First Star I See Tonight (Chicago Stars #8)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

1

The city was his. Cooper Graham owned this town, and all was right with his world. That’s what he told himself.

A kitten-voiced brunette knelt before him, her long, dark hair brushing his bare thigh. “This is so you won’t forget me,” she purred.

The felt point of her Sharpie tickled his inner thigh. He looked down at the top of her head. “How could I forget a beautiful woman like you?”

“You’d better not.” She pressed her lips to the phone number she’d written in black marker on his leg. It would take forever for that ink to wear off, but he appreciated his fans, and he hadn’t pushed her away.

“Sure wish I could stay and chat with you,” he said as he politely drew her to her feet, “but I have to get my run in.”

She hugged the places his hands had touched. “You can text me anytime, day or night.”

He gave her his automatic grin and set off on the paved path that ran along the Lake Michigan shore beneath Chicago’s magnificent skyline. He was the luckiest guy in the world, right? Sure he was. Everybody wanted to be his friend, his confidant, his lover. Even the foreign tourists knew who he was. Berlin, Delhi, Osaka—made no difference. The whole world knew Cooper Graham.

Burnham Harbor slipped by on his right. It was September, so the boats would be coming out of the lake soon, but for now, they bobbed at anchor. He picked up his pace, making sure his running shoes hit the Lakefront Trail in perfect rhythm. A woman’s blond ponytail bobbed ahead of him on the running path. Strong legs. Great ass. No challenge. He passed her without altering his easy pace.

It was a good day to be Cooper Graham, but then every day was. Ask anybody. The colony of seagulls circling the Chicago shoreline dipped their wings to honor him. The leaves of the giant oaks that shaded the path rustled with frenzied applause. Even the horns of the taxi drivers racing by on Lake Shore Drive cheered him on. He loved this city, and the city loved him right back.

The man up ahead had an athlete’s build, and he was fast.

But not fast enough.

Coop passed him. The guy didn’t even look thirty. Coop was thirty-seven and banged up from a long football career, but not banged up enough to let anybody get past him. Cooper Graham: drafted out of Oklahoma State by Houston; eight seasons as the starting quarterback for the Miami Dolphins; a final trade to the powerhouse Chicago Stars, where, after three seasons, he’d gifted the team with diamond-encrusted Super Bowl rings. Once that ring was on his finger, he’d done the smart thing and retired while he was on top. Damn right he had. He got out of the game before he became one of those pathetic old-man jocks trying desperately to hold on to his glory days.

“Hey, Coop!” A runner coming from the opposite direction called out to him. “The Stars are going to miss you this year.”

Coop gave the guy a thumbs-up.

The three years he’d spent with the Stars had been the best of his life. His roots might be buried in the Oklahoma dirt, Miami might have matured him, but it was Chicago that had ultimately tested him. And the rest was football history.

“Coop!” The pretty brunette heading in his direction barely kept from stumbling as she recognized him.

He gave her his patented female-fan smile. “Hey, sweetheart. You’re lookin’ real good.”

“Not as good as you!”

His body had taken a beating over the years, but he was still strong, with the same quick reflexes and winning attitude that had brought him national attention during his college days. That attention had only grown hotter as the years had passed. He might have retired from pro ball, but that didn’t mean he wasn’t still at the top of his game—except now, the game had shifted to a new playing field, one he was determined to conquer.

Another mile sped by. Then two. Only the bicyclists were faster. They were his courtiers, clearing the way for him on this September afternoon. No one could catch him—not the young Turks who manned the pits at the Board of Trade or the tattooed gym rats showing off their pumped-up biceps.

Coop hit the three-mile mark, and a runner finally passed him. Young. Maybe a college kid. Coop had been slacking, and he kicked it back up. Nobody beat him. That’s the way he was made.

The kid glanced over. He saw right away who was beside him, and his eyes nearly bugged out of their sockets. Coop nodded and ran on, leaving the kid behind. Old man? Forget that.

He heard feet coming up behind him. The kid again. Now he was next to Coop, looking for bragging rights. “I ran with Coop Graham today, and I kicked his ass.”

Not gonna happen, baby boy.

Coop sped up. He wasn’t one of those asshole players who believed he’d won that Super Bowl ring by himself, but he also knew the Stars couldn’t have done it without him because, more than anything, Coop had to win.

There was the kid again. Pulling up. He was scrawny, with toothpick legs and arms too long for his body. Coop must have him by fifteen years, but he didn’t believe in making excuses, and he dug in. Anybody who said winning wasn’t everything was full of it. Winning was all that counted, and every loss he’d suffered had been toxic. But no matter how much he’d seethed inside, he was always the sportsman: self-deprecating, gallant in his praise of the opposition, never complaining about bad calls, inept teammates, or injuries. No matter how bitter his thoughts, how poisonous each word tasted in his mouth, he never let it show. Whining made losers into bigger losers. But, goddam, he hated to lose. And he wasn’t going to lose today.

The kid had a long, steady stride. Too long. Coop understood the science of running in a way the kid didn’t, and he reined in his tendency to overstride. He wasn’t stupid. Stupid runners got hurt.

Okay, he was stupid. A searing pain crucified his right shin, he was breathing too hard, and his bad hip throbbed. His brain told him he had nothing left to prove, but he couldn’t let the kid pass. He wasn’t made that way.

The run turned into a sprint. He’d played through pain his whole career, and he wouldn’t cave in to it now. Not in the first September of his retirement, while his former teammates were busting their asses running drills to get ready for another Sunday. Not like other retired players content to get fat and lazy living off their money.

Five miles. Lincoln Park. They were side by side again. His lungs burned, his hip screamed, and his shins were on fire. Medial tibial stress syndrome. Ordinary shin splints, but there was nothing ordinary about this kind of pain.