like that in the book. She smiled as she imagined the caption beneath such a picture: Steve Aimes cops a feel while serving his fans. Or perhaps: Steve aims to bang more fans than drums.

  The tremulous quality of an unfamiliar voice caught Toni’s attention. She tracked the sound to the teary-eyed man standing near Dare Mills and made sure her audio recorder was catching the balding man’s conversation to the standoffish lead guitarist. Toni could almost see the invisible bubble Dare had erected around himself. Unlike the swarming fans of the rest of the band members, Dare’s admirers kept a respectful distance and had formed a neat line while waiting for the chance to meet him. The only exception was the fan standing to his left, who wasn’t in Dare’s personal space, but was obviously out of line. Toni couldn’t tell if it bothered Dare. She couldn’t even tell if Dare was listening to the guy as he signed a CD insert and offered a smile to the giddy fanboy at the front of his line.

  “High school,” the emotional fan beside Dare was saying. “High school was a nightmare. No one understood my pain. My rage. Except you guys. I must have listened to “Rebel in You” a million times. That song saved my sanity. Probably saved my life.”

  “Rebel in You” had been Exodus End’s first hit. Toni tried to recall the lyrics, but could only remember lots of screaming and angry drumming and wailing guitars. Could one song really mean that much to a person?

  “My first job was hell,” the guy continued. “Do you have any idea how much shit a yard of cattle produces? I never would have made it through the summer without “Bite” blaring through my headphones.”

  Each tragedy of the man’s life—his breakup with the love of his life, the loss of his mother, the accident that resulted in him being unable to find work—was made tolerable, in his mind, by an Exodus End song. The lead guitarist didn’t comment throughout the fan’s entire long-winded story, though he did nod occasionally as he simultaneously signed autographs and paused for pictures with others.

  Jeez, Dare. The guy is pouring his guts out to you. Are you even listening to a word he’s saying? She supposed it was his rock star ego that made the guitarist feel superior to the little people who’d paid for his mansion. Was he really an unfeeling ass? Maybe he would have gotten along better with Susan.

sp; “I’ve been without work for a while,” the fan said. “I’m trying to find a decent job, but nothing ever seems to pan out for me. I was so bummed that I couldn’t afford to see you guys play live this year, but my bros got me a ticket for the show. It made my year to get to be here tonight. You have no idea how much it means to me to stand here talking to you. I just wish I wasn’t such a fuck-up.”

  Dare’s grass green gaze lifted to meet Toni’s, and her heart skipped a beat. She hadn’t been sure if Dare realized she was recording his apparent disinterest, but with one look, she knew she’d judged him unfairly. He was aware of everything going on around him and in perfect control of his surroundings. It was as if the universe was a slave to his whimsy. He turned to the disheartened fan to his left and grabbed the guy’s hand in a tight fist. Dare yanked him forward until their shoulders knocked together.

  “Don’t let life get you down, man,” Dare said as he used his free hand to pat the man’s wide back. “Everything will work out. You have to believe in yourself even when no one else sees your true worth.”

  Surprised by how much she needed to hear those exact words, Toni felt that Dare were talking to her. Why couldn’t her editor—or her mother—ever say something like that to her?

  The fan beamed, tears in his dark eyes. He pulled a cellphone out of his pocket. “Can I get a picture with you? My friends are going to kick themselves for going directly to the hotel. They’ll never believe this shit without photographic evidence.”

  Dare wrapped an arm around his new buddy and smiled, making a pair of devil horns with one hand while the guy held his phone in front of them and snapped a picture. Dare patted the man on the back before turning his attention to a gushing fangirl.

  “Oh God, you’re so gorgeous, I’m about to wet myself.”

  “If I was really that gorgeous, you’d already be wet,” Dare said.

  Toni snorted in a most unladylike fashion. She had no problem picking up on the meaning of that jest, seeing as Dare’s quiet control and amazing green eyes made her wet in uncomfortable places. Toni pulled out a release form and handed it to the long-winded fan. When she explained that he might be included in an interactive e-book about the band, he was very accommodating.

  “And I might be in the book? With Dare Mills?” he asked, nodding eagerly.

  “No guarantees,” she said, “but yes. We can depict you as an anonymous fan or include your name. Just indicate your preference there on the form.”

  “That is so cool! Definitely use my name. I need this book. When will it be out?”

  “Next year.” Assuming she didn’t mess this up. She glanced at Dare, who was back to pretending detachment, and remembered his words of encouragement. They hadn’t been directed at her, but she could pretend they had been. She had to believe in her abilities even when no one else did.

  While she waited for Long-Winded—the guy was still talking—to fill out his personal information, Toni searched the crowd for her next point of interest. She didn’t see the golden-haired bassist, Logan, anywhere, but the band’s vocalist was readily identifiable. Toni tucked the completed release form into her bag and started toward Max, who was surrounded by at least twenty fans—all women, all trying to get a hand—or two—on him.

  “If they knew what he was really like, they wouldn’t chase him like that,” someone said in her ear.

  Toni turned to find herself staring into Logan’s stunning blue eyes.

  “I find that hard to believe,” she said.

  Logan grinned and shrugged. “Believe what you want. He’s a complete control freak.”

  “And that’s a bad thing?” She was a bit of a control freak as well. Toni liked things orderly and neat, but Birdie could scarcely function without a smooth routine. Toni fleetingly wondered how her mother was coping with Birdie on her own.

  “It is if it gets in the way of my good time.”

  Logan’s smile made her toes curl inside her boots. Why was he looking at her like that? Was he trying to set her panties on fire? If they hadn’t already been damp, she was sure they would have ignited by now.

  “Logan!” some woman yelled from the crowd. “Logan! Logan! Over here.”

  “Excuse me, sweetheart,” he said and turned just in time to catch the pink-haired woman who launched herself into his arms.

  “Why haven’t you called me?” she asked, kissing him. Or trying to.

  Logan jerked his head to the side so that her mouth landed on his jaw. “Uh . . .”

  “He lost your number,” Steve said and chuckled.

  “You did?” She pouted.

  “Yeah, I guess.”

  “But I programmed it into your phone.”

  “When was that?” Logan carefully set her on her feet and put several inches between them.

  “Last year after MetalFest.”

  With a wide smile that made his already handsome face even more gorgeous, Logan nodded. “Oh yeah, MetalFest. Victoria?” He lifted both eyebrows hopefully.

  She scowled and shook her head.

  His eyebrows scrunched together. “Veronica?”

  “No. You don’t remember me?”

  Steve slapped him on the back. “Of course he remembers you. And the six other women he banged that night.”

  Logan’s eyes widened, and he stared directly at Toni. He shook his head, his eyes rolling upward. I didn’t sleep with seven women, he mouthed, as if the very idea was preposterous. He lifted a hand and splayed his fingers. “Five, tops,” he said.

  “You bastard!” Victoria-Veronica-whoever screeched. “You had no intention of calling me, did you?”

  Steve wrapped his arm around Logan’s shoulders and tugged him against his side. Toni snapped a picture, loving the way they were both grinning indulgently. A moment of connection. Brotherhood. She hoped the shot came out clear. It would make a great addition to the book. Damn, she wished she had her Nikon with her.

  “Logan always has good intentions,” Steve said.

  “Thank you,” Logan said, and he patted Steve in the center of his bare chest.

  “He just never carries through with them,” Steve added.

  Steve winced and released Logan to rub his ribs where he’d received a sharp elbow for his barb. Logan moved to stand behind Toni and turned her to face Steve, who was already coming after Logan with clenched fists.

  “You wouldn’t hit a female human shield with glasses, would you?”

  “We have to get going, guys!” Butch roared over the crowd. “We’ll be off schedule.”

  “If it were legal, I think the dude would marry that schedule,” Logan said as he released Toni and turned toward the bus.

  “And have children with it.” Steve crinkled his nose in disgust and fell into step with him.

  “Even at risk of paper cuts?” Toni asked, scrambling after the pair.

  Both men winced and shuddered.

  The band members worked at talking their way out of the crowd, signing a few final autographs and saying their goodbyes. Toni was bummed that she hadn’t gotten anything on Max. He was the front man, the leader of the group—she assumed. The heart and soul of the band—she assumed. There had to be a reason women swarmed him like ants on a lollipop. Yes, he was gorgeous. Yes, he was tall and built. Yes, his short, trendy hairstyle was trimmed in the perfect style to accentuate his high forehead and angular jaw. And yes, the few golden highlights in his gelled bangs brought out the gold flecks in his soul-stirring hazel eyes, but there must be something deeper to him than his good looks. Maybe it was that gorgeous leather-encased ass of his that made the women go wild. As Toni trailed behind the group on their way back to the bus, she couldn’t take her eyes off that nicely rounded hunk of deliciousness. Dear lord, you could bounce a quarter off that thing.

  The security guards began to make a human wall between the fans and the band. And since Toni had been paying more attention to Max’s ass than what was going on around her, she found herself on the wrong side of the security team.
r />   “Wait! I’m with the band!”

  Butch pursed his lips beneath his thick mustache. He assessed her closely—was he considering whether he could leave her behind? None of the band members noticed or cared that she’d disappeared, so it was Butch’s perfect opportunity to ditch her if he wanted. After a long, tense moment, he shrugged and nodded curtly at his men. The crowd yelled in protest when Toni was allowed to follow the band back to the bus while all the other bystanders were corralled to the opposite side of the barrier again.

  Two other tour buses, belonging to Sinners, pulled out. Apparently they’d been waiting for the crowd to thin so they could leave. Fans slapped the side of their bus and cheered as it passed. An RV towing a trailer pulled out after the two buses. The words Aggie’s Custom Corsets were painted in gothic letters across the trailer. Why would Sinners need corsets? Toni could only guess. Maybe if the book on Exodus End was a success, Toni could propose doing one for Sinners. And then maybe she could work with the opening bands, Twisted Element and Riott Actt. She’d originally thought she’d want to switch to an important political figure for her next biography, but this was already too much fun. She couldn’t help but dream a little. Okay, a lot. Stars in her eyes over an exciting future following one band after another, she hurried to catch up with Exodus End as they returned to their bus. She needed to do a good job with this first book before she started making plans about additional volumes. She wasn’t going to get far if she spent all her time gawking at Steve’s abs and drooling over Max’s ass and wondering if Logan really had slept with five women in one night. Who did that?

  The entire band paused outside the bus door and waited for her to catch up. She wasn’t sure if they were being polite—ladies first—or if they always stood outside the door looking lost before they embarked. She stopped next to the group and looked from one man to the next while trying to keep her eyes off Steve’s bare chest, abs, and the tattoos that decorated both. At least Max had his distracting ass pointed away from her.


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