Chicago Stars #8
June 27, 2017
Available in: Hardcover, Paperback, e-Book (reprint)
First Star I See Tonight
A star quarterback and a feisty detective play for keeps in this sporty, sexy, sassy novel—a long-awaited new entry in the beloved, award-winning, New York Times bestselling author’s fan-favorite Chicago Stars football series.
Piper Dove is a woman with a dream—to become the best detective in the city of Chicago. First job? Trail former Chicago Stars quarterback, Cooper Graham. Problem? Graham’s spotted her, and he’s not happy.
Which is why a good detective needs to think on her feet. “The fact is . . . I’m your stalker. Not full-out barmy. Just . . . mildly unhinged.”
Piper soon finds herself working for Graham himself, although not as the bodyguard he refuses to admit he so desperately needs. Instead, he’s hired her to keep an eye on the employees at his exclusive new nightclub. But Coop’s life might be in danger, and Piper’s determined to protect him, whether he wants it or not. (Hint: Not!) If only she weren’t also dealing with a bevy of Middle Eastern princesses, a Pakistani servant girl yearning for freedom, a teenager who just wants of fit in, and an elderly neighbor demanding Piper find her very dead husband.
And then there’s Cooper Graham himself, a legendary sports hero who always gets what he wants—even if what he wants is a feisty detective hell bent on proving she’s as tough as he is.
From the bustling streets of Chicago to a windswept lighthouse on Lake Superior to the glistening waters of Biscayne Bay, two people who can’t stand to lose will test themselves and each other to discover what matters most.
Originally published September 2016 in hardcover by William Morrow.
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 of her clean underpants. Sooner or later, she’d have to do her 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 her scoop neck black dress, cat’s eye make up, 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 he’d waved a pair of swishy-haired blondes through the club’s double brass 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 stinky 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 only open four nights a week, she hadn’t been able to make her next attempt until yesterday. Despite the fact that she’d combed her hair and put on a skirt and blouse, he hadn’t been impressed, and that meant upping her game tonight in a way she’d hoped to avoid. 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 purse wasn’t big enough to hold more than her cell, fake I.D., 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 duffle containing the hats, sunglasses, jackets, and scarves she used as disguises; and a semi-obscene looking device called a Tinkle Belle.
Spiral was Chicago’s hottest club right now, named after Cooper Graham’s long and deadly accurate spiral passes. 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. 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 eye glasses she’d added at the last minute to further disguise her appearance.
He gave her a smarmy leer. “I work out.”
“Obb-viously.” She wished she could choke the son of a bitch with his Spiral lanyard.
He waved her through.
She’d never liked the club scene, not even when she was in her early twenties, but Spiral was more than a dance club. With its celebrity owner and its luxurious black and bronze décor, Spiral was fast becoming the premiere gathering place for the city’s younger elite.
Two levels of smart design allowed for a great dance floor but also places to talk or troll for hook-ups without having to scream over the music. The moveable 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 bronze, icicle-shaped wall sconces where she planned to observe the host as soon he appeared.
A skinny guy with waxed hair and a bottle of Miller Lite stepped in front of her and blocked her view. “I’m not feeling good. I think I’m missing some Vitamin U.”
He looked so hurt.
“Hold on,” she said with a sigh.
His expression was pathetically hopeful. She adjusted her glasses and said, a little more kindly, “Most of the pickup lines you find on the Internet are cheesy. You’d do better if you’d just say hi.”
“You for real?”
“Only a suggestion.”
He curled his lip at her. “Bitch.”
So much for trying to be nice.
The guy went off in search of easier prey. She took a sip of Sprite. Torpedo Head had exchanged his door manager position for bouncer duty. His specialty seemed to be chatting up leggy blondes.
The club’s VIP lounge was located in an open mezzanine. She scanned what she could see of it for her quarry, but he wasn’t visible among any of the guests sitting near the bronze railing. If only she could get up there, but a blond-haired bulldog of a bouncer had been stationed at the bottom to keep out the riff raff, which unfortunately included her. Frustrated, she worked her way through the well-heeled throng to the other side. And that’s when she saw him.
Even in a crowd, Cooper Graham stood out like a beacon in a candle factory. He was ridiculously masculine. Beyond ridiculous. He was a caricature of macho, complete with thick brown hair the color of burnt toast topped with a drizzle of honey. He had a square jaw, predictably broad shoulders, and a cleft in his chin that was such a cliché he should have been embarrassed. He was dressed in his customary uniform: lightweight oatmeal sweater, jeans, and cowboy boots. On most people, cowboy boots in Chicago were an affectation, but not on a man born and raised on an Oklahoma ranch. Still, she didn’t like either the boots; the long, muscular legs rising above them; or—as a lifelong Chicago Bears fan—the team he’d played for. Her bottom line? Arrogant, egotistical, overly pampered, ex-Stars’ quarterbacks with a long string of movie star girlfriends weren’t her thing.
Unlike other celebrity nightclub owners who were content to show up once every few months, Graham was at his new nightclub club every night. She knew this, not only from the Internet publicity, but because she’d been following him for nearly a week.
Graham was doing the rounds—slapping men on the back and flirting with the women who were stacked up around him like jets on the runways at O’Hare. She didn’t like judging other members of her sex, but that was part of her job now, and none of these girls looked as though they were future CEOs—too much hair swinging, eye-batting, and boob-thrusting. Watching them made her grateful that she had zero desire to get laid by a hot ex-football star. Zero desired to get laid by anyone right now. All she cared about was her job.
The crowd surrounding him was growing. She looked around for a bouncer but the only ones she spotted were busy holding deep conversations with the female guests. So far, no client had hired her as a bodyguard, but she’d taken a lengthy training course, and his lack of security was irresponsible, although it might let her get closer to him.
Graham seemed at ease despite the crush, but she noticed him occasionally scanning the crowd as if he were looking for a pass receiver. His gaze flicked in her direction, then moved on.
At the crowd around him approached a dangerous level, he somehow managed to work himself free and head up the stairs toward the mezzanine and the VIP lounge. Now that she was inside the club, her inability to follow him there was maddening.
She made her way to the ladies room where she heard nothing more interesting than gossip about the legendary size of his manhood and who’d made it as far as the fur-covered bed he reportedly kept in his office. Someone touched her shoulder as she came out. Torpedo Head.
Like the other bouncers, he wore dark pants and a white dress shirt that must have been specially tailored to fit the thick neck that marked both him and his fellow goons as former football players. “You have to come with me.”
Other than offering Miller Lite Boy some much-needed advice on improving his pick-up game, she hadn’t done anything to draw attention to herself, and she didn’t like this. Rearing back on her unwieldy stilettos, she brought out her fake accent, “Oh, gawd. Why?”
“I already showed it at the bloody door. And I very much appreciate the compliment, but I’m thirty-three years old.”
This was no spot check. Something was up. She was about to refuse more forcefully when he jerked his big head toward the steps that led to the mezzanine, inadvertently giving her the chance she’d been waiting for to get closer to the VIP lounge. She gave him a blazing smile. “Right, then. Let’s move along and settle this.”
At the top of the mezzanine steps, a pair of bronzed pillars marked the entrance to VIP, but as they got close, he grabbed her arm and herded her around a corner and through a plain door off to the left.
It was an unimpressive office where folding wooden shutters covered the lower half of a pair of windows, and a wall-mounted television silently broadcast ESPN. An iMac sat on a streamlined desk across from a two-cushion couch. Above it was a framed Chicago Stars jersey with the name Graham on the back. The Stars aqua and gold team colors had always looked girly to her in comparison to her beloved Chicago Bears’ no-nonsense navy blue and orange.
“Wait here.” The goon stepped out and closed the door behind him.
VIP was only a few steps away. She counted to twenty and reached for the doorknob.
The door swung open in her face. She tripped backward, focusing so hard on keeping her balance that the door shut again before she realized who’d walked in. Cooper Graham himself.
Crap. One thing was certain. If Graham wanted to see her, this wasn’t about a simple ID check.
She’d always been envious of people who could take over a room simply by appearing, and he was one of them. His oatmeal sweater made his already formidable shoulders look even wider, and his jeans emphasized the length and strength of his legs. His thick brown hair was a little disheveled. Not fashionably rumpled—more the dishevelment of a man who couldn’t be bothered with bi-monthly haircuts or a shelf full of grooming products. The good ol’ boy grin he turned on his customers was nowhere in sight. This was his face at the line of scrimmage.
She had to focus. She mentally ticked off the possible reasons she’d been detained and decided she wasn’t crazy about any of them. But she told herself she wasn’t the only one in the room who knew how to fake a play. Unlike him, she had everything at stake, and even though every tendon in her body screamed with tension, she tried to look like a woman experiencing the thrill of a lifetime. “Brilliant! I say, I’m quite gob smacked.”
His eyes, a shade darker than his burnt-toast hair, swept over her, taking in her long wig, pushed-up breasts, and okay legs. She wasn’t a beauty, but she wasn’t a dog, either, and if she had a shred of vanity, she would have been demoralized by his obvious disdain. But she didn’t, and she wasn’t.
She dug her toe-numbing stilettos into the carpet as he came farther into the office. Stay calm. Keep your focus. Without warning, he snatched her purse away, and she gave a little hiss of dismay. “Bugger!” she cried, a few beats too late.
She stared at his oversized hands—ten inches from thumb to little finger. She knew this because she did her homework. Just as she knew those big hands had thrown more than three hundred touchdown. The same hands digging in her purse and pulling out her fake green card.
A good investigator had to improvise, and the more detail she could give, the more convincing she’d be. “I go by Esme. Lady Esme, actually. Esmerelda is a family name.”
“Is that so.” His voice rolled from his lips like deep water over a parched Oklahoma prairie.
She nodded. “Passed down through the generations to honor the second wife of the fifth Earl of Conundrum. Died in childbirth, the poor cow.”
“My condolences.” He looked inside again. “No credit cards?
“They’re so vulgar, don’t you think?”
“Money’s never vulgar,” the cowboy drawled.
“How very American of you.”
He began rummaging in her purse again, something that didn’t take long since she’d left her wallet safely stashed in her car—a wallet that held her fresh new private investigator’s license as well as half a dozen business cards.
Truth brings peace.
The original business cards had read, “Truth brings piece.” Her grandfather had been a brilliant investigator, but a lousy speller.
Graham smelled like money and fame, not that she could exactly describe what either one smelled like, but she knew it when she sniffed it, the same way she knew that the future of her business depended on what happened next. She sucked in some air. “I don’t really mind you mucking about in there like that, but I am curious what you’re looking for.”
He shoved the purse back at her. “Something that’ll explain why you’ve been following me.”
She’d been so careful! Her mind raced. How had she given herself away? What rookie mistake had she made that had sunk her? All her hard work was for nothing—sleeping in her car, living on junk food, peeing into the Tinkle Belle, and—worse of all—spending her life savings buying Dove Investigations from her detestable stepmother. Dove Investigations—the detective agency her grandfather had founded, her father had built, and the one that should have been hers from birth if her father hadn’t been so bullheaded. Every sacrifice she’d made would be useless. She’d be forced back to life in a cubicle, right along with having to live with the knowledge that a jock like Cooper Graham had gotten the best of her.
Acid churned in the pit of her stomach. She arranged her forehead in a confused frown. “Following you?”
He stood silhouetted against the framed Chicago Stars Jersey displayed on the wall behind him. “I see you parked outside my condo, following me to my gym, to here. And I want to know why.”
She’d thought she was being so inventive with all her disguises. How had he managed to see through them? Denial would be futile. She sank onto the couch and tried to think.
He waited. Arms folded. Standing on the sidelines watching the enemy’s offense screw up.
“Well…” She swallowed. Looked up at him. “The fact is…” She released her breath in a whoosh. “I’m your stalker.”
A rush of adrenaline spread through her. She wouldn’t go down without a fight, and she shot up from the couch. “Not a dangerous one. Lord, no. Merely obsessed.”
“With me.” A statement, not a question. He’d been here before.
“I don’t make a habit of stalking people. This…quite got away from me, you see.” She didn’t know exactly how this tactic could possibly save her, but she plunged on. “I’m not full-out barmy, you understand. Just...mildly unhinged.”
He cocked his head, but at least he was listening. And why not? Lunatics were always fascinating.
“I assure you, I’m only a bit of a nutter,” she said breathlessly. “Absolutely harmless. You don’t have to worry about violence.”
“Only that I have a stalker.”
“Not the first one, I dare say. A man like you…” She paused and tried not to choke. “A god.”
The hard look in his eyes indicated he wasn’t easily swayed by flattery. “I don’t want to see you anywhere near me again. Got it?”
She got it. It was over. Fini. But still, she couldn’t give up. “I’m afraid that will be impossible.” She paused. “Until my new medication kicks in.”
The cleft in his chin deepened as he set his jaw. “What you’re doing is illegal.”
“And mortifying. You can’t imagine how humiliating it is to be in this position. Nothing is more painful than...unrequited love.” The last two words came out as a croak she hoped he’d attribute to adoration because everything about him got her hackles up. His size, his good looks, but most of all, the arrogance that came from a lifetime of people kissing his taut butt just because he’d been born with natural talent.
He didn’t show even a flicker of sympathy. “If I catch sight of you again, I’m calling the cops.”
“I—I understand.” She was done. This had been a futile tactic from the beginning. Unless… She nodded at him with manufactured sympathy. “I understand how terrifying this must be to you.”
He leaned back ever-so-slightly on the heels of his cowboy boots. “I wouldn’t say that.”
“Rubbish.” Maybe she’d found the chink in his macho armor. “You’re terrified I might suddenly pop out at you when you’re walking down the street. That I’ll be armed with one of those odious handguns you insane Americans insist on carrying around like chewing gum.” And like the Glock in her car trunk. “I’d never do that. Good gracious, no! But you don’t know that for certain, and how would you defend yourself?”
“I think I could handle you,” he said dryly.
She managed to look puzzled. “If that’s true, why would you be concerned about a harmless twit like myself following you around for a bit?”
He no longer seemed quite so laid back. “Because I don’t like it.”
She tried to appear both sympathetic and adoring. “So terrifying for you.”
“Stop saying that!”
“I understand. It’s a dreadful dilemma.”
His eyes flashed lethal golden sparks. “It’s not a dilemma at all. Stay the hell away from me.”
She plunged on. “Yes, well, as I believe I mentioned, it’s not that easy—not until my medication takes effect. The doctor has assured me it won’t be much longer. But until then, I’m quite helpless. Perhaps a compromise?”
“A week at the most. In the meantime, if you spot me, you’ll simply pretend I’m not around.” She brushed her hands together. “There. That’s done.”
No surprise. He wasn’t buying it. “I meant what I said about the cops.”
She twisted her hands, hoping the gesture didn’t look as theatrical as it felt. “I’ve heard terrible things about Chicago jails…”
“You should have thought about that before you started your stalking gig.”
It could be the stress of so many sleepless nights, or even a spike in her blood sugar from all the junk food. More likely it was the threat of losing everything she’d worked for she dipped her head, slipped off her glasses, and dabbed at her dry cheeks with her knuckles, as if she’d started to cry, something she’d never do in a thousand years. “I don’t want to go to jail,” she said on a sniff. “I’ve never even gotten a traffic ticket.” Now that was a lie, but she was an excellent driver, and the speed limits on the city’s expressways were moronically slow. “What do you think will happen to me there?”
“I don’t know, and I don’t care.”
Despite his words, she detected a hesitation, and she dove for it. “Yes, well, you might as well call them now because no matter how hard I try, I know I won’t be able to help myself.”
“Don’t say that.”
Did he sound the slightest bit rattled? She managed another sniff and dabbed at her eyes with her index finger. “I wouldn’t wish the pain of this kind of love on anyone.”
“It’s not love,” he said with disgust. “It’s craziness.”
“I know. It’s absurd.” She swiped her perfectly dry nostrils with the back of her hand. “How can you possibly love someone whom you only met today?”
Until he threw her out, she wasn’t giving up. “Couldn’t you reconsider? Only for one week until the new pills restore my sanity?”
“Of course you couldn’t. And I do want the best for you. I can’t tolerate the idea of you cowering in fear, afraid to leave your condo because you’re terrified you’ll see me.”
“I’m not going to be terrified—”
“I’m sure I’ll be able to survive jail. How long to you think they’ll keep me? Is there the slightest chance you would— Never mind. It’s too much to ask you to visit me while I’m behind bars.”
“You’re completely nuts.”
“Oh, yes. But harmless. And remember it’s only temporary.” She’d gotten this far. She might as well go for broke. “If you were physically attracted to me… You’re not, are you?”
His outrage was reassuring. “Then I won’t offer to…sexually satisfy you.” Gleckkk! She was going to wash her mouth out with soap when this was over.
“Get some help,” he snarled.
He went to the door and called in his goon. A few minutes later, she was on the street.
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“This thoroughly enjoyable novel delivers a swift kick to the heart―an essential summer read” -- Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
“...Phillips’ literary star shines bright in her latest dazzling (and long-awaited) installment...Writing with a deceptively easy sense of grace, equally enhanced by her distinctively dry sense of wit, Phillips fashions an irresistibly sexy love story that is guaranteed to hit every romance reader’s sweet spot.” -- Booklist (starred review)
Laugh-out-loud funny, insightful, and touching, this latest gem from one of the genre’s best is a must-buy for all library collections. -- Library Journal (starred review)
“First Star I See Tonight is Susan Elizabeth Phillips at her very best, and there’s no one better at writing romantic fiction. Susan is the absolute queen of contemporary romance.” -- Kristin Hannah, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Nightingale
“First Star I See Tonight is Susan Elizabeth Phillips at her best--funny, charming and un-put-downable. Oh, and I call dibs on Cooper!” -- #1 New York Times bestselling author Susan Mallery
“FIRST STAR I SEE TONIGHT by Susan Elizabeth Phillips is so hot that when I read it I had to take a cold shower. Whew! I loved it!” -- Dorothea Benton Frank, New York Times bestselling author of All Summer Long
“In FIRST STAR I SEE TONIGHT, Susan Elizabeth Phillips writes about the kind of strong, self-assured women I love! I found myself cheering for this heroine with her unwavering ethics from the first page to the last!” -- Julie Garwood, author of The Bride
“I always laugh my head off when I read Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ novels. She never fails to leave a smile on my face.” -- Catherine Coulter, author of Insidious
“Fall into the addictive voice of Susan Elizabeth Phillips -- compulsively readable and deeply satisfying! Re-entering the world of the Chicago Stars is like a beloved friend come to call.” -- Robyn Carr, author of Virgin River
“First Star I See Tonight is a perfect example of why Susan Elizabeth Phillips is so popular. The characterization is spot on...The ending made me smile even though I was going into mourning because―you know―it ended.” -- Linda Howard New York Times bestselling author
“I love Susan Elizabeth Phillips’ books. Her writing is infused with intense emotion, sharp characterization, subtle wit and a rare energy that is absolutely irresistible. When I open one of her books I know I’m in for an exhilarating ride. This is women’s fiction at its best.” -- Jayne Ann Krentz, New York Times bestselling author of River Road
#1 New York Times Bestseller, ebook edition
RT Book Reviews’ Choice Award 2016 — Best Contemporary Love & Laughter Romance
An Amazon Best Romance of 2016
Bookpage: One of the 10 Best Romances of 2016
Booklist: A Top 10 Romance of 2016
iBooks Australia: Romance of the Year
Kirkus Reviews: A Best Book 2016
Kobo: A Best of the Year in Romance