Darius Williams is going to be the death of me. Beneath the soft lighting in the VIP lounge at JFK airport, he looks like nearly seven feet of sin wrapped in a designer suit. Tattoos peek out from the bottom of his sleeves, black ink whorling over the light brown skin of his wrists.
He tilts his head down to look at his watch, the diamond studs in his ears sparkling, another hint of a tattoo visible now at his collar. My gaze drifts down over his wide shoulders and tapered waist, then back up again to his unbelievably beautiful face. Clear skin, chiseled cheek bones, full lips, almond-shaped dark eyes, close cropped hair cut into a tight fade.
It makes me feel marginally better that I’m not the only one staring. Even in this room filled with millionaires and minor celebrities. Across from me, an older Latino gentleman in a merino wool sweater that probably cost more than my entire outfit nudges the pink Chanel clad arm of his wife. She looks over at him and he does that not-so-subtle head nod in Darius’s direction that is the universal sign for would you please look the fuck over there so we can silently freak out about this together?
The woman glances at Darius, quickly, and then back to her husband, her perfectly plucked brows creasing a little as she raises her shoulders half an inch and gives a subtle shake of her head that says, I have no idea who that is. Why are we freaking out?
The man harrumphs and then leans in to whisper in her ear.
Her eyes flash wide in response and slide back over to the six-foot-eight star of the good New York professional basketball team.
The man in question turns to pace back to his seat, and the three of us and god knows how many others in this room look away before we’re all caught out staring.
I turn my attention to my tablet to resume my charade of checking emails, and nearly curse aloud when I’m met with a black screen. Ugh. I spent so much time looking at Darius that it went into standby. With a flick of my fingers, the tablet comes back to life.
Just in time.
The black tips of his Italian loafers stop right beside me, and he turns and folds his tall frame down into the cushy leather seat next to mine.
“Thank you again for doing this, Jen,” he drawls, his voice full of southern charm.
My heart gives a little flutter to hear him say my name. I squash the sensation viciously before it has a chance to swell.
“You’re welcome, Darius,” I tell him, keeping my eyes on my screen. It’s one thing to stare at him across the room. Another entirely to look at him up close and personal.
“I mean it. I know you have a life. You must have had to cancel plans. Reschedule meetings.”
I grin. In the two years I’ve been representing him, he’s always been considerate to a fault. It’s only a small part of why I admire him so much.
“My job is my life right now, so there weren’t any plans to cancel,” I tell him. “And currently, you’re my only client.”
Which, technically speaking, means he is my life right now.
He makes a soft, surprised sound, putting two and two together.
“That makes me feel like a diva,” he says.
“Don’t. You’re the easiest person to represent. Everyone else at the firm is jealous of me. You’re just my only client because you’re so important.”
He makes another soft sound, this one hinting at disbelief. How he’s remained so humble after so many years in the spotlight is beyond me. I’d probably be a raging ego-maniac if I was in his shoes.
My tablet chimes in my hands, the notification for an incoming email. It flashes across the top of my screen, and I click on the icon before it can disappear. My boss’s name is in the “From” line, and I know better than to let emails from him linger too long without a response.
The body of the message reads:
Thank you again for reacting so quickly to this request. I know I’ve said it before, but I am forever grateful for how above and beyond you go for Mr. Williams and this firm. I’ve taken the liberty of shifting the rest of your meetings to late next week. Try and get some R&R while you’re out there. If you don’t come back with a suntan, you’re doing it wrong. That’s an order, lieutenant!
I grin as I hit the reply button. Sam is an incredible boss. He’s blunt, firm, fair, and busts his ass to put in more work than the rest of us, the “lead by example” mentality the military taught him still ground into the forefront of his mind. I type out a quick reply, knowing he’ll appreciate the brevity and my choice of words.
Sir, yes, sir!
“Lieutenant?” Darius asks from beside me.
“Reading over my shoulder again?” I ask.
“Guilty,” he says. “Spying is the only way I learn anything about you.”
I lock the screen of my device and finally force myself to look up at him. His expression is open, curious, and totally unrepentant for being so nosy.
Fuck, he’s handsome. Every time I look at him, this fact hits me like a sucker punch. He has one of those faces that you never get used to. You try to gird yourself against it, convince yourself that it’s all in your head. That you have blinders on because of your crush – which is fully justified because it’s impossible not to respect and admire such a talented, driven man. And then you look at him and *oof*.
His skin, even from two feet away, looks airbrushed. I would do murder for his complexion. It’s like the man wasn’t born with pores. Those light brown eyes have flecks of gold and green in them, clustered around his pupils. Long, luxurious eyelashes frame them, so thick that an infamous celebrity blogger remains convinced he wears eyeliner, regardless of the fact that I’ve told her on multiple occasions that no, he doesn’t.
“I was in the Air Force,” I tell him.
“No shit?” he asks, brows raised.
“No shit,” I answer.
“My brother is in the Marines,” he says.
“I know,” I say.
He frowns a little.
“As your public relations representative, it’s my job to know these details,” I remind him.
“Right,” he says. “Sometimes I forget just how much you know about me.” He looks slightly uncomfortable with it. “I think you must know more than my own mother does.”
Unless he tells his mom who he’s sleeping with, I’d say that’s highly likely.
“Is that why you try and spy on me whenever we’re together?” I ask him. “To turn the tables?”
His full lips twitch up at one corner, dark eyes gleaming. “Maybe.”
“Or do you do it because of how much you idolize James Bond?”
The man is a fiend for any and all movies related to international espionage. I’ve had to watch about thirty of them myself just to understand all the quotes he lobs at me.
His smile widens a little. “Also maybe.”
I shake my head at him.
It’s kind of cute that he tries to play this prying game with me. And since I’ve never discouraged him, it’s turned into something of a running joke between us. One time he went through my laptop bag and found a mystery novel. For Christmas this year he gave me twenty of the latest new releases in the genre. I’m still working my way through them.
Two weeks ago, we’d been in a meeting with his manager and social media coordinator and he’d slipped my phone off the conference room table when he thought I hadn’t been looking. He locked me out of it trying to guess my passcode. The shit.
“I’m an open book. What do you want to know?” I say. “Or is me telling you not as much fun as rifling through my purse?”
His cheeks darken slightly at being caught out. “Ah…you know about that, huh?”
He’d left all the zippers undone. My lipstick tubes had ended up in the pocket usually reserved for tampons. For Christ sake, my daily planner had been left open. Total amateur move.
I grin at the memory. “It was kind of obvious since you were the only one I left alone with it in my office.”
“Right,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck with his hand. The outline of his bicep is clearly visible even through the layers of cloths covering it.
I think I hear a soft feminine sigh from nearby.
Same, girl. Same.
“Why’d you join the Air Force?” he asks.
“My dad was a career sergeant,” I tell him.
“Is that how he and your mom met in South Korea?” he asks.
I tip my head at him. “Touché. I guess your skills aren’t so amateur after all.”
“I may have overheard you speaking Korean to her on the phone once,” he confesses.
“How’d you know it was Korean?”
“I didn’t. I had to write a few of the words down and then try to Google them.”
I’m actually a little impressed now. “That must have taken a while.”
“Uh…yeah. It was during the off season. You know how I get.”
Stir crazy. Antsy. Bored out of his fricking mind until training camp starts back up. His personal assistant, Lindsey, who I’m filling in for this weekend, has told me many, many stories about what a minor pain in the ass he becomes.
“Yeah, I know how you get,” I say. I’ve experienced some of that for myself.
“Were you enlisted or commissioned?” he asks.
“A lieutenant is a commissioned officer,” I answer.
“Where’d you go to college?”
“UMass,” I tell him. “I knew I wanted to go to OTS, officer training school, rather than enlist. My dad urged me to. Better pay. Better quarters and general treatment, really. Plus, going to college first let me get all my wildness out before signing up.”
He cocks one eyebrow up and looks me over. “No offense, Jen, but I find it a little hard to believe you were ever wild.”
I know what he must think when he looks at me. I know what he sees. A tallish, trim woman of mixed race clad in a pencil skirt and a fitted blouse. The midnight black hair I inherited from my mother coiffed into a low chignon. Sparing, elegant makeup over my skin, my eye makeup making my naturally hooded eyes seem just a little bit larger and more open behind the frames of my glasses. I look polished and conservative and always in control of myself. I act the same way. Always. Well, at least around him.
Oh, you sweet summer child, I want to say. If you only knew how wild I still am on the inside…
“Total rebel without a cause,” I tell him in my calmest voice. “Lots of rule breaking. Many arrests.”
“Really?” he asks, the look on his face telling me he doesn’t buy it.
I shake my head at him in response.
He grins down at me, and I swear this time I hear three sighs go up around us, one from very close. I slide my gaze left and see the woman in the Chanel giving him a dreamy sort of expression.
Lady, get your shit together. Your husband is literally right besi– oh. He’s got the same look on his face. Can’t really blame them.
“What’s your degree in?” Darius asks.
“My major was communications, with a minor in political science. I ended up working predominantly in foreign affairs when I was in.”
“How’d you transition into PR?” he asks, leaning in a little like he actually cares about the answer. And he does. After working with him for this long, I know he does.
“My CO. Commanding officer,” I clarify. “He knew I was thinking about getting out. One of his old squadron mates was a partner in a PR firm based in New York and he thought I’d be a perfect fit to work with him, what with the military background and my level of experience. It helps that I check an EO box or three for them, too. Military vet, female, person of color. They hired me the day I was discharged.”
“Was his squadron mate Sam?” he asks.
“He’s a good dude.”
“He is. And an even better boss. I’m very lucky things worked out so well.”
He shoots me a look. “Uh-huh. From what your co-workers have said, luck has nothing to do with it. What was it? Ah, yes,” his voice rises a full octave in imitation of a more feminine register. “She’s a workaholic hardass who might be capable of successfully covering up a murder for a client if asked to.”
I can’t help but chuckle. “That sounds like something Monica would say.”
Another partner at the firm, Monica DuBois is widely considered to be our very own Olivia Pope. She can fix the unfixable, smooth over even the greatest of scandals. That she thinks I could successfully cover up a murder is high praise. The fact that she also thinks I would ever consider doing so worries me a little though.
“Of course it was Monica,” he tells me, rolling his eyes. “You know, she used to represent me early on in my career?”
He snorts. “Of course you did. I think she passed me off to Sam because I didn’t challenge her enough.”
“Probably,” I tell him. “Monica gets a little bored if she doesn’t have an affair to hide or a DUI to make disappear.”
“Not you though,” he tells me.
“No,” I say emphatically. “You keep me busy enough with all the attention you receive. Speaking of which,” I say, nodding slightly over his shoulder.
A red-headed girl in her mid-teens, who looks damn near six feet tall already, approaches with her phone and a pad of paper in her hand. I’ve been watching her gather her courage for the last five minutes in my periphery. As I turn to fully look at her, I see her pause to glance back toward her parents. They wave her on, both smiling.
She faces forward with a grim, I can do this, expression that will serve her well in life.
“How do you always see them coming?” Darius hiss-whispers at me.
I whisper back at him, “Because I’m a better spy than you are.”
He looks like he wants to say something smart-assed, but the girl reaches us with a final burst of speed brought on by nerves and his professionalism takes over.
“Hi. Are you Darius Williams?” she blurts. She’s got a twangy southern accent that makes me want to place her from eastern Texas.
“I am,” he tells her.
“Can I have your autograph please, sir?”
“Why, yes, ma’am you can,” Darius answers in his own drawl, rising smoothly to his full height.
She stares up at him in awe. “Holy shit, you’re big.”
“Amanda Lee!” her mother hisses.
She blushes and shoots her mom an embarrassed look. “Sorry, sir,” she mutters.
“It’s okay,” he says. “I’ve heard worse.”
She hands him her paper and pencil, and I set my tablet aside and stand too. With my heels giving my 5’8” frame a boost, we’re almost the same height. “Do you want me to take a picture for you?” I ask her.
“Oh, yes, please, ma’am,” she says, handing over her phone.
I pull up her camera and start taking photos. One of him signing, one of them shaking hands, and then several of them together, his arm around her shoulder and her grinning so hard it must hurt.
“Thank you!” she chirps when they’re done, practically skipping back to her parents.
Her father mouths an even bigger thank you so much! at Darius, who nods in response.
“Oh my God, Mom. It was really him!” the girl says as she retakes her seat. Then she shoves her phone in her mother’s face. “Look! Miranda and Cameron are going to freak out when I text this to them.”
I turn away, grinning at Darius as he retakes his seat. “You’re always so good with fans.”
“Fans are everything,” he answers.
I’ve heard this from him a thousand times. Unlike a few of the other athletes I’ve represented, he actually believes it. He’s never rude with people, or impatient. He always stays late after games to sign autographs and take pictures.
“Think she plays basketball?” I ask.
“She’s got the height for it,” he says, glancing over at the girl. “I wanted to ask her, but she seemed like she might be the type that might clam up and I didn’t want to make her feel uncomfortable at all.”
Briefly, I glance heavenward. God, why is he so nice? So considerate and compassionate? What did I do to deserve this sweet, sweet torture?
I manage to keep my smile cool and professional by sheer willpower. Not once, in our two years working together, have I let down my façade. And nor will I ever. The fact that I am borderline in love with the man will not impact my working relationship with him. I’ve come too far to let it. My unfortunate infatuation is not worth my career.
“Mr. Williams? Miss Pratchett? Your plane is about ready to take off if you’d like to make your way to the gate,” an airline representative tells us a few minutes later.
“Thank you,” Darius says, rising.
I echo him as I stand to gather my purse and carry on.
“Want me to get that?” he asks, eyeing my luggage.
“Thanks, but I can manage,” I tell him.
Carrying my bag might seem like a small, innocuous thing, but to me it’s not. If I start letting him carry things for me, who knows what could happen next. He might start opening car doors for me. Place his hand on the small of my back as we walk through a room together. Those small intimacies add up. And they open you up, too. In the military, I saw more than one affair begin with similar baby steps.
Security meets us at the door to the VIP lounge and guides us all the way to our gate. We move quickly, but with him towering over our escort, people still recognize him along the way. Some point. Some call out greetings. Still others shout for autographs.
“Sorry, man. Running late! Send me a Tweet and I’ll make it up to you!” he yells back each time, or some similar variation.
He hates that we can’t stop. I know he does. But if we paused, we’d be mobbed, especially here on home turf with so many local fans crowding the terminal. We’d end up missing our plane, and we’d be putting ourselves in danger. Crowds in small spaces are never a good thing. Plus, the airport has a pretty strict policy in place to prevent that from happening. If Darius broke protocol and created a scene, he’d have to pay them a hefty fine. So instead he promises people he’ll send them autographs if they reach out to him. And I know he’ll stick to his word.
“Go on,” I tell him when we reach the gate.
“Thanks, Jen,” he says, breezing past the flight attendants, who’ve been warned he’ll be on the plane.
The rest of the gateway is almost completely empty. We’re the very last to board the flight. Again, so that Darius’s presence causes the least amount of a stir.
“Here you go,” I say, handing the flight attendant our tickets.
She scans them quickly and hands them back to me.
I make my way into the tunnel to find Darius standing near the door to the plane, talking to the pilots. Of course they came out to meet him.
“Big, big fan,” I hear one of them saying.
“Hey, man,” Darius tells him. “I’m one of yours. I could never make sense of all those buttons and gears and knobs you work with. Ball. Basket. That’s my job in a nutshell. If I lose a game, people are sad for a little while. You? You actually have people’s lives in your hands every day. It’s impressive as hell.”
The men practically glow in response, falling over each other to tell him it’s nothing really in an “aw, shucks” kind of way that I’ve grown used to witnessing.
Darius does this to just about everyone he meets. I once saw him turn a Grammy award winning R&B star into a blushing, stuttering mess. He has this way of making everyone he meets feel like they’re somehow cooler than he is. Like they’re the real superstars. Like there’s no one else in the world quite like them. And he can do it in a minute flat.
It makes me feel a little better, knowing that I’m probably one of an innumerable number of people slightly in love with him.
I reach the men and offer to take still more pictures. Several minutes later, we’re all on the plane and the door is closing, much to the relief of literally every passenger who’s sat here waiting for us for God knows how long.
Hopefully not too long. If Darius hears they were waiting for longer than twenty minutes, he’ll feel like shit about it and probably try to compensate them all somehow. Really, we could be on a private jet right now, avoiding all this hassle and potential notice. The man can easily afford it. But of course he’s so woke that he would never do that. Because emissions and global warming and all that.
I agree with him there, even though I feel like breaking out in hives whenever I know he’s going to be in a crowd or in an enclosed space like this for any length of time. Because humans are humans and therefore unpredictable and untrustworthy in large numbers.
What can I say? He makes me a little over protective. I’ll own that.
Our plane is a Hawaiian Airlines A330 Airbus since we’re flying non-stop from JFK to Honolulu. The first-class section contains 18 seats separated into small two-person pods. Ours is the one on the left side of the aircraft, at the very front.
He slides into the window seat, which faces slightly away from the aisle and will give him more privacy and also more leg room when he reclines it. Our bags get stowed for takeoff by the flight attendant we’ve been assigned. We assure her we don’t need anything else before takeoff, and she recedes to her place near the cockpit.
I’m buckling in when I hear it.
I glance to my right and see a blondish dude-bro type in his mid-twenties wearing a polo shirt, his sunglasses propped on top of his head as he leans across the aisle toward me. He looks like one of those obnoxious, entitled brats that could spend the entire flight being a pain in the ass to Darius and therefore everyone else around us.
“Yes?” I ask him, smoothing my voice to hide my immediate annoyance.
IS THAT DARIUS WILLIAMS? he mouths at me, lips so wide it looks like he’s silently shouting at me.
HOLYFUCKINGSHIT, he scream-mouths, eyes wide, hand over his heart as he turns forward and leans slowly back in his seat. As I watch, he reaches out his free hand and blindly feels around with it until he finds the fingers of the dark-haired woman sitting next to him. He latches on to her like she’s his lifeline, and she starts shaking with quiet laughter and pats him on the shoulder in a soothing sort of way.
I grin, now feeling like a brat myself for judging him so quickly. I really need to learn not to judge a book by its cover. Both with people and with literature. The godawful stories I’ve been suckered into reading because of the gorgeous imagery they were wrapped in…
“Okay, that was hilarious,” Darius whispers to me.
I nod, not trusting myself to speak without laughing.
“Should I say hi to him?” he asks.
I glance over to see the man still staring straight ahead at the wall in front of him, his lips moving in a way that makes me think he might be mouthing DARIUSFUCKINGWILLIAMS over and over again.
“Maybe give him a few minutes,” I say.