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Insider, Page 2

Olivia Cunning

  “What if the band members won’t talk to me?”

  Julian released a soft laugh. “They’ll talk. They won’t be able to help themselves. Someone has to fill in your long bouts of absolute silence.”

  She didn’t talk much. Especially to strangers. Her stomach lurched. Everyone around her on this tour would be strangers. Everyone.

  “I’m terrified,” Toni admitted, mostly to herself. But Julian heard her.

  “Of course you are. Who wouldn’t be? But you’re going to get past your fear and you’re going to get out there and make a fantastic, exciting life for yourself, because the one your mother made for you just doesn’t suit you.”

  At least someone besides her recognized that.

  Toni grinned, feeling loads better, and opened the stall door.

  “There’s that smile,” Julian said, hugging her. “Now hurry the hell up. You have a tour bus to catch and four rock stars to befuddle with your sugary sweetness.”

  In the company car, Toni snatched the cigarette out of Julian’s well-manicured hand and took a deep drag. Lungs burning and eyes watering, she choked before producing a hacking fit that would put a tuberculosis patient to shame. There was a reason she didn’t smoke. Well, several actually. But an aversion to choking to death was at the top of her list.

  Julian took his eyes off the freeway long enough to give her his what-the-fuck-is-your-problem look before retrieving his cigarette and settling it between his thin lips. “You don’t need nicotine, honey,” he said around the filter. “What you need is Valium. Or Xanax. Actually, both would do you some good.”

  “Are you suggesting I need to be drugged?” she asked, giving her mother’s personal assistant the evil eye.

  Julian was the closest thing she had to a non-blood-related friend. Occasionally he made her leave the house and go out on the town. Unfortunately, they always ended up in gay bars, which was entertaining enough but didn’t do much for her romantic prospects. But they weren’t crawling through stadium-event traffic to embark on a social adventure. Toni was about to get on the tour bus of the most well-known metal band in the world—hell, even she had heard of Exodus End and she mostly listened to classic rock. She’d gone from uncertain to nervous wreck the moment she’d fastened her seat belt. Just thinking about touring with the band made her stomach do summersaults, backflips, and cartwheels. She had an Olympic-level gymnastics meet going inside her.

  “Did you remember to shave your legs?” Julian asked. He took a nonchalant drag off his cigarette before holding it between two fingers against the steering wheel. They were inching along the interstate at a snail’s pace. She probably could have gotten there faster if she’d walked.

  Toni scowled, thinking that was the oddest thing Julian had ever asked her and the man had no filter. “Why does it matter? Did you cut off all my skirts so they barely cover my ass?” Turning her conservative clothing into ho-garb was something he would do.

  Julian laughed. “Damn, why didn’t I think of that?”

  As they neared the Mercer Street exit, Julian switched on his blinker to merge. Space Needle, Science Center, Key Arena Toni read on the directional signs. She was one step closer to her destination. She pursed her lips together to keep her dinner down.

  “So did you shave them or not?” he asked.

  “Not that it’s any of your business, but yes, they’re silky smooth. Why?”

  “So you are expecting to get laid tonight,” he said, wiggling his eyebrows suggestively. “I thought your frumpy sweater was a little tighter than usual. Showing off the goods for a change?”

  Toni’s mouth dropped open in indignation, and she slapped Julian on the head. He had so much product in his black hair that she was sure he didn’t feel the blow. “I am not showing off the goods.” She crossed her arms over her chest and scowled. “And I have absolutely no expectations in the getting laid department. I just don’t like my legs all itchy and hairy in my pajamas.”

  “You didn’t seriously pack pajamas to wear while on tour with a rock band, did you?”

  “What else am I supposed to sleep in?”

  “Nothing. The wet spot. A puddle of your own vomit. Anything would be preferable to pajamas.”

  She crinkled her nose at his suggestions. “You’re disgusting.”

  He pulled around the back of the arena, where barricades were set up to keep the public from the tour buses parked near the back entrance. Which reminded her . . . Toni searched through her messenger bag for the packet the band’s manager had sent. It included a press pass that would get her past security. Pulling to a halt in a no-stopping zone, Julian shifted into park and turned toward her.

  “Disgusting? You know you love me.” He blinked at her with sleepy blue eyes surrounded by thick dark lashes.

  “Except when I hate you. Which is most of the time.” She reached for the door handle, but Julian caught her other arm.

  “This is the part where I’m supposed to tell you to be a good girl and to carefully guard your heart, body, and soul from evil rock stars. It’s also where I should advise you to stay away from excessive alcohol, drugs, sex, and backstage after-parties.”

  “But you’re not going to . . .”

  “Hell no. You need to live it up. Your mother has you so isolated from the outside world, I fear you’ll never escape.”

  “For your information, my mother doesn’t isolate me. I isolate myself.”

  “I’m still surprised she let you take this assignment. It’s not like you’ll be living in the company of the Vienna Boys’ Choir for the next month. I’m sure my life is tame when compared to the exploits of a bunch of rock stars, and she’s always giving me that stare of disapproval.”

  Toni knew that stare all too well. “You know what Mom said when I asked for the assignment? I suppose it is time you get a life,” she said, mimicking her mother’s typical bored-sounding drawl. But Toni did have a life. Being twenty-five and still living at home didn’t bother her nearly as much as it bothered everyone else.

  “Your mom is right. You do need to get a life.”

  Toni scowled. Why did everyone assume that because she wasn’t some wild party animal or some socialite debutante that she wasn’t happy? “I happen to love my life. Birdie means everything to me.”

  Someone honked behind them. Toni opened the door, but Julian grabbed her arm again to keep her from fleeing.

  “Whether you realize it or not, you need more than your little sister to make your life complete. And if you come back from this trip still a virgin, I’m going to do something about it.”

  She blinked at him. “You’re going to do something about it? You? The man who fears vaginas?”

  “Hey, I’d probably do a better job of it than the last idiot who failed you, but no, I’ve no plans to contaminate my junk with girl juice.”

  Toni covered her eyes with one hand as if it would shield her from Julian’s crazy schemes.

  “If you’re still a virgin next time I see you, I will promptly kidnap you, haul your ass to Vegas in the trunk of my car, and buy you a bona fide man-whore to remove your V-chip.”

  She jerked her hand off her flaming face a gaped at him. “You wouldn’t!”

  He snorted. “You know I would. And when he’s finished with you, he can do me.”

  Toni shook her head at his ornery grin. “You scare me sometimes.”

  “I scare me too. But I always have a good time. I refuse to let life pass me by. Now give me a smooch. I think the guy behind me is about to ram the car.” Julian presented his cheek, and Toni supplied it with a begrudged peck. “Have fun. I’ll call you in a few days to get all the juicy details.”

  “I wouldn’t give you any juicy details even if I had them.” She supposed. Heck, she didn’t know. It wasn’t like she had many juicy details to share. And in those rare incidences that she did, Julian was always the instigator and the star witness.

  “We’ll see. Text me as soon as you lose your virginity. So, like tonight.” H
e winked at her and shoved her toward the passenger door. “Now go.”

  So she went with her knees knocking together like a pair of billiard balls. Even with her press pass, it took a bit of convincing to get through security. Apparently no one took one look at her and thought, Wow, this woman has her shit together. She obviously belongs here.

  By some miracle, she reached her destination without being kicked to the curb.

  As Toni stepped onto Exodus End’s tour bus, her stomach took residence in her calf-hugging boots. The churning sensation of guilt and worry that had plagued her from the moment she’d left Birdie in the care of her domestically-challenged mother had moved past the lurching flips of her car ride with Julian to what must have been her liver using her stomach as a trampoline as she’d worked her way through security, and now that she’d finally located her home for the next month, the overwrought organ had decided to embark on a skydiving adventure. If this kept up, she was going to need an appointment with a gastroenterologist.

  Deep breath, Toni. Susan is wrong. You can do this.

  She clutched the strap of her messenger bag and tried to swallow her queasiness. Could she pull this off? Could she spend the next four weeks with one of the most famous rock bands on the planet, or was it possible for a person to die from sheer intimidation? The wall of muscle and mean that suddenly appeared in her path did nothing to put her at ease.

  “No fans on the bus,” the big guy said, taking her firmly by one arm and spinning her back toward the open bus door she’d just entered.

  “I’m not a fan,” she blurted, which wasn’t exactly true. She enjoyed Exodus End’s music and had gained an even greater appreciation for it when she did her background research for this job. She scrambled to grab the press pass on the lanyard around her neck and thrust it in his general direction. It had gotten her through the barricades; surely it would work now. “I’m Toni Nichols. Samuel Baily said to meet up with the bus tonight and join the tour. I was told you’d be expecting me.”

  She’d made it here, she was living her dream; yet the stars she reached for had never seemed so distant.

  The security guard released her arm to take her press pass and scrutinize it. Toni forced herself to meet the suspicious gaze of the giant in a neon-yellow T-shirt as he assessed her press pass and then her. Her press pass again. Her once more. His brown mustache twitched, but the scowl never left his fleshy face. She wondered if fans pretended to be members of the press to get on the bus. This guy obviously wasn’t buying her story, even though she was telling the truth. She’d never have been able to muster the courage to actually lie and sneak her way onto a tour bus. Who did that?

  “Sam sent you?” he said gruffly. “He didn’t clear this with me. He knows he’s supposed to clear everything with me. Everything.” Big-and-Beefy pulled a cellphone out of his pocket. “Don’t move an inch,” he demanded as he dialed.

  Well, that would be absolutely no problem. It wasn’t as if she could walk on the limp noodles that had replaced her legs.

  The man turned away, and she stared at the word SECURITY printed across the back of his T-shirt while he checked out her credentials with Mr. Baily. Toni figured she should probably be taking in her surroundings and forming first impressions of Exodus End’s lavish tour bus, but she feared if she so much as glanced at anything belonging to the band, laser beams would shoot from the security guy’s eye sockets and roast her alive.

  “Do the guys know she’s coming? I don’t think they’re going to like this much.” He paused. “Yeah, she. Toni’s a chick.”

  Toni stiffened. The band’s manager, Mr. Baily, had assured her mother’s publishing house that everything would go smoothly. She’d been told that the guys were excited to be a part of the interactive biography that Mr. Baily had sold to her mom’s company for a seven-figure advance. Though Nichols Publishing had a lot of money tied up in this venture, Toni wouldn’t be getting rich off book sales. She was just the contract-for-hire writer who also happened to be the photographer, videographer, and programmer for the project. Those in charge were supposed to have cleared everything with the band ahead of time. So what was going on?

  A walkie-talkie on the security guard’s belt screeched. “Butch, the guys are headed your way,” said a voice from the device.

  Toni pressed her lips together to stifle a grin. His name was Butch? Fitting. A little too fitting.

  Butch said goodbye to Mr. Baily and hung up. “Go sit on the sofa until I figure out what to do with you,” he said to Toni before reaching for his walkie-talkie.

  He didn’t need to figure out what to do with her. She knew how to do her job. She was supposed to interview the band members. Take note of how they lived while on the road. Get some candid shots of them in their everyday environment. Catch them being themselves in photos, video clips, and audio clips. Then, once she had all the pieces, combine those varied elements into a one-of-a-kind interactive electronic biography. That was what she was supposed to do—hang out with the band for a month and become an insider. The hard part would be fitting in with them. She was no rock star. Not by any stretch of her overactive imagination. “Excuse me, but I—”

  Butch waved her toward the comfortable-looking leather sofa situated along one side of the bus and spoke into his walkie-talkie. “Send them out.” He stomped off the bus, leaving Toni standing there feeling like she’d walked into an episode of The Twilight Zone just as the big plot twist was about to reveal itself. The bus was really a spaceship and the band members were actually flesh-eating aliens who’d set her up so they’d have something tasty to snack on while they journeyed to their next destination. And you thought you were following your dreams, you fool! It was pretty obvious that Butch didn’t appreciate her unexpected appearance. She doubted the band would be any more amicable about her interruption to their lives. Unless they really were flesh-eating space aliens.

  Butch’s disdain wasn’t going to stop her, however. This assignment was important to her. It was the opportunity of a lifetime. She was here to work and to prove her naysayer of an editor wrong. Toni wasn’t waiting to start until after Butch decided what to do with her. She was starting now.

  Resolve strengthened, Toni headed off the bus to stand next to Butch and observe the members of the band as they made their way from the back door of the stadium to the tour bus.

  Butch started when he noticed her standing next to him. She straightened her shoulders and pushed her glasses up her nose. She wasn’t going to let some big dude intimidate her. She’d be plenty intimidated when she met the four famous rock stars who were headed in her direction. Make that five rock stars. She’d completely forgotten they’d hired a new rhythm guitarist, Reagan Elliot, to tour with them for the year. A group of yellow-T-shirt-bedecked escorts walked several steps behind the four tattooed hunks and the exuberant woman in their midst.

  “This is so much fun,” Reagan shouted, hugging the nearest member of her band, who happened to be lead guitarist Dare Mills. Or maybe her choice of huggee hadn’t been accidental. The man was exquisite. What woman wouldn’t want to hug him? Or more? Toni’s face flamed as ideas about what more might entail flitted through her thoughts. Not that she’d actually ever experienced more. But she knew what it involved. Somewhat.

  Dare squeezed Reagan and added an affectionate kiss to the top of her head. “You did great tonight,” he said. “The fans already adore you. Aren’t you glad you loosened up a little?”

  “I’ve been loose my entire life,” she said, which garnered a round of sniggering from her new bandmates. Reagan paused midstride and beamed at the black and red tour bus parked just behind Exodus End’s silver and blue bus. “Sinners haven’t left yet. I’m riding with them tonight!” She hugged each member of her band, grabbed one hunk of a security guard by the front of his T-shirt, and raced toward the other bus with the chuckling man in tow.

  “Your brother is one lucky guy,” Steve Aimes, the band’s drummer, said, watching Reagan bound up the bus ste
ps of the band that was co-headlining with them on the tour.

  “So is her bodyguard,” Dare said with a grin.

  Toni perked up. She knew Dare’s brother was the rhythm guitarist for Sinners, but she hadn’t heard that Trey Mills was involved with Reagan Elliot. And what was this about her bodyguard? Was Reagan involved with two men? At the same time? Because who in their right mind would cheat on a man as luscious as Trey Mills? Toni bit her lip, reminding herself that she wasn’t here to dig up scandals—and what a scandal that would be—but to create a book that made readers feel that they knew the real men behind Exodus End’s rock star personas. And she was pretty sure these guys were used to behaving a certain way for the cameras. Surely it would take a while for them to trust her enough to be themselves in front of her. That was fine by her. It wouldn’t exactly be a tragedy if she had to spend extra time getting to know them.

  Lead singer Maximillian Richardson paused just outside the bus. He had dark brown hair cut in a trendy style, with messy locks on top that begged to be clutched as he used his strong lips on parts below a woman’s neck. Max’s striking hazel eyes made Toni’s toes curl as he looked her up and down. He shifted his gaze to Butch and lifted his eyebrows at him.

  “I thought we said to keep the bus empty tonight. We have to head out immediately.”

  “She’s the one writing a book about the band,” Butch said. “Sam said he told you about it months ago.”

  “Book? What fucking book?” Max’s face fell and then his eyes widened with apparent remembrance. “Shit,” he said, raking a hand through his hair and messing it even more. “I forgot all about it.”

  “What’s going on?” Dare asked.

  All four of the men were staring at Toni as if she were the flesh-eating space alien. She pasted a hopefully friendly smile on her face and pushed her glasses up her nose before thrusting her hand toward Dare for an introductory shake. Not that she wasn’t already shaking. She totally was.

  “I’m Toni Nichols. The publisher hired me to write the book.”

  And perhaps there was a little nepotism at work in the arrangement, but so what.

  Dare didn’t seem to notice her hand. He was too busy glaring at Max. After an awkward moment, she dropped her hand and clutched the strap of her messenger bag. What would she do if they refused to let her on the bus? Or if they wouldn’t answer her blasted editor’s carefully prepared interview questions? Or if she got so turned on that she started shedding her clothes in an attempt to seduce one of them? Or all of them . . . She stuck one finger under her turtleneck collar and tugged. Was it hot out here or was it just