The Inside Man
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When Cole McGregor entered my life, my whole world changed. My new neighbor was older, gorgeous, and the Irish accent had me swooning. And no matter what, he was always there for me, but only as a friend.
The day I walked out of his life without a trace . . . I'd left not as a young girl with a crush but as a woman in love.
I regretted my decision to leave Cole behind, but I never doubted the reason for my choice--the chance to find my brother even if I also found myself caught up in a shadowy world of danger.
Now, years later, my path has crossed Cole's again, and this time, in his home of Dublin. I've been through so much since I left New York, and I'm not prepared to share my secrets with anyone, not my brother, and especially not Cole.
With Cole stepping into an influential role in the city, one that comes with significant risk as he tries to take down the corrupt from the inside, I'm not sure if I'll ever earn redemption or another chance at love. And with each passing moment, I know one thing for certain--the truth always comes out, and once it does, there'll be no turning back.
The billionaire Irish McGregor family returns in this hot friends-to-lovers romantic suspense.
Although The Inside Man is a standalone novel, it is highly recommended The Real Deal be read first.
Release date: April 30, 2020
Publisher: EmKo Media, LLC
Print pages: 386
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The Inside Man
New York City – November 2013
“Let’s start the night with a toast,” my buddy Jacob announced as he lifted a shot glass filled to the rim with clear liquid. “To our friend, Xavier. Here’s to celebrating his twenty-fifth birthday with the best night money can buy!”
“Hell, yeah!” Xavier shouted, raising his glass to the small group of guys lounging on the leather sofa and club chairs, before downing his tequila shot.
The man of the hour was celebrating more than a birthday tonight. Now that he was twenty-five, he had access to his one-hundred-million-dollar trust fund.
And this nightclub was a millennial and trust fund kid’s wet dream. I was into the more low-key kind of places, but it was Xavier’s party, so I’d go wherever the boys wanted.
Jacob stood, peeled his black tee off, and tossed it. “Five hot girls are dancing in a pool right in front of us. Why are we not in there, too?” He smacked his palms together and kicked off his shoes.
We were on the third floor of the club in the VIP area, which was reserved for people like us. Basically, rich young arseholes. I wasn’t that bad, but some of my friends, well, they could be real dicks.
Four guys from our party, including the birthday boy, followed Jacob’s lead, stripped down to their boxers, and joined the women in the pool.
The club was as eclectic as the people partying in it. Art attempting to rip off Picasso for sale on the black-painted walls, Gothic chandeliers, and modern finishes, not to mention the massive triangle-shaped pool. And this was just the VIP level.
The indoor greenery softened the place up a bit, and the light projections and state-of-the-art sound system blasting Latin music, along with the panoramic view of the Manhattan skyline, were reminders I wasn’t in Dublin.
I’d been living in New York for nine years. I moved to the city when I was seventeen, but I would always call Ireland my home.
“Holy shit.” My buddy Seth, still sitting next to me on the couch, flung the back of his hand against my chest. “Is that little Alessia Romano? When’d she get that body and those tits?”
My stomach dropped at his words, and when I followed his gaze to find Alessia’s dress falling to her feet, I about jumped off the sofa. What in the hell was she doing here?
She flung her dress aside, which left her standing in a tiny white bikini, one I had no clue she owned.
“She’s your parents’ neighbor, right? Mind if I—”
“No,” I seethed when she removed her strappy black heels and started down the steps into the pool.
Jacob set his eyes on her almost immediately. Hell, the gaze of every man and woman was riveted to her gorgeous figure. She was only twenty and had no business being in a place like this.
“Oh, don’t make her leave,” Seth begged, grabbing my arm, but I yanked free of his touch and stalked straight for the pool.
“Back off, Jacob,” I warned as he closed in on Alessia.
I stood at the edge of the pool, hands in my pockets, my blood boiling.
Jacob glanced at me before peering at Alessia, who’d ducked under the water. Seeing the murderous look on my face, he held his palms in the air in surrender.
Alessia popped back up a moment later and flung her long, wet locks to her back, her makeup still flawless despite the water . . . but it was the bikini top that had my jaw locking tight.
That white scrap of material glowed in the club lights but also showcased her damn perky nipples. “Out,” I ordered.
She flinched at my command but quickly recovered and pouted. “I’m having fun!”
She was probably drunk, which made sense, considering her sober self would never have tossed her dress and designer heels so carelessly.
“You shouldn’t be here.” I crouched to better see her eyes in the shite lighting. “You’re not twenty-one. Where’s your fake ID?”
“You’re not my brother,” she said, reaching to snatch a Jell-O shot from the tray held by a bathing suit-clad cocktail waitress who’d just waded into the pool.
I sure as hell wasn’t her brother, but HE was why she’d been an emotional mess lately. Her quest to find the brother she only recently discovered existed had been one dead-end after another, which was why she kept drinking and partying. Taking her frustrations out with the bottle.
She dipped her tongue into the little cup, circling the interior, licking the red Jell-O from the edges. The action of her cheeks hollowing as she sucked down the shot had my dick stirring in my pants.
I extended my palm, hoping she’d give in to me, but instead, she shot me a devious smile and yanked with the force of someone twice her size, and I went crashing headfirst into the water.
“Damn it, Alessia!” I wiped the water from my face and swiped at my hair.
“Welcome, brother,” Xavier said on a laugh, and Jacob clapped his thanks to Alessia.
“Not funny,” I grumbled.
Alessia stepped in front of me, my white button-down dress shirt molding to my skin. Her pink nail traced a line up the center of my chest, and she nibbled on her lip, the pink gloss somehow still there despite her dip beneath the water.
“What are you doing?” I asked, my voice huskier than it should’ve been. With her so close in that damn see-through bikini top, it was all I could do to keep myself in check.
She flung her arms wide and fell back onto the water, floating with her hair fanned out around her.
“Please, get out.”
She finally stood, but darkness filled her gorgeous brown eyes. “My mother is dead. Father, too. No living family except a brother I can’t find and who apparently doesn’t want to be found,” she shouted over the music. “What do you expect me to do?”
I snatched her hand without thinking and placed it on my chest, my heart racing beneath her palm. “I’m your family. You won’t lose me, okay?”
Alessia was trembling as if cold, even though the pool was heated. She studied me, but then it was as if she flipped a switch, turning off her emotions because, in a lighter voice, she said, “I’m gonna dance.” She pulled her palm free of my chest and turned, but I secured a hand around her wrist and stopped her. “You can either join me,” she purred, her voice so low I was forced to watch her pink lips as she spoke, “or you can let me go find some guy without a stick up his ass.”
I’d throw her over my shoulder and carry her out kicking and screaming if necessary, but no, I had a better idea. With my free hand, I motioned for the nearby bouncer.
“You wouldn’t.” A wave of fiery anger flashed across her beautiful face.
“Oh, I would,” I challenged. “Sir, this woman is underage,” I told him. “Fake ID.”
“Miss?” The bouncer took my word since I was a regular, thanks to my buddies who loved the place.
He kept his eyes on her, and if I didn’t get her out of here fast, he’d fall under her spell. There was something about her that drew everyone’s attention, and it wasn’t just that she was smoking hot. Alessia had an energy about her that made men lose their bloody minds. And it was why she needed me to protect her from arseholes.
Once Alessia turned twenty, it seemed like the arseholes came out in full force and were lined up around the block to get her attention. I seriously considered queueing up along with those dickheads.
The bouncer pointed to the dress and shoes. “These yours?” he asked once she begrudgingly got out of the pool, my friends booing the bouncer for making her leave.
“I’ll take care of her,” I told him and grabbed two towels from the stack near the pool and handed one to her.
My clothes were sopping wet, and the towel didn’t do much good. The bright side of her not going into the pool fully clothed like I had? She wouldn’t freeze to death later.
She toweled off and snatched her dress and shoes, then spun around, nearly knocking me back into the water. Her gaze moved slowly down my wet shirt before her eyes journeyed to my face. “Don’t even think about walking me home.”
I rolled my eyes and grabbed hold of her elbow. “There’s not a chance in hell I’m letting you leave alone.”
She shot me a menacing glare that was quite possibly the cutest one she’d sent me lately, and I’d been on the receiving end of quite a few since I kept “raining on her parade of fun” as she liked to tell me.
She leaned in close. “Bite me.”
Damn did I want to, starting with her nipples. “Get your clothes on. You’ll freeze to death outside.”
“Don’t you have another woman to bother?” She got dressed, the material clinging to her body, the bikini soaking through the fabric of her dress.
“No, you take up too much of my time.” I couldn’t hide the sarcastic tone of my voice even though I’d wanted to come across as serious.
Alessia swayed to the side as if she might fall and found her balance by planting a hand on my shoulder. She began waving to someone in the pool and smiled. “Maybe I should go home with one of your friends?”
I looked back at Jacob, who was sending her an air kiss.
“No.” I motioned for her to leave, but she didn’t move.
“You know, I’m not a virgin, so if you think I—”
“Alessia,” I hissed. “You need to go to bed.”
“With you?” She angled her head, her brows lifting.
“I’ll stay on your couch to make sure you don’t fall and hurt yourself since you’re barely able to walk right now.” I urged her to move again and tossed a hand up to let the guys know I was leaving, which elicited another round of boos.
“I’m not that drunk,” she said with a touch of sass in her tone that always appeared when she’d been drinking. “Just a little too much champagne.”
We grabbed our jackets from the coat check, then went outside, my feet a horrible kind of wet and cold inside my shoes as I walked, creating a water trail behind me.
Alessia wrung the water out of her hair onto the footpath and pulled her long locks into a tight ponytail as I hailed a taxi.
I’d come in Seth’s limo, and Alessia no longer had a driver. She’d let him go and was also in the process of selling off all her father’s assets since he’d taken his last breath three weeks ago.
She’d come to me for help to ensure she didn’t get taken advantage of when she relinquished his business holdings, and I hadn’t put up a fight with her about it. I knew she had no desire to run his empire, but I also didn’t know what she wanted to do with her life.
One thing we had fought about—dropping out of college. She hadn’t given me any warning, either. I’d give her until Christmas to come to her senses, and then I’d push her to return to school.
I’d opted for silence until we were inside the lift in her building. She’d been swiping through images on her phone the entire ride over, and I didn’t feel like getting into it with her within earshot of the cabbie. “This isn’t like you,” I finally spoke up.
“I always party,” she snapped without looking up at me, her phone still clutched in hand.
“Not like this,” I said glibly.
She spun to the side and lowered her arm. “Well, maybe you don’t know me as well as you think.”
“You’re my best friend,” I grumbled the reminder she clearly needed to hear.
We hadn’t started out that way, she’d been too young when we met, but after her mother died in a car accident because some arsehole ran a red light, I’d been there for her.
I’d always wondered why she hadn’t become closer to my sister, but Alessia and I had just clicked. When she was sixteen, she’d joked that we fit together like puzzle pieces.
But as soon as she became of legal age, things between us changed. I tensed up whenever she was around. The moral discipline I’d held myself to in regard to Alessia no longer applied. And my traitorous body knew it.
“Maybe we shouldn’t be friends anymore.”
I did my best not to let those words sting. “That’s the alcohol talking,” I said when the doors parted.
She remained still, and I had to shoot my arm out to keep the doors from closing together.
“Don’t,” she whispered, hurrying past me.
I grabbed her wrist and pulled her back to face me. “Are you high? You promised me you’d never do that and—”
“No,” she snapped. “I keep my promises.”
“And what the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“Never mind.” She forcefully jerked her arm free and rushed into the hall.
There were only two penthouses on the top floor: hers and my parents’, but she’d recently hired a realtor and sold the place. Where the hell did she plan on going?
By the time I got my thoughts together, she was already inside her place, and the door was locked. I had a key, but if she’d secured the deadbolt at the top of the door, I was screwed.
Thankfully, she was too drunk to do it. That, or she really did want me with her.
Once inside, I tossed my jacket and keys, removed my soaked socks and shoes, then locked up.
She was in her bedroom on the second floor, stripping out of her dress. Heels already off. “I’m wet and cold. If you don’t want to see me naked, get the hell out.”
I went back into the hall because I did want to see her naked, damn it. “You decent?” I called out a minute later, and when she didn’t respond, I peeked into the room.
She was curled up in her blue suede armchair by the window, which overlooked the city. Pale pink cotton pajama bottoms with a long-sleeved button-up top. Thank God she’d opted for comfort over sexy.
“Go away.” She kept her knees tight to her chest, her eyes on the window.
I was wet and cold, too, but I didn’t want to risk leaving to go to my parents to get a change of clothes. She may decide to bolt the top lock. And my parents’ two Yorkshire terriers would bark and alert them to my presence if I did head over, and then they’d demand answers as to why I’d shown up at midnight since I no longer lived there.
I brought my back to the wall by the door, and my gaze cut to the king-sized bed. A plain silver comforter free of frills. “Why don’t you get some sleep?”
“I hate that you even asked me if I was high.” Disappointment moved through her tone. “I know I haven’t been acting like myself since Dad died. But can you blame me? He had a son he kept secret from me! I have a brother. All these years . . .”
“No.” I crossed the room to stand closer since her voice had softened. Less angry. “Your dad made a mistake, but it’s quite possible your brother doesn’t want to be found.”
She tipped her chin, and her eyes locked with mine in steely silence.
“Why won’t you tell me his name?”
Her silence was a knife to the heart. I was worried her brother was the reason she sold the house and dropped out of school.
Was she going to hunt him down and force him to be her family? Was she scared that if I knew his name, I’d try and stop her?
God, I probably would. At the very least, I’d go with her to make sure he wasn’t dangerous. All she’d said was he was Irish like me. What were the damn odds?
“I will find him.” She dropped her feet to the ground.
I crouched in front of her and placed a hand on her knee. “Of course, you want to meet him, but it’s possible he may not want you in his life. His father abandoned him, and that can mess a person up. I don’t want you to be disappointed.” Or go after him alone.
“I need to make things right, to make up for what Dad did.”
“You don’t have to correct your father’s mistakes.” I smoothed my thumb in small circles over her knee.
“He’s my brother. And maybe once he’s in my life, you’ll stop treating me like you’re mine.”
“You know I—”
“You treat me like a sister.” She stood, and I rose with her.
I hung my head. If only she knew the things I thought about her. I’d scolded myself over and over again—hell, I’d gone to confession. Nothing sisterly about her in my mind.
Twenty and twenty-six . . . we were lightyears apart in terms of experience. But it was more than that. She’d had a rocky time lately, and it wouldn’t be right to think of her as anything more than a best friend.
“How do you want me to treat you?” I asked, knowing full well her answer might send me over a cliff we’d never be able to come back from.
“Just go,” she sputtered.
She was backing down. Taking the easy way out. I should thank her for giving me the chance to escape the conversation without one of two things happening: a fight or sex. Neither would be a good idea.
“What will you do if you find him?” I deflected, hoping to calm my thoughts down, to reel in my desires before I acted upon them.
“When not if.”
“Okay, fine. When you find him”—I tossed a hand in the air—“what will you do?”
“Share my inheritance. Give him what he deserves. And, well, maybe we can work together. I can start over. A new life.” No hesitation. She’d thought it out, hadn’t she?
“Are you out of your mind? You want to share almost two billion dollars with a stranger? And might I remind you, most of that money originated from your mother’s side, so it’s not like it’s owed to him.” I tensed at the thought of her leaving. Leaving me, damn it. “And what’s so bad about this life?” I cupped a hand over my mouth, trying to steady my breathing.
Looks like a fight might happen after all.
“I can’t be around you anymore. It’s too hard.”
She hiccupped. “Especially when you lie.”
“Lie?” My hands went to my hips as she stared me down without blinking.
“You promised me that in time you’d-you’d make me yours.”
I closed my eyes and gripped the bridge of my nose. I had no clue what she was talking about.
“The party,” she whispered. “The night I almost slept with that douchebag football player when I was eighteen, you begged me not to. And then you said to wait for you.”
What? Had she waited? She’d said she wasn’t a virgin, but . . .
She hiccupped again. “You told me to grow up a little more, and you’d make me yours.”
I’d been drunk that night. I didn’t remember it. Holy feck. All I remembered was pulling that arsehole off her at the party, worried he was trying to take advantage of her.
“And now I’m twenty, but you’re still screwing every girl in a skirt. Everyone but me.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.” I reached for her arm, but she backed up.
“Two weeks ago, I came over to your place with takeout and a movie. I used my key when you didn’t answer.”
Two weeks ago? I dropped my face into my palm and slowly dragged my hand down.
“I heard you having sex. Your unmistakable Irish voice.”
I lifted my head. “That wasn’t me.”
“Sure. There just happened to be some other guy in your place with an Irish accent saying, ‘Oh bloody hell, that’s so good’?”
“That was my cousin Sean. He was passing through town on business, and he’d met someone at our office that day. He asked to use my place before he took a flight out of New York.”
“Right.” She rolled her eyes. “Why wouldn’t you tell me Sean was in town?” She crossed her arms.
“He was here less than a day. I didn’t think anything of it.”
But this explained why she’d been acting differently for the last two weeks. “Listen, I’m sorry for whatever I said to you at that party, but—”
“But you don’t want me as more than a little sister.” She brushed past me. “Well, I already have a brother, so you should go.”
Maybe this wasn’t the alcohol talking after all?
“Please.” Her tone dipped, and it hurt my heart.
“Sleep in the guest room if you’re afraid to leave me alone but be gone before the sun is up.” She stood by the door and motioned for me to get the hell out, and maybe it was for the better.
I needed time to think things through, to decide what to do. To see if I was ready to step out of the friend zone. To see if she was truly ready.
I shouldn’t have left, though. I should have stayed in that room.
Because two mornings later, she got a call—a location for her brother—and she left me with a goodbye note and a broken fecking heart.
* * *
Barcelona – January 2014 (Two Months Later)
One sip of my fruity red sangria, its tartness on my tongue, was all it took to send me hurtling back two years to one of the times Cole and I had nearly kissed. Right here at Barceloneta Beach, of all places.
My brother, Sebastian, and I were currently sitting at dinner on the balcony of a popular restaurant, and the delicious smell of the roasted red peppers drizzled with olive oil on my plate brought to mind the memory of the dinner I’d had with Cole before that almost-kiss, too.
Cole wasn’t supposed to come to Spain with me that summer. The trip had been one of my graduation presents from Dad, and had included my friend from high school, Jasmine, along with her older sister, Lindsey. Well, older as in twenty-two to our eighteen.
Three days into our vacation, we’d been lounging by the hotel pool, my gaze following the glittering sunlight on the surface of the water when I’d spotted Cole on approach. My breath had frozen in my lungs as he maneuvered through the crowd, everyone taking notice.
Cole was a freaking Greek, well, “Irish” god. Tall with black hair and dangerously sinful eyes, the color of espresso. A chiseled jaw covered in week-old scruff. Broad shoulders. Perfect hip bones and the mouth-watering V that disappeared beneath whatever shorts or pants he wore, the belt or drawstring always begging to be undone. His chest muscles and abs were the right amounts of perfect. Not too beefy. Not overdone at the gym. A runner’s body.
I’d nearly fallen off my chair at the sight of him that day in Barcelona and sputtered something incoherent in disbelief at his presence. He’d decided to surprise me. More like he’d been worried about me being out of the country without someone to protect me.
I shifted uncomfortably at the memory, snatched the stem of my glass, and finished the last few drops of sangria. “I’ve been here before,” I said in a daze and regarded my brother as he slowly set his wine down alongside his uneaten food.
The Mediterranean Sea touched the sand not far away from where we sat, and I could practically smell Cole’s cologne on the breeze floating my way, a ghost from our last time there together when his lips had nearly touched mine.
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