Insider, p.43

Insider, page 43

 part  #1 of  Exodus End Series



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  “She will be if she eats like that.”

  “I’m fat,” Birdie said, hanging her head.

  “You’re beautiful,” Logan said, “just like your big sister.” He tugged on one of Birdie’s pigtails, and she grinned.

  If the man didn’t stop making Birdie light up like warm summer sunshine, Toni was going to tackle-hug him out of his chair right in front of everyone.

  Logan tilted his head toward their mother. “And it’s plain to see where both of you got your good looks.”

  Most mothers would have taken that as a compliment, but not her mom. Oh no. Comparing her to her frumpy older daughter and her special needs younger daughter was obviously an insult. Toni blew out a breath and dug into her biscuits and gravy. At this rate, she’d be heading to the buffet for seconds.

  “After breakfast, Susan will be meeting us in the conference room down the hall,” Mom said. “I invited her to breakfast, but she said she wasn’t hungry.”

  Toni tried not to frown at the news. But her presentation was ready, so hopefully this impromptu and completely ridiculous meeting would be over quickly. If all Mom had wanted was to make her feel guilty over Birdie, why had she insisted on bringing Susan along? Toni was pretty sure that Susan was her plan B, in case her guilt trip of a plan A failed to entice Toni to go home.

  “What are you doing this afternoon?” Logan asked.

  Toni glanced at him. Weren’t they going to spend the afternoon in bed? She was ready for another marathon session of lessons. They scarcely had time for sex on concert days.

  “We need to be at the airport around five,” Mom said. “We have an evening flight.”

  They weren’t even staying one night? Toni was starting think her Mom had completely lost it.

  “Toni and I are heading to the track in a couple hours. If you want to come—”

  “What track?” Toni asked, picturing herself running along behind him, panting from exertion. Running was not her idea of a good time.

  “Motocross. They have a fantastic track set up just outside the city. Every time the band tours here, I burn energy on a bike.”

  She wasn’t sure if she’d enjoy watching him zoom around in a circle on a dirt bike, but she did want to spend time with him and participate in his interests as much as possible.

  “I want to go!” Birdie said. “I can ride a bike.”

  “He means a motorcycle,” Toni said.

  “He said bike.”

  “Sorry, I should have clarified,” Logan said. He pulled out his phone and started flipping through his photos. “I’ll show you what I mean.”

  He passed his phone to Toni, and she was stunned by how hot he looked in a form-fitting racing suit with knee and elbow pads. In the photo, Logan was leaning against a red mud-flecked dirt bike, holding his helmet against his hip. Did the man always look devastatingly gorgeous? She was going with a definite yes on that.

  “Let me see!” Birdie yelled, startling Toni out of her musing.

  “Bernadette, keep your voice down at the table,” Mom scolded.

  Toni handed Logan’s phone to Birdie, who sat on her opposite side. “Oh, that’s a big bike,” she whispered. She touched the phone’s screen and scowled. “Who is this girl?” she asked.

  Logan’s eyes widened and he jumped up so fast, his thighs hit the underside of the table, rattling dishes. “You weren’t supposed to see that,” he said as he grabbed the phone out of Birdie’s hand.

  “She had no shirt on,” Birdie informed the table, looking with wide eyes from Toni to her mother. “I saw her boobies!”

  Mom laughed, for whatever reason finding this—of all things—hilarious.

  “That was taken months ago,” Logan said, inching down in his seat as if trying to slide under the table.

  “Why are you looking at her boobies for, Logan?” Birdie asked.

  “I’m not.”

  His face was beet red, and Toni enjoyed watching him squirm. She was sure he’d seen thousands of boobies in his life, and she doubted he’d regretted viewing a single one until called on it by a nine-year-old with Down’s syndrome.

  “Did you look at Toni’s boobies too? She has great big ones!”

  Logan glanced at Toni out the corner of his eye before snorting on a laugh. “I didn’t notice.”

  “Bernadette, this is not an appropriate conversation to have at the breakfast table,” Mom said, though she was still grinning ear to ear.

  Birdie ducked her head in shame. “Sorry.”

  Toni touched the back of Birdie’s head. “Eat your breakfast.”

  They somehow got through the meal with their relationship intact. Logan had to listen to a long-winded, one-sided conversation about raising chickens, but at least Birdie was no longer asking questions about boobies. Thank God.

  After breakfast, Mom pointed out the conference room where they would meet shortly. Toni and Logan headed upstairs to collect the messenger bag where she’d stashed her laptop.

  “Sorry you had to deal with that,” Toni said to him.

  “I didn’t mind,” he assured her, drawing her against him for a much too short kiss. “It’s kind of nice to recognize the dysfunction in other people’s families.”

  Her mouth dropped open in mock outrage, and she smacked his ass. “Are you insulting my family?”

  “Birdie is a sweetheart.”

  “And now you’re trying to change the subject?”

  “Yep.” He kissed the tip of her nose. “I need to go hunt down Butch and have him arrange a morning at the track. Will you be okay alone with your mother and the dragon lady?”

  His concern touched her far more than it should. “I’ll be fine.”

  “After this day is over, I think a full body massage will be in order.”

  She sighed in bliss, already imagining the feel of his hands on her tense muscles. “That sounds wonderful.”

  “I can’t wait. I have to warn you, though—I’ll probably fall asleep.”

  She lifted a brow at him. “How can you fall asleep while giving a massage?”

  “Giving one? I’ll be on the receiving end.”

  He danced sideways as she reached out to swat his butt again.

  “Tease!” she accused.

  “Is that a challenge?”

  She wasn’t sure how she felt about his raised eyebrows and crooked grin. What did he mean by challenge? How could being teased by him be a challenge? She didn’t have time to ponder or question; she had a presentation to give.

  “Text me when you’re finished,” he said. “Or if you need rescuing.”

  “I’ll be fine,” she said, more for personal assurance than for his benefit.

  “I know you will. I have faith in your abilities.”

  She hadn’t had anyone say something like that to her since her father had passed away. She wasn’t sure how sincerely Logan meant his words, but they gave her the fortitude to straighten her spine and head to the conference room with a confident smile on her face.

  Her smile faltered when she entered the room and saw her mother and Susan with their heads together, talking in low tones, looking like they were plotting the crime of the century. At the far end of the room, Birdie was drawing rainbows on the dry erase board, her tongue protruding from between her lips as she concentrated on the curved lines.

  Toni bumped into a chair, which drew everyone’s attention.

  “There you are,” Mom said. “We were starting to think you’d gotten lost.”

  “. . . in your rock star’s bed.” Susan grinned.

  She wished. “Sorry to keep you waiting.”

  Toni pulled out her laptop and booted it up. She connected it to her small portable projector and lowered a screen from the ceiling. Birdie frowned at her as the screen slid down in front of the dry erase board before edging behind it to continue drawing rainbows.

  “Birdie, come out of there. I need to use the screen.”

  “I’m bored,” Birdie said, and Toni could hear the pout in he
r tone. “I wanna draw.”

  “I have paper and pens in my bag. Draw on that until I’m done.”

  Generally cooperative, Birdie did what she was told. Toni handed her bag to Birdie, and Birdie sat cross-legged in the corner, digging through the bag hunting for treasure.

  “Why are you setting up for a presentation?” Susan asked. The derisive tone of her voice wasn’t lost on Toni.

  “I wanted to show you what I’ve been working on so you have a better idea how the book is coming along.”

  “That’s not why we’re here,” Susan said.

  Toni scrunched her brows together. She was at a complete loss.

  “Then why are you here?”

  “Your mother and I have been talking about the direction of the book,” Susan said. “We think it will sell more copies if—”

  “Let’s see what Toni’s been working on first,” Mom interrupted.

  Toni offered her mom a relieved smile and opened the first mocked-up page she’d created the night before. It was a table of contents.

  “I’m sure some of these topics will change as I continue on tour with the band. The longer I’m with them, the more ideas I get. I’ll start with their history, the formation of the band in their own words. Dare saves band memorabilia. He said I can use reproductions in the book if I can secure the rights from the copyright holders.”

  “Sounds expensive,” Mom said.

  “According to him, it shouldn’t cost us anything. We’ll have to credit the photos to the photographer, but most of the photos were taken by friends and family. He doubts they’ll be interested in money.”

  “Everyone is interested in money,” Susan said.

  “A lot of people are just happy to help the people they love,” Toni said, trying not to glare at the woman.

  “Yeah. Until money’s involved.”

  It must be hard to go through life so bitter and jaded, Toni thought, but she moved on with her presentation. “There will also be sections on what goes on backstage.”

  “Now we’re talking,” Susan said.

  Toni ignored her and continued down what she’d worked out so far for the table of contents. “The crew. The fans. Promotional events. The tour bus. The private jet—which I haven’t seen yet. A huge section on concerts and a chapter on each band member. Each of those will vary depending on the band member. For instance, Logan is an open book and has tons of hobbies outside of music, so his chapter will look a lot different from Max’s because Max is very private and more focused on the fans. I’m really excited about the section on what it’s like to create and record new songs as a member of Exodus End. Dare says they’ll consider creating a song exclusive to the book. And let me track the entire process from brainstorming to writing to recording.”

  “That sounds exciting,” Mom said, her eyes wide with wonder.

  “That sounds dull,” Susan said as she pretended to stifle a yawn. “Where’s the real dirt on these guys? That’s what will sell books.”

  “There’s no dirt,” Toni said. That was exactly what she didn’t want in this book. No dirt. Nothing that could potentially hurt a member of the band.

  “There has to be dirt,” Susan said. “You’re around them twenty-four seven. You have to be privy to things more exciting than what they had for breakfast.”

  “You’d be surprised how much preparation goes into getting them breakfast. Their tour runs like clockwork.”

  “Which is boring,” Susan said. “This is all very boring.”

  “I think the fans will love it,” Mom said.

  “Oh, yeah, they’ll eat this shit up,” Susan said. “But we discussed this, Eloise. Remember? The fans are a niche market. And you want to sell this book to millions of people. To do that, you need dirt.”

  “Exodus End has millions of fans,” Toni said. “It may be a niche market, but it’s a huge niche.”

  Susan and her mother stared at each other for a long moment, as if communicating by telepathy.

  “Before I saw this, I was convinced the book needed dirt to sell, but I think Toni is on to something here,” Mom said.

  “I think you’re making a mistake,” Susan said. “Let me take over. I’ll create a book that will sell like wildfire.”

  “This isn’t only about sales,” Toni said. “If we do a good job with this book, other bands will come to us to have their biographies written. If we publish a bunch of scandal, it might make us money now, but our chance at future projects will be obliterated. No one will trust us.”

  “Publicity is publicity,” Susan said. “Even if it’s bad publicity. Actually, bad publicity gets more attention than good publicity. What are you more likely to recall: Steve Aimes cheating on his wife or Steve Aimes sending shoes to poor kids in Africa?”

  “Steve sent shoes to poor kids in Africa?” Toni mused.

  “See what I mean!” Susan said.

  “Toni,” Birdie interrupted, tugging on Toni’s sleeve.

  “Just a minute, Buttercup,” Toni said absently before continuing to plead her case. “Maybe this book isn’t about publicity.”

  “Of course this book is about publicity,” Susan said. “That’s the only thing their manager wants out of it. He wants it to draw more attention to the band. And how better to do that than to get people’s attention with dirt?”

  “Just because someone reads the book to get this so-called dirt you’re so fixated on, that doesn’t make it more likely that they’ll buy Exodus End’s music or go to their concerts, does it?” Toni had never argued with a nonfamily member before. She wasn’t sure why it was so much easier to stick up for her new friends than it was to stick up for herself, but she wasn’t backing down on this. She wasn’t writing the book to sell it to a bunch of nosy people who would snigger and ridicule the band members for their mistakes. She was writing this book to glorify a group of men—and one woman—who deserved to be recognized for their greatness.

  “Toni!” Birdie said, yanking on Toni’s sleeve anxiously.

  “I said just a minute, Birdie,” she snapped, prying fingers from her sleeve. “Can’t you entertain yourself for a few minutes?”

  “She’s bleeding,” Mom said, jumping to her feet.

  Toni looked down at Birdie, who had blood trickling out of one nostril, over her lip, and down her chin. “Oh God,” Toni said, forcing Birdie to tilt her head forward and catching the blood in her hand so it didn’t get all over the boldly patterned carpet. “What happened?”

  “I don’t know,” Birdie said. “I just sneezed and blood came out.”

  “Just a nose bleed,” Toni said. “Don’t panic.” She looked at her mom. “Is there a bathroom nearby?”

  “Just down the hall,” Mom said. “Do you want me to take her?”

  “I want Toni to do it!” Birdie wailed.

  Mom bit her lip and nodded her go-ahead. Toni wondered if the reason Mom struggled to care for Birdie was partially her fault. Toni was always the one to jump in and fix Birdie’s tragedies. This situation was no different.

  “I’ll be back in a few minutes,” Toni promised.

  “Can we look at the rest of your mocked-up manuscript pages while you’re gone?” Mom asked.

  Toni was rather proud of those few pages, especially since Logan had approved of them.

  “Sure. They’re in the folder labeled manuscript pages,” she said before steering Birdie out of the conference room and hunting down the nearest restroom.

  “I think Mom liked your hard work,” Birdie said as Toni packed her nostril with toilet tissue to stem the flow of blood.

  Toni smiled. “I think so too.” It felt great to have won her mom over to her side. And she was pretty sure Mom liked her ideas because they were sound, not because her flesh and blood had come up with them.

  “That other lady is not nice to you.” Birdie gave her a comforting pat on the arm.

  “I noticed.” Toni doubted anything would convince Susan that Toni knew what she was doing. She hoped that Mom didn’t
head back to Seattle and immediately cave to the outspoken editor’s wishes. She liked to think that her mom was made of stronger stuff than that, but Susan was as persistent as she was opinionated.

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