Insider, p.55

Insider, page 55

 part  #1 of  Exodus End Series

 




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  Grandma patted Toni’s shoulder. “I guess you’d better call him and let him off the hook. Unless you think you need more flowers.” She glanced around the room at the abundance of blooms.

  “I have more than enough flowers, but I left my phone at the office.” Toni gnawed on her lip, trying to decide on her best plan of action.

  “Is your mother still there? Maybe she can bring it home with her.”

  “Good idea!” She was still upset with her mother, but Toni was desperate enough to ask her for a favor.

  “You just caught me on my way out,” Mom said via her office line. “I’ll bring it with me.”

  “Thanks.”

  “But wouldn’t it make more sense if I looked his number up in your contacts and read it to you? Just give me your pass code.”

  Toni almost jumped on that idea, but remembered that Logan had recently changed his icon to an X-rated close-up of his cock, and she didn’t want her mother to get an eyeful of that.

  “Uh . . .” She nibbled a fingernail. “No, that’s okay. Just bring it home. I don’t need it that desperately.” She cringed at her total lie.

  “By the way, I’ve set up some home viewings for tomorrow,” Mom said, turning Toni’s moment of jubilation to bitterness. “I’d like you and Birdie to come with me to look at condos.”

  Condos? Oh God, no.

  “I might be busy,” Toni said. Actually, she would make it a priority to be too busy to view condos, no matter if she ended up hurrying off to Logan or not.

  Toni frowned as she turned to help Grandma put the finishing touches on dinner.

  “She’s not bringing it?” Grandma asked.

  “She is,” Toni said.

  “Then why so glum?”

  Toni glanced toward the stairs, no wanting Birdie to overhear. She was surprised her little sister hadn’t come down to greet her. Toni supposed playing with dogs and helium balloons was far more interesting than she was.

  “Mom is going to sell the farm,” Toni said in a hushed tone.

  Grandma’s eyebrows shot up and she dropped her wooden spoon in the sauce, splattering red flecks on the stove. “Oh no, she’s not!”

  “She needs the money to keep the business afloat. And, well, she never really liked it out here in the sticks.”

  “If she’s selling, I’m buying. This is the only place I still feel connected to Phillip. And I’ve been so happy here with Birdie this past week. I thought I’d finally found a place to call home.”

  “I thought you liked roaming the country with your dogs in your little RV.”

  “I did,” Grandma said. “But I’m over all that. You and Birdie are the only family I have left. I don’t want to waste another moment being alone.”

  Toni hugged her. “I’m so glad you’ve decided to stay, but even if we pool our money together, I don’t think we can afford to buy this place. It’s prime acreage.”

  “I have money saved up, and selling the RV will bring in a little more.”

  “Daddy left me some money. I’m all in. I just don’t think it’ll be enough. I’m sure we’re talking a few million dollars, Grandma.” Toni didn’t have even close to that much money and was pretty sure her grandmother wasn’t drowning in cash either.

  “You could always let your boyfriend continue to think he’s in trouble and open your own flower shop.” Grandma leaned away and stared into Toni’s eyes, patting her cheek affectionately.

  Toni laughed. “That might work.” She was joking of course, but there had to be a way to keep their home. She just needed time to think of a plan.

  “Toni!” Birdie yelled from the kitchen doorway. “I didn’t know you was home! Come see all the balloons. Logan gave them to you. Your whole room is full of balloons. Red ones!”

  “It’s time to eat dinner, Buttercup,” Toni said. “Grandma made your favorite.”

  “Sketties!”

  Grandma kissed Birdie’s forehead when she came within reach, and Birdie smiled brightly. It melted Toni’s heart to see such affection between them.

  “Grandma says we should get a baby goat!” Birdie said.

  Grandma cringed at being outed.

  “That would be fun,” Toni said. “But are you prepared to take care of it? It would be your responsibility.”

  “Oh yes!” Birdie carefully placed a napkin next to each plate on the table. “I saw a gray baby goat on Ameridas Funnest Home Videos. I want a gray one.” She continued to jabber about gray baby goats for several minutes. “Can we go upstairs to show you the balloons now?”

  “How about after we eat?” Toni had nothing better to do while she waited the hour it would take her mom to get home with her phone.

  “Balloons, balloons, balloons, balloons,” Birdie intoned as she placed silverware on the table. “Toni has balloons. Balloons. Balloons. Balloons.”

  “Why don’t you go see your balloons so she’ll stop fixating?” Grandma suggested. “I can finish up here.”

  So Grandma already understood how Birdie tended to fixate on one detail with infallible concentration. Toni wished Grandma had come to stay with them ages ago. Then Toni might have been able to build a more far-reaching life for herself without the constant guilt.

  “All right,” Toni said. “I’ll go see the balloons.”

  “Yay!” Birdie grabbed her hand and yanked her toward the stairs.

  The entire vaulted ceiling of Toni’s large bedroom was completely concealed by red balloons. Just the sight made her smile. Remembering the last time she’d been given red balloons made her ache with longing for the man behind the gesture. The two Pomeranians jumping in the air trying to grab the dangling strings made her laugh. Her laughter died when she noticed a familiar, presumed-lost journal lying on her bed. How in the hell had her diary gotten here?

  Toni darted across the room and lifted the pink journal from her pale green coverlet. Thumbing through the pages, there was no doubt it was the same journal she’d been writing in while on tour with Exodus End. The final entry was dated May 8 and the remaining pages were blank.

  “I tried to read your book, Toni, but it was too much squiggles. I can’t tell what it says. So I gave it back.”

  Toni turned to stare at her sister in disbelief. Birdie had taken her journal? If that was true, how had the tabloid gotten hold of the band’s personal information?

  “Where did you get this, Birdie?”

  “I found it in your bag at Denver and I hide it in my pocket. Are you mad I taked it?”

  “You shouldn’t take things without asking first.”

  Birdie frowned. “I sorry. I thought it was a princess story ’cause it’s pink.”

  “I’m not mad. Just ask next time you want to borrow something, okay?”

  “Okay.”

  Toni tried to remember when Birdie had been with her bag in Denver. In the conference room while she’d given her presentation, maybe? That had to be the case.

  “Did anyone else read my book, Birdie?”

  “No,” she said, tilting her head and shrugging. “Not even me. Toni, you have bad handwriting.”

  Toni couldn’t help but laugh. Her handwriting was atrocious. But if Birdie had her journal and no one else had seen it, how had all those stories about Exodus End been leaked?

  “Are you sure no one else saw my book, Birdie?”

  “I sure. I kept it safe in my secret spot. Can we eat sketties now?”

  “Of course.”

  Scowling with puzzlement, Toni trailed after Birdie to the kitchen.

  “You’ve stopped smiling already,” Grandma remarked to Toni as they sat down to eat. “You’ll get things straightened out with Logan.”

  “I hope so,” she said, but that wasn’t what had her picking at her food. She supposed she would have to read the damned tabloid for clues. The only explanation she could come up with was that someone had somehow found the journal in Birdie’s secret spot under her bed. But the only person who could have found it was her mother and Toni could not
would not—believe that her own mother would stoop to that level.

  Mom didn’t show up all through dinner or during Birdie’s bedtime routine. Toni was starting to worry that something had happened to her. It wasn’t unusual for her workaholic mother to come home late at night, but Mom knew Toni was awaiting the delivery of her phone. Unable to take the wait any longer, she gave in and called her.

  When Mom answered, Toni said, “Why aren’t you home yet? I’ve been imagining you dead in a gutter.”

  “I’m on my way,” she said, her voice distant since she spoke through her car’s speakerphone function. “Another half hour or so.”

  “Did you remember my phone?”

  “Yep.”

  “Mom, have you seen my journal?” Toni’s stomach twisted with anxiety as she waited for her response. She knew how desperate her mother was for cash, but surely she wouldn’t sell information to the tabloids.

  “Which journal?”

  “Pink faux leather cover. Small enough to fit in a pocket.” And with privileged information written inside.

  “No idea what you’re talking about. Maybe Birdie has seen it.”

  Toni let out a deep breath as relief spread through her body. “I’ll ask her. See you in a bit.”

  Grandma had already retired to the guest suite, so Toni retrieved the copy of the tabloid she’d bought at the airport. At the time she hadn’t been sure why she was encouraging the further publication of trash by giving them her money, but now she was glad she’d bought a copy.

  Dread weighed heavy on the back of her neck as she sat at her desk, opened the paper, and scanned the first article. There was no doubt that the stories could have been fabricated based on the snippets in her journal, but there was far more information in the articles than she’d written. She’d hardly even mentioned the false rumors of Steve having a homosexual relationship with Zach Mercer, and yet the author of the article had run with that. Another article was about Steve and his ex-wife. A third about Steve’s mystery second wife. Wait? Had she even written about Steve’s second wife in her diary? She didn’t remember doing so. Another article about Steve fooling around with various women.

  Why was there such a huge section devoted to Steve?

  Toni flipped to the next article. Logan’s troubles with his brother were completely blown out of proportion, making it sound as if he cried nonstop into his pillow over his lost childhood. And poor Reagan. No wonder she’d been so upset. Not only had the article author revealed the nature of her relationship with Trey Mills and Ethan Conner, but he or she had completely trashed Reagan's character and her “novice guitar playing.” It was even suggested that the only reason Reagan had gotten her shot in the limelight was because she was screwing every member of the band, going so far as to imply marathon orgies.

  The tragedy that bonded yet still stood between Max and Dare had been twisted into a story of back-stabbing cruelty when in truth it had been young, misguided love.

  The group had been thoroughly and savagely trashed.

  And then when Toni saw the picture she’d taken of Logan and Steve that first night—with the caption Seems there’s more than friendship between this pair. How many men does Steve Aimes keep in his closet?—she knew without a doubt that the information in the articles hadn’t come from her handwritten journal. It had come from the files stored on her laptop.

  “Shit.”

  Toni removed her glasses and buried her face in her hands, racking her brain for times her laptop had been insecure. She’d left it on the bus when she’d followed the band members around. She supposed someone could have snuck onto the bus and downloaded information from her hard drive, but that seemed unlikely. Especially since her computer was password protected and the bus was never left unsecured. She’d taken her laptop to the hotel with her when Logan had helped her with her presentation, but the only time it had been unattended was when they’d gone to the motocross track.

  Toni’s heart slammed into her ribcage and her head shot upright as a clear scene of her unattended laptop flashed through her head. When she’d taken Birdie to the restroom to see to her bloodied nose during her presentation, her laptop had been open and running in the conference room with her mother and Susan. Toni had even encouraged the two women to look through her files while she’d tended to Birdie. During those few minutes, Susan had unexpectedly disappeared and her mother had decided that Toni was capable of completing the book.

  “Fucking hell!”

  And Toni had thought their change of heart had been due to her brilliant presentation.

  “That back-stabbing, lying, double-crossing, motherfucking cunt!” Toni raged, hoping that the insult was reserved for Susan, but in her gut knowing that the woman hadn’t worked alone.

  She flipped through the articles again, this time paying more attention to the images. Perhaps she couldn’t sue them for printing privileged information, but she might be able to sue for printing her photos. She recognized a few she’d taken, but most of them weren’t hers. A photo of Steve’s wedding party caught her eye. She smiled at how young and handsome he looked in a tux. He couldn’t have been much more than twenty in the picture. She was a bit surprised to see Zach Mercer as his best man. How long had Steve known the guy? He’d been married before Exodus End had formed. Steve’s wife looked stunning and radiantly happy. Her maid of honor looked pissed off and shockingly familiar.

  “Susan?” Toni blurted.

  The woman in the picture was at least fifteen years younger and about fifty pounds heavier, but there was no mistaking her cynical stare.

  “What the fuck?”

  Susan must be involved somehow, but had she acted alone or was Mom in cahoots with her? Toni prayed that Susan had taken her files when Mom had stepped out of the conference room to answer a call or something. Surely her mother wouldn’t break her own daughter’s trust and potentially ruin her entire career on purpose. Who did that?

  Gravel crunched in the driveway when a pair of headlights turned onto the property. Toni slapped her glasses back on her face and crumpled the tabloid in an angry fist. She was going to get to the bottom of this right now.

  Mom was just coming into the kitchen when Toni charged into the room.

  Looking weary, Mom smiled and held out Toni’s cellphone to her. “Here it is. Calm down. Sheesh!”

  Toni was so pissed off, she couldn’t form words. She stood there shaking for a long moment before yanking her phone out of Mom’s hand.

  “What’s with all the flowers?” Mom asked as she made her way toward the refrigerator.

  “How could you?” Toni croaked.

  “What?” She turned a questioning gaze on Toni.

  “At least tell me it was Susan’s idea.” Toni knew she wasn’t making sense, but she couldn’t pull her thoughts together with all the negative emotions swirling through her.

  “What are you talking about, Antonia?”

  “This!” Toni shoved the tabloid in her mother’s direction. “You stole the information off my computer and sold it to the tabloids.”

  “Technically, the information belongs to your employer since you’re a work-for-hire writer.”

  Mom was so calm about her betrayal, that Toni gaped in utter disbelief.

  “So you did steal information from me?” Toni’s voice cracked beneath the strain of her fury. “You sold those horrible stories about my friends to the tabloids?” Please let this be a nightmare and let me wake up safe and warm in Logan’s arms.

  “Friends? Oh please, Toni. You don’t honestly believe those people care about you, do you? How quick were they to lay the blame at your feet and have you thrown from their lives? The paper hadn’t been out for even a day before they sent you packing.”

  “They are my friends,” Toni said. “You hurt them. And me. Was it worth it?”

  Mom shrugged. “Not really. The paper didn’t pay us nearly as much as we were expecting. My accounts are still in the red. Susan far overestimated how much money those k
inds of stories would bring. Hell, only one of the tabloids she contacted would touch them. Something about Exodus End’s manager having Satan’s attorney in his pocket.” Mom turned back to the refrigerator.

  Toni clenched her hands into fists so she didn’t strangle the woman who’d given birth to her. “You’re so . . . You’re so . . .” There wasn’t a word to describe how she felt about her mother at
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