First Star I See Tonight (Chicago Stars #8)(2)


by Susan Elizabeth Phillips

The kid fell back and caught up. Fell back. Caught up again. He was saying something. Coop ignored it. Blocked out the pain as he always did. Focused on his pumping legs, on grasping whatever molecule of air his lungs could suck in. Focused on winning.

“Coop! Mr. Graham!”

What the hell?

“Could I . . . have a . . . selfie . . . with you?” the kid gasped. “For . . . my dad?”

All he wanted was a selfie? Sweat dripped from every pore of Coop’s body. His lungs were an inferno. He slowed, and so did the kid, until they both came to a stop. Coop wanted to drop to the ground and curl up, but the kid was still upright, and Coop would rather shoot himself in the head.

A drop of sweat trickled down the little shithead’s neck. “I guess I shouldn’t . . . interrupt your workout . . . but . . . it’d mean a lot . . . to my dad.”

The kid wasn’t breathing nearly as hard as Coop, but with the discipline of fifteen years in the NFL, Coop mustered a smile. “Sure. Be happy to.”

The kid pulled out a cell and fussed with it, talking the whole time about how he and his dad were Coop’s biggest fans. Coop struggled to keep his lungs working. The kid turned out to be a Division I sprinter, which made Coop feel a little better. Sure, he’d have to keep his hip iced for the next couple of days, but so what? Being a champion was his birthright.

All in all, it was still a good day to be Cooper Graham.

Except for one pesky woman.

He spotted her on the Museum Campus right after he’d cabbed it back to get his car. There she was, sitting on a bench, pretending to read a book.

Yesterday, she’d been dressed like a homeless person with scraggly gray hair. Today her black shorts, leggings, and long T-shirt made her look like a student at the Art Institute. He couldn’t see her car, but he had no doubt it was parked somewhere close. If he hadn’t happened to notice a dark green Hyundai Sonata with a broken taillight parked near him one too many times in the last four days, he might not have realized he was being followed. He’d had enough of it.

But as he headed toward her, a city bus pulled up. Maybe she had ESP, because she jumped on, and he missed his chance. That didn’t bother him much, since he was fairly certain he’d see her again.

And he did. Two nights later.

***

Piper crossed the street to the entrance of Spiral, the nightclub Cooper Graham had opened in July, six months after his retirement from the Chicago Stars. The light September breeze feathered her bare legs and blew up under the skirt of her short black sleeveless dress. Beneath it, she wore her next-to-last pair of clean underwear. Sooner or later, she’d have to do laundry, but for now, all she cared about was recording Cooper Graham’s every move.

Her scalp itched from where she’d tucked her short, chopped hair under the long brunette wig she’d picked up at a resale shop. She prayed the hair, along with the scoop-neck dress, cat’s-eye liner, scarlet lipstick, and push-up bra would finally get her past the primitive life-form who passed for Spiral’s door manager, an obstacle she hadn’t been able to overcome on her past two attempts.

The same doorman was on duty tonight. He was shaped like a nineteenth-century torpedo: fat warhead, thick tank, feet splayed like fins. The first time, he’d grunted his dismissal of her at the same time that he waved a pair of swishy-haired blondes through the club’s brass double doors. She, of course, had challenged him. “What do you mean, you’re full? You’re letting them in.”

He’d taken in her cropped dark hair, best white blouse, and jeans with his squinty little eyes. “Just what I said.”

That had been last Saturday night. Piper couldn’t do her job unless she was inside Spiral, but since the club was open only four nights a week, she hadn’t been able to make her next attempt until yesterday. Even though she’d combed her hair and put on a skirt and blouse, he hadn’t been impressed, and that meant upping her game. She’d picked up this dress at H&M, traded in her comfortable boots for a torturous pair of strappy stilettos, and borrowed an evening clutch from her friend Jen. The clutch wasn’t big enough to hold more than her cell, fake ID, and a couple of twenty-dollar bills. The rest—everything that correctly identified her as Piper Dove—was stashed in the trunk of her car: laptop computer; a duffel containing the hats, sunglasses, jackets, and scarves she used as disguises; and a semiobscene-looking device called a Tinkle Belle.

Spiral, named after Cooper Graham’s long and deadly accurate spiral passes, was Chicago’s hottest club, and a line had predictably formed at the velvet rope. As she approached Torpedo Head, she held her breath and drew her shoulders back to push up her breasts. “You’re busy tonight, gov,” she sort of cooed in the fake British accent she’d been practicing.

Torpedo Head noticed her breasts, then her face, then dropped his chin to take in her legs. The man was a pig. Good. She cocked her head and gave him a smile that revealed the straight white teeth her father had spent thousands of dollars on when she’d been twelve, even though she’d begged him to use the money to buy her a horse. Now that she was thirty-three, the horse still struck her as the better deal.

“I cawn’t get over how big American men are.” With the tip of her index finger, she pushed up the bridge of the retro-trendy eyeglasses she’d added at the last minute to further disguise her appearance.

He leered. “I work out.”

“Obb-viously.” She wished she could choke the son of a bitch with his Spiral lanyard.

He waved her through into the club’s luxurious black-and-bronze interior.

She’d never liked the club scene, not even when she was in her early twenties. All that purposeful merriment made her feel somehow apart, disconnected. But this was business, and Spiral, with its megacelebrity owner, was no ordinary dance club. Two levels of smart design allowed for a great dance floor but also places to talk or troll for hookups without having to scream over the music. The movable leather banquettes and the more private nooks with their softly illuminated, cube-shaped cocktail tables were already filled with the Thursday-night crowd. Tonight’s DJ spun from a booth perched above a dance floor where muted colors blended and reformed like horny amoebae.

She bought her one drink of the night, a six-dollar Sprite, at the central bar. Over it, a suspended ceiling of LED rods hovered like a golden UFO. She watched the bartender for a while, then made her way through the crowd to a recess between a pair of icicle-shaped bronze wall sconces, where she planned to observe the host as soon as he appeared.