Insider, page 52part #1 of Exodus End Series
Susan’s jaw dropped, but she quickly replaced her look of astonishment with a smirk. “You can’t fire me.”
“I just did. Get lost.”
Julian circled the desk and caught Toni by the arms. “I’ve never seen you like this,” he said, staring deeply into Toni’s eyes. “When’s the last time you slept?”
“I slept on the plane,” she said. For like twenty minutes. “It doesn’t matter. I’m not going to let Susan talk down to me anymore. I don’t care if it was someone else who screwed me over.” Toni had been so sure it had been Susan, she was still halfway convinced she’d been the one. “I don’t want her here. She’s not even very good at her job.”
Susan huffed in disdain.
“She’s rude and unprofessional,” Toni said, looking Susan square in the eye while she said it. “Nichols Publishing doesn’t need an employee like her, so she’s fired.” She turned her face toward Julian and cocked her head at him. “Are you going to give me any more lip, Mr. Reynolds?”
Julian laughed and hugged her, of all things. “I like this new you, Miss Toni. I knew you had a sturdy backbone somewhere in that stacked little body of yours.”
“I’m not leaving,” Susan said. “You have no authority in this company.”
“My mother has been trying to make me a partner for years,” Toni said, and though she wasn’t necessarily ready to take that step, Susan had no way of knowing that. “Trust me, you’re fired.”
Toni slid out of Julian’s grasp and headed for the door. She needed to talk to her mother—the real boss of this establishment—as soon as possible.
“I didn’t take your journal,” Susan called after her.
“Fired. Do I need to spell it for you? It starts with an F and ends with a U,” Toni said as she stormed out of Susan’s office with Julian on her heels.
“Remind me to never get on your bad side,” Julian said.
“Susan’s been rude to me since day one.”
“Only because you never stood up for yourself.”
Toni scowled at him. “That’s no excuse to be an asshole.”
“Most assholes don’t need an excuse. So how are things going with your new boyfriend? I saw your story about him. Makes him sound like a whiner.”
“Not my story,” she reminded him.
“But he is your boyfriend?” Julian wiggled his eyebrows at her.
“Yes, I told you he was in response to those badgering texts you sent.”
Julian pouted. “You never did send me proof.”
“I’m not sending you a naked picture of my boyfriend, Julian!”
“Then I don’t believe you.” Such the little manipulator.
“Believe whatever you want. I’m lucky he didn’t dump me after what Susan did.”
“I’m still not clear what she did that has you so pissed off.”
“She stole my journal and published secrets I’d written in it.”
“Are you sure?”
“Yes!” Though her certainty was diminishing by the second.
“How would she know to steal your journal? Or even how to get her hands on it?”
“How the hell should I know?” she screeched.
Julian leaned away from her, apparently deciding she was too scary to keep pestering.
She stopped at Julian’s desk, which was situated in front of her mother’s closed office door and waited for him to buzz her via his intercom.
“Your mother’s in a meeting downtown,” Julian said. “She won’t be back for at least an hour.”
She tossed her hands in the air. “Why didn’t you tell me that before I walked all the way down here?”
“Because I was starting to believe you two switched bodies or something. I’ve seen that fire in her hundreds of times, but I’ve never seen it in you before.”
“You should be glad you’ve never made me that angry.” Toni rubbed her forehead, fatigue setting in now that her so-called fire had burned itself to embers. “I guess I’ll work on the book until she gets back. Will you call me in my office when she returns?”
Toni turned to head back toward her office, and Julian fell into step with her again. “So is their drummer, Steve Aimes, really gay? Because I would very much like you to introduce me to him.”
“Nope, he’s not,” Toni said. “You shouldn’t believe everything you read in the tabloids, Julian. Or anything you read in the tabloids.”
“Damn. I have such a boner for that guy. Are you sure I’m not his type?”
“I’m positive. He’s the biggest womanizer of the band,” Toni said. “Well, he is now that Logan is mine.”
“Prime man meat there as well, Miss Toni. Excellent score.”
“Um, thanks?” She wasn’t sure how to respond to that compliment. Because yes, Logan was gorgeous, and that had probably been why she’d succumbed to his charms so quickly, but now that she knew him on a deeper level, he was so much more than a handsome face and a big dick. “I have to work now,” she said as Julian followed her into her office, apparently still wanting to talk about men.
“So those other two guys, Trey Mills and the bodyguard . . . Any chance I could enjoy some threesome action with the two of them?”
Toni grabbed Julian by the arm and shoved him into the hallway. “Is dick all you ever think about?”
“Yes,” he said as Toni closed the door soundly in his face.
She raked her fingers through her hair, snagging them on tangles. Her mind was spinning at a million miles per hour. If it hadn’t been Susan who’d stolen her journal, then who could it have been? Maybe it had just been a random hotel maid or other stranger reading all her personal thoughts. Sharing them with the world. She glanced at the clock, surprised to find it wasn’t even nine yet. It was still a little early for Logan to be awake, but she needed someone to talk to. Someone she knew she could trust. Someone who was there to listen. Someone who gave her sound advice. Or not so sound. She wasn’t sure when Logan had become her best friend—or when the word friend had stopped making her cringe—but she was lucky to have him in her life.
She pressed his icon on her contact list, noting that he’d changed his picture to a dick pic.
Really, Logan? Was he afraid she’d forget what it looked like?
“Hello?” a woman answered.
Toni pulled her phone away from her face and checked to make sure she’d dialed the correct number.
Noting that it was definitely Logan’s dick she’d pressed, she asked, “Can I speak to Logan?”
“He’s in the shower.”
“Who are you?” Toni asked, her face inexplicably numb.
“I’m just his entertainment.”
Entertainment? What exactly did she mean by that and why the hell was she answering Logan’s phone?
“I’ll tell him you called,” the beautiful-sounding woman said. “Who is this?”
“It’s Toni. His girlfriend.”
The woman laughed. “He didn’t tell me he had a girlfriend. I’ll have to get after him for hiding that from me. But I will tell him you called, Tonya.”
“Toni,” she corrected automatically.
Toni was too stunned to voice the hundreds of questions swirling around in her head. Before she could gather her wits, the woman hung up.
She’d been gone for less than twenty-four hours and Logan was already fooling around with another woman? Apparently Toni was the fool for believing she meant something to him.
She took several deep breaths, fighting the ache in her eyes, her throat, and her chest. She wanted to give Logan the benefit of the doubt, but she’d seen too much over the past two and a half weeks. She knew how persistent those damned groupies could be. But if he couldn’t be faithful to her for even twenty-four goddamned hours, then she didn’t need him. Fuck him and his flattering words, his expert touch, his easy smile, and his irresistible charm. Fuck him.
Well, that was what her brain said, but her heart was too crushed to do anyth
She rose from her chair and began to unpack her gear. Work would help her keep her mind off what an incredible asshole she’d allowed herself to fall in love with. She’d start with the section on Max or maybe Dare, because she was pretty sure anything she wrote about the band’s bass player at that particular moment would be unbecoming to his character.
A couple of hours later, she’d found her zone. Her fatigue and hurt were forgotten as words and images, audio and video clips, all came together on the page. She’d designed the software interface herself, and it was pretty intuitive—similar to making web pages. She just had to drag and drop the sections she wanted into a template form and then add her text and supporting files.
When her cellphone rang and the ringtone Logan had chosen for himself—Right Said Fred’s “I’m Too Sexy”—interrupted her train of thought, she paused with hands hovering over her keyboard. Part of her wanted to answer and forget about work, but the pissed-off part of her moved her hand to her phone’s screen and rejected the call. It had taken him almost two hours to call her back. She knew how much trouble the man could get into in that length of time. Especially when he had a willing woman in his bed. She bit her lip, blinking back a sudden rush of tears. She wasn’t ready to face their inevitable breakup just yet. She’d been through too much in the past day to add another heartache to her agenda.
Less than a minute later, Right Said Fred was proclaiming himself too sexy for her party again. She took a deep breath, rejected Logan’s call, and shut off her phone, hiding it in her desk drawer so she wouldn’t be tempted to call him back or read any text messages or listen to voicemail. She needed to have her head together before she talked to him. She didn’t want to be his doormat and if she talked to him while in her current frame of mind, she knew she’d prostrate herself at his feet and gladly allow him to walk all over her.
She found it far easier to bury herself in her work than to face reality and mourn the loss of the man she loved. Perhaps she was more like her mother than she cared to admit.
She’d just found her zone again when there was a knock on her door. Some stupid part of her brain wanted it to be Logan. But that was impossible. Even if he had dropped everything and rushed to beg her forgiveness and make amends, he didn’t know she was at work and even if he’d commandeered a jet fighter, there was no way he could have flown halfway across the United States in an hour. Unless Butch had invented a teleporting device at Logan’s request, the person currently interrupting her work wasn’t him.
Toni cleared her throat and croaked, “Come in.”
She was not fit for human company at the moment. When her mother opened the door and poked her head into the room, Toni groaned inwardly.
“Are you busy?” Mom asked.
Yes, she was fucking busy. Didn’t she look busy? Nothing made Toni crankier than being hungry, except being tired. She was currently starving and exhausted. Enter at your own risk, lady.
“I could use a little break,” Toni said.
Mom shuffled into the room and closed the door, placing a hand against it and taking a deep breath before turning to face Toni. Mom dropped her shoulders in defeat and lifted a trembling hand to her lips. Toni was too stunned by her mother’s uncharacteristic show of weakness that she couldn’t do anything but gape at her.
“I’m not sure how to tell you this,” she said. “I was downtown talking to my financial advisor.”
Toni scrunched her brow. And Mom was telling her this why? Toni had nothing to do with the business’s finances. That was what accountants were for.
“Is there a problem?”
Mom moved to a chair and collapsed into it. “Some of our big projects didn’t pan out the way we thought they would. Sales didn’t even cover the advances or that huge chunk of money I paid for the rights to publish the book you’re working on.” She shook her head. “I should have negotiated better. I didn’t have that kind of money lying around, so I borrowed most of it and . . .” She shrugged as if she couldn’t bring herself to say the words that came next.
“The business is going under,” Toni said flatly. The reality of it punched her in the gut.
“Not necessarily,” she said. “I still have one ace in the hole.”
“We can put the Exodus End book out early. I’ve been working on it most of the day, and it’s already coming together. I know it will be a best-seller. Exodus End’s fans will be rabid for it.”
“That might get us out of the hole next year, when cash starts flowing in, but that’s not what I was referring to.”
Toni tried to think back to their staff meetings and which books were being released in the coming season. Besides an interactive cookbook that gave video instructions with each recipe, she couldn’t think of any projects that were big enough to cover the million dollars they’d shelled out for the privilege of publishing Exodus End’s biography. “Then what?”
“We’ll have to sell the farm. There’s a developer—”
“No!” Toni shot to her feet, sending her office chair rolling back to collide with the wall behind her. “You absolutely cannot sell Daddy’s farm.”
“I didn’t want to buy it in the first place. That was your father’s dream, not mine. He’s been gone for almost a decade. It’s time we moved on.”
“What about Birdie?” Toni would be saddened if they sold the farm, but her little sister would be lost without the routine and comfort the familiar brought to her life.
“What about her?”
“She doesn’t deal with change, Mom. You know that.”
“That’s because you’ve sheltered her, just as your father sheltered you. Life is cruel and chaotic. The only consistency in life is that things change. There’s no permanence in anything. It’s better that she learns that now.”
“Don’t you want her to be happy?”
“Of course I do. But when’s the last time anyone considered my happiness? I’ve been doing that insane commute for fifteen years because I wanted your father to be happy and then I wanted you to be happy. When do I get my turn?”
“M-maybe I can buy the farm. You can move to the city and have the money from the sale to keep the business afloat, and Birdie and I and Grandma Jo—”
“. . . can live happily ever after? Oh, grow up, Antonia. There are no happily ever afters.”
There had to be. Maybe it wasn’t one event or one person that gave someone happiness for the span of a lifetime, but rather a string of events and people. Maybe she had to work for her happily ever after and find happiness in each day, each moment, but that kind of bliss was possible. She knew it was possible. And something told her keeping the farm was part of her happily ever after.
“I’m selling the farm,” Mom said quietly. “I already contacted an agent. Are you going to tell Birdie or do you want me to do it?”
Toni didn’t want anyone to tell Birdie, because she would find a way to keep the farm. “I’ll tell her,” she said. That might buy her enough time to figure something out so no one would have to break her sister’s fragile heart.
“Thank you,” Mom said with a deep sigh. “She’ll take it better from you.”
Mom stood and headed for the door, and Toni remembered the reason she’d wanted to talk to her mother in the first place.
“I fired Susan,” Toni said.
“Yeah, she told me. I assured her that her job was secure.”
Toni’s jaw dropped. “You can’t be serious. Do you have any idea how she talks to me?” Even if Susan hadn’t been the one who’d stolen her journal—and Toni still felt in her heart that she was involved—the bitch still deserved to be fired for being rude.
“We need her connections now more than ever.”
“What connections?” Toni sputtered. Toni had finally worked
“None that concern you. Now go home and get some sleep. You look like hell.”
Like she’d ever be able to sleep with all the crap going on in her life. But she packed up her laptop and storage devices and headed for home. She didn’t want to be in the same building as Susan or her mother at the moment, and she could work remotely. She’d done it for years. And maybe now was the time to take her creative expertise and strike out on her own. Go indie. Like Exodus End was considering.
It didn’t occur to her until she was halfway home that her mother hadn’t been even slightly surprised to see her in the office or even questioned why she’d been so upset with Susan in the first place.