Home > Insider (Exodus End #1)

Insider (Exodus End #1)
Author: Olivia Cunning


Toni placed a second wide-angle lens into her gargantuan camera case and shut the lid, locking both clasps with her thumbs. She glanced around her office to make sure she hadn’t overlooked anything. It was imperative that she remembered all her equipment. She’d be gone for weeks with no access to any gear she left behind.

“I don’t want you to go,” Birdie said, grabbing her hand and giving it a hard yank. Toni winced. Birdie never meant to hurt; she simply didn’t realize how strong she was.

Rubbing her smarting elbow with her free hand, Toni said, “It’s only for a few weeks.” Four to be exact, but Birdie didn’t deal well with change, and Toni figured it was best to understate her absence. “You and Mom will have a great time without me.”

Birdie shook her head. “Who will read me a story?”

“Mom will.”

Birdie’s face scrunched into a pout. “She doesn’t do it the fun way.”

Toni tugged one of Birdie’s pigtails. She was nine, but emotionally and mentally she was closer to five.

“Maybe you can read it to her, Buttercup. You know every word by heart.” Toni must have read The Princess Bride to Birdie a thousand times. Her sister never grew bored with the tale. Toni, on the other hand, had started making up weird voices and progressive changes to the story to keep from going insane from the monotony.

“I will try.”

Toni smoothed a palm over Birdie’s cheek, pausing to rub at a smudge at the corner of her mouth. “Don’t forget your chores. I won’t be there to remind you.”

“Feed the chickens.” Birdie smiled that heart-stealing, ear-to-ear grin of hers.

“Good. What else?”

Birdie pressed her lips together around the tip of her tongue and scrunched up her round face in concentration. After a long moment, she said, “I can’t ’member.”

“What are you supposed to do when you can’t remember?”

Birdie’s face lit up, and she pulled a piece of paper out of the back pocket of her jeans. “My list!”

“That’s right.” Toni kissed Birdie’s forehead and hugged her tight. “You’ve got this, Buttercup.”

“How many days until you come home?”

“I gave you a calendar. It’s on your message board.”

“I’m supposed to put an X on each day until I is on the red square.”

“Until I am on the red square,” Toni corrected automatically. She came from a long line of English majors, and she saw how their mother cringed every time Birdie used improper grammar. Poor kid. “Only mark out one day each morning. Don’t cheat.” Toni made Birdie calendars for birthdays and Christmas countdowns so she didn’t have to answer “How many days?” questions every five minutes. Birdie often tried marking out extra days, thinking it would make the anticipated event arrive sooner.

There was a knock on her door and it opened an instant later. Her mom poked her head into the room. “Are you ready?”

“I think so,” Toni said, giving her office yet another scan. She couldn’t shake the feeling that she was forgetting something. Or maybe she was just nervous.

“Hi, Mommy!” Birdie waved.

“Good evening, Bernadette.” Mom immediately turned her attention to Toni. “Julian insisted that he drive you to the rendezvous point. I hope you’re not offended that he didn’t have to ask for my permission twice.”

Toni grinned. Julian would make the trip interesting. And it was probably best for Mom and Birdie to head for home; I-5 traffic could be a bear, and Birdie got antsy on long car rides.

“Also, Susan wants to talk to you before you leave,” Mom added.

Toni’s heart plummeted. Her first meeting with Nichols Publishing’s newest editor had not gone well. She doubted this one would prove less traumatizing.

“Okay. Thanks.” No thanks.

“Come, Bernadette,” Mom said, holding out a hand. “We’re heading for home.”

Mom looked as nervous about taking care of her youngest daughter as Toni felt about hanging around with four living legends for a month. It wasn’t that Mom had never cared for Birdie before. She’d just never done it without Toni’s assistance for more than two days at once. The next four weeks were going to be rough on everyone. But Toni was more than ready for a little adventure. And Birdie had to learn to trust Mom to meet her needs.

“I want to go with Toni,” Birdie said, grabbing Toni’s hand and shaking her head.

“You can’t,” Mom said. “Toni needs to get out and gain some experience so she’s ready to take over the company someday.”

Yeah, about that . . . Toni didn’t want to take over her mother’s company. But who else could? Sadly, Birdie would never be capable of the onerous job, though she could help with many tasks. Dad was gone. There was no one but Toni available to walk in Eloise Nichols’s footsteps, and everyone knew how hard her mother had worked to build Nichols Publishing from the ground up. Toni felt obligated to keep the business in the family. But that wasn’t why she wanted to go on tour with the most famous metal band on the planet. Nope. Her reasons for touring with Exodus End were entirely selfish. This project would launch her career. The career she wanted, not the career her mother wanted for her.

Toni wanted to design interactive electronic biographies about famous people—rock stars, presidents, actors. She hadn’t even realized her aspiration until her mom had mentioned the Exodus End project over dinner one evening—Toni had known instantly it was the perfect career for her. She’d majored in all the relevant fields and had loads of experience, she just hadn’t been able to figure out how to make her eclectic education and strange skill set mesh into a viable career. This assignment was tailor-made for her, and she was going to blow everyone’s mind with her creative genius.

Assuming she didn’t pee down her leg the first time she met the band.

“I want to go with Toni,” Birdie said. “I can help.”

Toni tried imagining her sweet, special needs sister living with a group of raunchy metal musicians for several weeks. Uh yeah, no. Imagining immersing herself into the band members’ lives was challenging enough.

“Mom needs your help more than I do, Birdie,” Toni said. “Who will feed the chickens? Mom doesn’t know how.”

Birdie chewed her lip, obviously torn between the well-being of their chickens and her desire to be with the sister who’d raised her.

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