I

Final Commitment coverGreg dropped the issue of Newsweek face up on her desk without saying a word. Riley looked up at him and after a moment, shrugged.

“I give up.”

“Do you know who he is?” Greg, glasses perched at the end of his nose, stabbed a finger at the face on the cover.

“Sure.”

“Why is he on the cover of Newsweek, Riley?”

Riley shook her head. “He’s pretty hot right now so I guess . . .”

“What does it say under his picture?”

Riley hesitated. What was this, a test? “It says, ‘Prophet or Pariah?’”

“Do you know what’s wrong with that?” Greg took off his wire-rimmed glasses and began cleaning the lens with a tissue.

“No. I’m sorry, I don’t.”

“We’re allowing mainstream publications to define African American cultural icons. That’s what’s wrong.”

“But first we’d have to accept that he actually is a cultural icon.”

“Well, that’s precisely my point. Newsweek says he is, so I suppose we’d do well to find out. In any event, he’s in town. He’s going to be at a W-KOOL party tonight. Here’s a pass to that party. Get an interview, do a story, have it for me by next Friday.”

He had already turned and was walking away when she stopped him.

“Actually Greg, if you remember I have that other thing I’m working on.”

He looked at her evenly.

“I mean, if you gave this story to Tyrone  . . .”

“Everyone else already passed. So I’m afraid you’re it.”

He dropped a pink card on Riley’s desk and walked out without another word. Tonight. Riley exhaled and looked at the magazine cover again. K Smooth. The rapper du jour. His moniker sounded like an ice cream flavor. The fact that Newsweek had taken notice of him before they had clearly unsettled her editor-in-chief. After all, they were Power to the People, the so-called ‘voice’ of the African-American community. If a rap star showed up on the cover of a mainstream publication, particularly a rap star they hadn’t recognized as significant, it might mean they were losing their edge. Not that they had ever considered anything related to hip-hop significant before. Greg was a product of the civil rights movement who favored the more passive forms of civil disobedience. He had never shown even the slightest interest in the rabblerousing rap community before now; regardless of whether they had a positive message.

K Smooth was the latest rapper on a mission – he seemed to be on magazine covers every other month and his videos ran on MTV just about every fifteen minutes so even though Riley wasn’t interested in rap any longer, she would have to be culturally oblivious not to know who he was. As far as she was concerned, the spark went out in her short-lived love affair with hip-hop around the time every other rapper started rhyming about Cristal and cars. And clearly her colleagues all felt the same way. She didn’t know whether to be flattered or insulted that she was Greg’s last choice for this assignment. Everyone else was busy trying to crank out something that would win the Pulitzer before they turned thirty, and she was stuck with some hip-hop puff piece. Awesome.

She opened the magazine to the story, scanning the pictures – K Smooth in his “Washington D.C. area” townhome and another, of him shirtless and sweating on stage, the lighting making the most of his washboard stomach and sepia complexion.

Then there was the same old sad tale – father wasn’t around to begin with, mother disappears into addiction, raised by grandmother, brief foray into a life of crime, blah, blah, blah. And the description of his music:  “K Smooth’s lyrics are a fiery mix of the consciousness-raising and the crass. One is left wondering which of these provides an accurate window into the soul of the artist.”

She looked up just in time to see Tyrone stick his head in the doorway of her office, a barely concealed smirk on his face.

“Should be fun,” he said. “Club Hypnotiq.”

Tyrone was the only writer on staff who had an affinity for urban culture pieces, so it stood to reason that this assignment would have caused him at least a glimmer of interest but even he had passed on it.

“Sounds more like your thing than mine,” Riley said, trying to appear untroubled.

“Yeah, but who wants waste time telling a story that’s already been told?” Tyrone shrugged. “And told by Newsweek, no less. So good luck with that.”

Before she could think of a clever retort, he was gone. That confirmed it – this was a crap assignment. Every once in awhile Greg would get a notion – from something he saw on television or read someplace else – that they were falling behind. And with subscriptions down for even the biggest names in the business, he was often skittish about Power to the People’s prospects in an increasingly electronic age. Many a staff writer had gone down a rabbit warren at Greg’s behest, searching for a story that just wasn’t there. This felt like one of those times.

Riley flipped over to the magazine cover and looked at the rapper’s picture again. Not bad. Hair shaved close to the scalp, square jaw and full, sensual lips. Dark, deep-set eyes and unbelievable eyelashes. He was staring into the camera with the same defiant scowl that all these guys seemed to have mastered.

And according to . . . what was the reporter’s name? According to Rhonda Beckford, his anger seemed “directed” and “coherent.” Yeah. Sure, it was. Riley slid the magazine aside and thought little about it for the rest of the day.

Club Hypnotiq was a popular nightspot in Midtown that frequently showed up in the papers as the site of some moderately unsavory incident. Never quite terrible enough to have the place shut down, but just enough so that most sensible adults steered well clear of it if they were looking for a drama-free night out. The garish pink neon sign hanging outside was reminiscent of Hollywood’s rendition of a strip club which was pretty appropriate if you considered the attire of the clientele.

When Riley arrived to take a place in line, there were already about a hundred people waiting. Most of them were young women who, despite the cold, dressed in short shorts or mini-skirts, tiny tube tops and shoes that were so high as to be ridiculous.

When had this become the standard? There were far fewer guys, and like the women – girls, really – they seemed incredibly young.  If Riley had to guess, she would say that about a third of the partygoers would flash fake ids to get in.

Pulling out her phone, she sent a quick text message to her best friend, telling her where she was.  Tracy would be just leaving the office right about now. She seldom ended her work day before seven and Riley could almost always tempt her with an offer of a good bottle of red wine in a mellow atmosphere. The mellow atmosphere was clearly not in the cards, but she was more than happy to pony up the wine.

Tonight she could use the company and it didn’t hurt that Tracy was something of a man-magnet. Even in her business attire, she was almost certain to draw the attention of the rapper since she looked kind of like a video vixen, complete with the auburn hair and hazel eyes.

It only took a few moments for Tracy to reply. You’re WHERE?

Riley tapped out her response.

Hell to the no. You’re on your own, Tracy responded.

After almost an hour, Riley was still standing behind about ten people, waiting to be admitted to the sanctum sanctorum of the nightclub fidgeting with her pink pass, cursing under her breath and seriously considering ditching the whole enterprise. She had just worked out in her head what she would say in an effusive email apology to Greg when one of the bouncers crooked a finger in her direction calling her up to the front. He took the pass from her fingers and looked it over.

“This is a VIP pass.”

“It is?” Riley took it back and looked at it.

“Yeah. It means you don’t have to wait in line. You get to bypass all this and go to the VIP lounge. Let me get someone to take you.” He beckoned another guy over and handed him the pink pass, putting a hand on Riley’s back. “Unlimited access.”

Riley smiled at her usher. Unlimited access. That was precisely what she needed.

As they entered, the onslaught of music was deafening and the throng on the dance floor was moving and writhing, bumping and grinding to the music. Trying to do an interview under these circumstances was going to be impossible, of course, but it also gave her a convenient out.  She would circulate for a little bit, just long enough so that she could tell Greg she made a bona fide effort, and then she would meet Tracy at a place where grown-ups could hang out. But as the usher led her down a long hallway and toward the back of the club, the music subsided into the distance and suddenly an entirely new scene opened up in front of them.

The lounge was crescent-shaped and painted a deep cranberry, the walls lined with plush, overstuffed benches curved to fit the shape of the room. At one end, thankfully there was a bar. There were only about fifty people; some standing by the art deco style bar drinking or watching one of several oversized televisions mounted on the walls playing K Smooth videos.

Riley could no longer hear the music from the main club at all.  It reminded her of the backroom in mob movies where the head of a crime family might hang out with his henchmen.

She smiled at the thought. Maybe she could write that in her article, because these days, frankly, the similarity between some rappers and crime bosses was a little too close to reality to be scoffed at. According to Newsweek though, K Smooth was not that kind of rapper – he had a “message”. Rappers with a message were, as far as Riley was concerned, just another marketing ploy. When you looked just a little deeper, the same crap came tumbling out of their closets – guns, the girlfriend who claimed to have been beaten up, the tax debt and assorted BS that ultimately proved their emotional development had come to an abrupt halt somewhere around the age of sixteen.

As Riley looked around, it was immediately and ridiculously apparent where K Smooth was even though she couldn’t exactly see him. Of all the groups of people in the room, one seemed to have attracted the lion’s share of women. Penetrating that crowd would be like breaking into Fort Knox. It didn’t take a genius to figure out that he was sitting or standing somewhere in the center of the phalanx of beautiful, eager women who looked as though someone had served them up like so many pretty canapés.

This was where Tracy would have come in handy. Having a spectacularly beautiful best friend was not without its drawbacks, but tonight, Riley was not above using her to bag an interview with a rap star. Since that plan was out, she instead made her way over to the bar and ordered a glass of wine.

Riley turned her attention to one of the television screens.  In the video playing, K Smooth was wearing an immense pair of black jeans and as usual, no shirt. He swayed rhythmically to the bass beat and gestured dramatically with his hands as he rhymed. His face was angry and passionate, every word he was saying utterly convincing and surprisingly powerful.

Riley pulled out the notebook she’d brought along and began scribbling her impressions. There was no story at this point but maybe if she just wrote everything down something would come to her later as she slept, when most great story ideas were born.  She bit into the tip of her pen and took a sip of wine.

“Are you press?”

She looked up and into the eyes of a guy well over six and tall. He had refined, chiseled features like those of a model, and a haircut and goatee so flawless, they almost appeared painted on.

“Yup.”

“Who are you with?”

Power to the People.”

“For real?”

“Uh huh.” Riley turned back to her notes and tried to ignore him.

“You writing about Smooth?”

“Yes I am.” She opened her backpack again and found her Amex card, sliding it to the bartender who promptly pushed it back.

“Drinks are on the house,” he explained.

“I’ll have another white wine.” Riley looked up, and her uninvited guest was still there.

“So are you writing about the concert or about Smooth personally?”

Riley looked up at him. “What concert?”

“Last night,” he said. “At the Garden.”

“Oh. I wasn’t at the Garden. I’m just doing a story about him.”

“Without talking to him?”

“How do you know I haven’t?”

He held out a hand and smiled winningly. “I’m Brendan Cole.  Smooth’s manager.”

Riley blinked. In another two minutes, she would have told him to get the hell out of her face.

“Oh. Hi. I’m Riley Terry.” She shook his hand briefly.

“Nice to meet you, Riley Terry.”

Brendan Cole nodded in the direction of the crowd of women. “So you want to meet Smooth, or what?”

“If he has time to talk to me that would be great.”

“Maybe I can work something out. He has a radio interview in about a half hour and then he’s free for the rest of the night. Let me ask him if he’s into it. We’re all about Power to the People,” he winked at her.

Riley watched as Brendan Cole walked over to the group of women and they parted like the Red Sea. She could only just make out the top of the head of the person he was talking to but could clearly see a white shirt, jeans and heavy soled boots, mustard-colored like the kind construction workers wore. She sipped her wine and waited, glancing at her watch. It could not have been this easy. She’d only been inside for about thirty minutes, and already she’d hit pay-dirt. Of course, she was probably conspicuous as the only woman in the room not looking to drape herself across the man of the moment.

Riley pulled out her cell and tapped out a message to Tracy. A little gloating was in order. If her luck held, she would be out of here in no time. When she looked up, a self-satisfied smile still on her face, Brendan Cole had stepped aside and was looking right at her, but now there was another pair of eyes focused on her as well.

While at the magazine, Riley had quickly learned that people constantly in the public eye were often disappointing when you met them in person. When no longer in the glare of the camera, they could seem so small, so ordinary. But this guy was by no stretch of the imagination small, nor was he ordinary.

Staring directly at her, his gaze did not falter even when she looked right back. When their eyes met he tilted his head slightly as though surveying a painting in a museum and trying to decide whether he liked it. K Smooth’s photos didn’t do him justice. Not even by the barest approximation of a long-shot. Riley looked away, focusing instead on Brendan who was beckoning her over. She set her glass of wine on the bar and walked toward them.

“This is Riley Terry,” Brendan said. “Riley, this is K Smooth.”

He held out a hand to her and she took it briefly. His fingers were long and tapered, almost graceful, but his grip was firm.

“Call me Shawn,” he said. His voice was deep and somewhat raspy.

She already knew from the Newsweek article that his real name was Kendall Shawn Gardner. And that he hated the name Kendall so people who knew him personally called him Shawn. The moniker K Smooth was something his friends made up when he was a teenager because he’d lied so convincingly to the multiple girls he was always dating at one time.

“We have to leave for that interview in a few minutes,” Brendan said.  “You can ride with us to the hotel and do your thing there when he’s done.”

“I thought it was a radio interview,” Riley said, her eyes narrowing. Riding “to the hotel” did not sound like the best idea she’d heard all evening.

“The radio station is in California.” Brendan seemed to sense her reluctance. “So the interview’s by phone.”

“What’re you drinking?” Shawn asked her, setting his empty beer bottle on a nearby table. He seemed either not to have noticed – or cared about – the exchange between her and Brendan.

“Chardonnay.”

He raised a hand and called over a waiter, ordering himself another beer and a glass of white wine.

The waiter brought their drinks and Riley sipped her wine self-consciously. It was her third glass – time to stop if she wanted to be on her toes for the interview. Brendan had left them alone and all of a sudden, though she had the perfect opportunity to begin cultivating rapport with her target, she couldn’t think of single thing to say.

They were standing almost in the center of the room and most of the women who’d been hanging around earlier were scrutinizing her, some of them whispering among themselves, probably dying to know what she had done to merit K Smooth’s singular attention.

“Where’d you get a name like Riley?”

“My mother loves the blues,” she explained.  “B.B. King’s real name is Riley B. King.”

“Didn’t know that,” he said.

Riley shrugged.  “Little-known fact.”

“So what made you guys want to interview me?”

“I guess it was the Newsweek article,” she admitted. “My editor saw it and hit the roof because they spotted the story before we did.”

“And they’re a . . . white magazine,” he finished for her.

“I don’t know that I’d characterize them that way, but yeah, I guess we see you as one of ours.”

K Smooth smiled. “One of yours, huh?  I like that.”

“And it isn’t as though we weren’t interested in interviewing you at some point,” she lied.

“D’you how many requests for interviews I got since that cover? Seventeen. Most from people that were never interested in me before.”

“That’s how news works sometimes,” she said taking a sip of her wine. “We wind up covering each other instead of covering the story.”

“I said ‘no’ to most of them.”

“Then how’d I get so lucky?”

“My manager reads your magazine,” he said. “And I like your nose-ring.”

Riley smiled and stood motionless as he reached out and gently touched her diamond-chip piercing.

“C’mon, man,” Brendan Cole was back. “It’s go time.”

Two enormous security guards wearing black muscle tees had joined them and Riley realized that they’d come to usher K Smooth into the main club.  He turned to look at her.

“I’ll be right back. You’ll wait?”

He smiled at her again and Riley nodded, feeling for a split second, the full force of whatever it was that made women act like idiots around him. As he left the VIP lounge, flanked by security and Brendan in the rear, the energy in the room changed. The women who before were on high alert, hoping that he might notice them, seemed to deflate.

The images on the televisions flickered for a moment and then they were all watching as K Smooth made a triumphant entrance into the main club. The room erupted as he made his way to a small stage near the dance floor and picked up a mike with one hand, gesturing with the other for the crowd to simmer down.

“How many of y’all made it to the Garden last night?” he asked.

The crowd began screaming again.

I’ll be right back, he’d said.  Just have to go perform in front of two hundred people – no biggie.

“For those of you who didn’t make it out, this joint is all you right here.”

Then the music started and he rhymed, swaying to the music, his eyes closed and movements subtle. His audience was shouting the words out along with him so his voice was almost obscured in the din.  Riley grappled with her bag, reaching for her pen and notepad again.  She tried to focus her attention on what she wanted to say but it was difficult not to watch him.

And before she could collect her thoughts, he was done. His entire performance had lasted perhaps ten minutes long, and yet no one seemed disappointed.

He tossed the mike into the crowd and during the ensuing mêlée, turned and left the stage, leaving security to the task of ensuring a riot didn’t break out. Riley turned and looked around. The lounge was almost empty now. Everyone else seemed to have departed for the main club. Just as she decided that K Smooth had probably given her the slip, Brendan Cole stuck his head in the doorway.

“You coming or not Riley Terry?”

 ∞

He had a slow, deliberate walk, like someone who refused to be rushed, no matter what. K Smooth was coming toward her from the elevators, but Brendan was no longer with him. Riley had opted to wait in the lobby bar while he did his telephone interview from his suite, and had spent the time writing as much descriptive material as she could – about the club, her impressions of his manager, and most of all, about her first reaction to the man himself.

Of course she’d left out the part where he made her stomach tighten and her palms get sweaty. Details about her overactive libido were not suitable for public consumption and even less likely to be of interest to her persnickety boss.

“Want to go get something to eat?” he asked her.

“Sure,” Riley said. “How’d the interview go?”

“Same ol’, same ol’.”

“Where’s Brendan?”

“Why? Do you want him to come with us?” he asked, looking amused.

“Just curious.”

“He’s upstairs calling his girl or something,” Shawn shrugged.  “How’s Jamaican food sound to you?”

He ushered her out front and they stood by the curb waiting as the valet hailed them a cab. For some reason, she’d expected a private car. If MTV was to be believed, rappers only traveled in black SUVs. Or flashy white ones with shiny rims or spinners. She smiled to herself at the stereotypes that popped into her head.

“So are you headed to California after this? That’s where you live, right?”

No point betraying that she knew perfectly well where he lived, and had thoroughly Googled him just before leaving the office. She even knew what his favorite restaurants were, that his preferred athletic shoes were Pumas, and that he never, ever wore Nikes.

Shawn laughed. “I live in hotels. Or in Maryland, if you mean where my legal residence is. After this I’m headed to Baltimore for a show. I’ll hook you up with a couple passes if you’re interested.”

“That’s really generous of you, but I probably wouldn’t be able to make it to Baltimore.”

A taxicab pulled up and they got in. He gave the driver the name of a popular downtown Jamaican restaurant.

“So you’re not even curious about seeing me onstage,” he said.

“I did see you onstage,” she pointed out. “Tonight at the club.”

“Nah, that was just . . . an appetizer. So let me send you some passes.”

Riley shrugged. “Okay. Send me the passes.”

“Don’t just humor me.” He leaned in closer. “If I send them, you have to come.”

“I’m not humoring you. If you send them, I’ll be there.”

Shawn narrowed his eyes “I don’t believe you,” he said.

Riley laughed but didn’t deny it. Of course she wouldn’t be there. If she understood Greg – and she was pretty sure she did – this was not meant to be some long, probing exposé.  All she had to do was write up something that proved they weren’t completely out of touch and call it a day. And besides, she was fairly certain he’d extended similar invitations to no fewer than five other women tonight alone.

Maybe he was much, much better looking than she expected, and more articulate than most in his industry, and traveled unpretentiously by taxi cab but she couldn’t let any of that cloud her judgment. The scene at the nightclub made it clear that the fundamentals were the same. Parties, women. The usual crap.

Pepper Island was crowded for a Thursday, and Riley forgot until they were inside that her dinner companion was likely to draw the attention of everyone in the room. Even by the standards of a bunch of jaded New Yorkers, he was a big deal. Just about every head seemed to turn in their direction simultaneously and one woman dropped her fork so that it clattered loudly against her plate. The manager ushered them to a table that was obviously meant to put K Smooth on display, and suggested that the chef make them something that wasn’t on the menu. He accepted, looking at Riley for confirmation before he ordered Red Stripe beer for them both.

Through the crab-stuffed jerk chicken wings she asked him about when he’d first started writing lyrics, and how he got into what he called “the rap game.” And during the escovitched gray snapper entrée they talked about his adjustment from a private to a public life.

He was describing how he’d landed his first recording contract when he stopped midsentence and Riley looked up expectantly. She’d been scribbling in her notebook as he spoke, her fingers not moving quickly enough to keep up with his words and her own racing thoughts. He was staring at her, his expression inscrutable.

“Look up once in awhile,” he said.

Riley studied his face for a moment until she was satisfied that he was teasing her.

“Better yet . . .” He reached over and slid her notebook away, shutting it and putting it aside.

“I have a good memory, but not that good,” she protested.  “How am I ever going to remember everything you say?”

“I’ve talked enough. Your turn.”

“I’m not being interviewed,” she pointed out.

“Neither am I. At least not anymore.”

Riley laughed.  “Do you want me to lose my job?”

“Tell me about it.”

“Excuse me?”

“Your job. Tell me about it. We talked about my job, now let’s talk about yours.”

Riley narrowed her eyes, trying to decide whether he was genuinely interested or just throwing her a line.

“That’s not generally how these things work,” she said.  “Interviews, I mean.”

“Yeah, but everyone prefers a little give-and-take. I ask one, you ask one.”

“Okay,” Riley capitulated. “Deal. What do you want to know about my job?”

“How’d you get into it?”

“I’ve always wanted to be a writer, always have been actually. My only challenge was figuring out how to get paid to do it. And once I did, I realized I couldn’t be happy doing anything else.”

“I understand,” Shawn said.

“Is that how you feel about your work?”

“Yes. It is,” he said simply. “If you could interview anyone in the world who would it be?”

“I would interview . . . Nelson Mandela.”

“Aw c’mon,” Shawn said. “That’s a safe answer. There has to be someone else.”

“You asked your question and that’s my answer. My turn. Besides your own, whose music do you most admire? And why?”

He grinned. “That’s two questions.”

“Don’t get technical,” she leaned forward. “Give me a name. And not another rapper, either.”

“Okay. I guess I would have to say Nina Simone.”

Riley smiled. “I love Nina Simone. Why do you like her?”

“Because when I hear her voice, I feel what she was feeling when she sang.”

There was a lull between them and he took the last swig of his beer, looking over her shoulder for their waiter and motioning for another one.

“Had you heard my music before tonight?” he asked after a moment.

“Of course. But mostly in passing.”

Riley stifled a smile at his expression. Clearly, he was irritated by that answer.

“So, not a fan of rap music or not a fan of mine?”

“Not a fan of rap music,” she admitted.

“So how come your magazine didn’t send someone else to interview me?”

Riley shrugged. “I think this interview was an . . . impulse.” She’d almost said “afterthought.”

“But not your impulse.”

Riley said nothing. The way he looked at her was unnerving. He didn’t seem to have that thing that most people had – where you look away when caught staring. He just kept right on staring, directly into her eyes. And no matter how she tried, she was always first to avert her gaze.

“So where’s your entourage?” she asked briskly.

“I travel light,” Shawn said.

“Interesting.”

“Why is that interesting?”

“I guess I thought every rapper came with a lot more baggage.”

“Some do.”

“Do you think that’s one of the reasons that Newsweek reporter wondered whether you were a pariah among hip-hop performers?” Riley asked. “Because you don’t have a crew with you everywhere you go?”

“You’d have to ask her,” he said. “I didn’t even know what the word ‘pariah’ meant till I looked it up.”

Then he smiled, so it was difficult to decide whether he was joking or not. Riley leaned back in her chair waiting to see what he might say next. Sometimes interview subjects revealed more when you didn’t ask questions than when you did. But for someone who made a living with spoken word, he seemed remarkably comfortable with silence.

He didn’t speak for almost a full minute.

“Political stuff,” he said suddenly. “That’s what I see you writing.”

She nodded. “Yes. A lot of the time that’s the kind of stuff I write. But more about racial politics than politics in the traditional sense. And gender politics,” she trailed off, not wanting to talk too much.

“Gender politics,” he repeated.

“Yeah, the balance of power between the sexes and. . .”

“I know what gender politics is,” Shawn said lightly.

“Of course,” she blushed.

“So gender politics interests you. But rap doesn’t.”

Riley tried not to look surprised. “I see what you mean. But I guess I just haven’t looked at rap through that lens.”

“Interesting,” he said playfully mimicking the tone she’d used to remark on his lack of an entourage. “Maybe you should.”

She fought the urge to defend herself. It wasn’t as though he’d read anything of hers, and she could hardly be surprised that a rapper thought rap was the most interesting place to look if you wanted to capture the zeitgeist.

“Poetry?” he asked suddenly.

“What about it?”

“Do you write it?”

“Not very well.”

“But you do.”

“Sometimes,” her shoulders hunched reflexively, protectively. And then she realized where he was going. “And yet I don’t listen to rap.”

“Exactly.”

“I understand you wanting to defend what you do,” Riley said, sounding more argumentative than she intended. “But I guess I don’t think most rap today says anything. And most of it certainly isn’t poetic.”

Shawn nodded, not in agreement, but as though she’d confirmed a suspicion he had.

“I’ll send you some stuff,” he offered.

“Sure.”

“But you’re right; a lot of rap isn’t poetic, but it isn’t supposed to be. Some of us aren’t poets; we’re the town criers, putting out the word on what’s going on in the streets.” He emptied his glass of the last of his beer. “Don’t be so skeptical, Riley. You might be surprised.”

“Which are you?” she asked.

“Which . . ?”

“Are you a poet or a town crier?”

“You’ll just have to listen to my music and find out.”

“I have listened to your music.”

“No,” he corrected her. “You said you’d heard it. That’s not the same as listening.”

Riley smiled. “You got me there.”

Of all the things she expected from this interview; being challenged on an intellectual level was not among them. This was supposed to be a mildly entertaining interlude during which some materialistic, profane youngster described his Bentleys and showed off his most recent jewelry acquisition.

K Smooth, she now realized, had not been adequately captured by the Newsweek feature. Maybe she’d have a story after all.

Riley glanced around and for the first time realized how late it was. Almost all the other patrons had left.

“They won’t ask us to leave,” Shawn assured her, leaning over the table and lowering his voice. “Even if we stay till four in the morning.”

“That must be nice,” she said. “Knowing that the world will bend to your will just because you’re famous.”

“I don’t know about ‘the world’,” Shawn said. “A few restaurants in Manhattan maybe.”

Riley laughed. “All the same, I should go. Thank you for this, for talking to me on such short notice.”

“Don’t get all businesslike on me now. Let’s get some coffee or something. I think there’s a Starbucks a few blocks over.”

Riley hesitated for only a moment.  “Okay.”

Shawn took care of the bill, and tipped everyone, even taking a minute to thank the chef before they walked out into the night. His stride was slow and he walked close enough to her that their fingers occasionally brushed. He smelled like clean, fresh soap. In the air between them was something heavy and unspoken. Riley could see her breath in front of her as they walked and it was cold enough for her to want to shove her hands deep in the pockets of her coat, but she didn’t.

A couple walking in the opposite direction with a cocker spaniel on a leash recognized him and with saucer eyes, stopped dead in their tracks.  Shawn deftly avoided looking in their direction, pretending to find something interesting in a store window.

“Very good,” she laughed, when they were out of earshot. “Nice pass interference.”

“Pass interference is was what you were supposed to do,” Shawn said.  “But you just left me wide open. I’ll show you how this works. Next time, you block me like this.”

He came closer, so close his chest was almost pressed against her and she had to look up to see his face.

“How was I supposed to know?” she said, trying to slow her breathing. “Some celebrities love talking to their fans.”

Shawn grimaced. “Celebrity.” He hunched his shoulders as though the very sound of the word made him cringe. “All I do is make rhymes. I don’t know anything about being a celebrity.”

“Yeah, yeah. How about all the free drinks, the big banner with your name on it in the club? And all those women fawning over you. Looked like celebrity treatment to me.”

“A’ight, you got me there. But that’s all external stuff that gets projected on me by other people. Doesn’t have anything to do with me – Shawn Gardner – the regular guy.”

“Do your other interviewers fall for that? That’s a really nice line. In fact, it sounds like you’ve used it before.”

He looked down at her, trying to muster a straight face, but before he could get a word out they both dissolved into laughter.

“You like that?” he said as they started walking again. “Brendan made that one up. I thought it had a nice ring to it . . .”

“Oh it does. So now I know what Brendan thinks about you being a celebrity,” Riley said. “But what about you?”

“What I think is that . . . it’s cool being me.”

“Thank you,” Riley said. “A little honesty.”

“Here’s some more honesty for you,” he said, his voice different. “I don’t even like coffee. I just don’t want you to go.”

Riley glanced at him, but he kept walking, looking straight ahead.

Starbucks was almost deserted. Apart from a couple of sleepy baristas and a man with an old newspaper he was pretending to read, they were alone. While Shawn went to order, Riley glanced at her watch. It was almost one a.m. If she wanted to maintain even a shred of her professional distance, she would leave after a couple sips of coffee.

Shawn returned with fruit juice for himself and a coffee for her.  Riley meticulously ripped open one of the yellow packets of no-cal sweetener and emptied it into her cup, stirring it slowly with the wooden stick, pretending not to notice that Shawn was staring at her.

Who was she kidding? Her professional distance had fallen to pieces at his feet hours earlier. He popped the top off the bottle and sipped from it, leaning back, his eyes still fixed on her face.

“Come back to my hotel with me,” he said.

Riley sat very still, not blinking. Not breathing.

“You look surprised,” he said when after a moment she still hadn’t spoken.

“I am.”

Shawn shook his head slowly. “No you’re not.”

He pushed his bottle of fruit juice across the table toward her.  “Taste this.”

Riley lifted the bottle, grateful for a distraction.

“Kiwi,” she said. “One of my favorites.” She took a sip. It was sweet, tangy and delicious.

“I’m leaving tomorrow,” Shawn said. “But I want to spend the night with you.”

“I tasted yours. So taste mine.” She slid her coffee cup in his direction.

“No thanks. Coffee just tastes bitter to me.”

“It’ll make your juice that much sweeter afterward,” she pointed out.

Shawn looked at her for a moment then took a tentative sip of her coffee. Riley laughed at the look on his face.

He took another quick swig of his juice to wash the coffee away.

“You’re right,” he said. “It was sweeter. But you’re avoiding my question.”

“Was there a question? I didn’t hear one.”

“Will you spend the night with me?”

Before she could respond, he had leaned forward and put a hand at the back of her neck, gently pulling her across the table toward him.  His lips were warm, soft. When his tongue met hers, she could taste an amalgamation of their evening together: an underlying spiciness from their meal, the bitter barley of the Red Stripe beer, a hint of coffee bean and finally the sweetness of kiwi. It was a brief, sweet and softly persuasive kiss, and like everything else about him, so unexpected. Riley leaned back in her chair and smiled. When he smiled back, she actually got goose bumps.

The hotel lobby was almost deserted when they entered and they rode the elevator up to the twenty-first floor in silence, standing close to each other, their arms barely touching. When Shawn unlocked the door to his suite, the curtains had been pulled open and the panoramic view of Manhattan at night was breathtaking. Riley walked over to the wall of windows and stood looking down and across at the city.

“Amazing view of the Brooklyn Bridge from here,” she said.

“Yeah it’s great.” He sounded utterly uninterested in the view.

Until he spoke, she didn’t realize he was so close. His breath was warm on her cheek. Then his hands were on her shoulders, and she turned to face him. When she tilted her head backward he kissed her again, but it was very different than the kiss in the coffee shop. That kiss had been an exploration; this one a prelude. Riley reached up and wrapped her arms about his neck. It felt like she’d been waiting for this all evening, and in a way, maybe she had.

They stood there for awhile kissing, and her hands seemed to move on their own, exploring his chest and back. She reached down so she could feel his bare skin under his shirt. His stomach was smooth and firm; Riley’s fingers followed a soft line of hair that disappeared where the waistband of his pants began. Just as she reached down to tug at his belt, he raised his head and slowly pushed her back into the bedroom and toward the bed.

Riley didn’t know what she expected, but it wasn’t this; that he would carefully, almost reverentially remove each piece of her clothing and kiss the parts of her newly revealed. He was so deliberate and so gentle that soon she was arching her hips toward him, reaching out to peel his shirt aside so she could feel him against her.

When he was naked Shawn stood and left her on the bed for a moment and she could see him, silhouetted by the light from the next room, firmly muscled and sleek and beautiful. He returned and sank between her legs like a sigh. For a minute, he was still, his breath warm on her neck and Riley felt the fullness of him, deep inside her, her muscles involuntarily gripping and releasing him.

Shawn groaned and his mouth was on hers again and then he moved, slowly at first until she matched his rhythm. When their tempo and intensity increased, he wrapped his arms about her and rolled over so that she was on top, her thighs locked about his hips.

The suite was warm and in no time they were both slick with perspiration tumbling over and under and next to each other, hopelessly tangled in the sheets until Shawn cast them aside. They didn’t stop for what seemed like forever until finally, Riley cried out her release. When Shawn moved she dug her fingers into his shoulders.

“No,” she said, trying to catch her breath. “Don’t.”

So he was still, his eyes locked with hers until the tension dissipated and he began to move again, bringing her back to where she’d been just moments before. This time, he climaxed with her and instead of rolling free as she’d expected, he held her face in both his hands and kissed her.

When she awoke, the sky outside was gray. It was almost sunrise. Riley held her breath as she turned to face Shawn.

“Hey,” he said. He was sitting up and had a lit Phillies blunt in his hand that didn’t smell like tobacco.

Riley glanced at the clock nearby. It was just after five a.m. Shawn reached over to put out the cigar he’d been smoking but not before offering it to Riley who shook her head. As he leaned forward, exhaling the last of the pungently sweet smoke, the sheets fell loosely about his naked hips.

“There is no way I’m going to kiss you if you taste like smoke,” she said, drowsily regarding him through half-open eyes.

“I think you want to kiss me anyway,” he said.

They looked at each other for a moment and he leaned into her. When their lips touched, he did taste like smoke, but it was not unpleasant. Far from it. He slid downward so their chests were pressed against each other and Riley pulled back, exhaling deeply.

“Wow,” she laughed softly.  “Still.”

“Still what?” he asked, pressing his lips to hers once again.

“You know that feeling?” she said. “That feeling when you want someone, when you really, really want them, but before you have them?  I’ve still got that feeling.”

“You do?”

He shifted his attention to her neck and Riley felt the breath catch in her throat. She could stay here all morning, and afternoon and into the evening. She could drown in this man if she let herself.

“I do,” she said, her breathing still uneven. “It’s weird, right?  Because you’d think that after last night . . .”

“Riley,” he stopped her mid-sentence. “Not everything was meant to be analyzed.  Y’know?”

“Why not? If I find it interesting, I analyze it.”

“You find me interesting?”

“Yes. But not just you. This.” She traced a finger along his arm and watched as goose bumps rose on his flesh. “See?”

He smiled at her then, as though she’d scored a point at his expense. “Chemistry,” he said. “It’s a crazy thing.”

Over his shoulder she saw that it was growing even lighter outside. Soon it would be bright. Things would look very different then. She would be reminded that this wasn’t a date that had gone particularly well, this was in fact Riley Terry, surrendering her professionalism in spectacular fashion.

And there was something else. Something she had inexplicably put completely out of her mind until just that very second.

She sat up, reaching for her bra.

“What’re you doing?” he asked as she snapped it on.

“Getting dressed.” She lowered her feet to the floor and stood, looking through the sheets for her top. “Have you seen my shirt?”

“What’s the rush?”

“I have to go,” she insisted. “It’s almost morning.”

“So all of a sudden you’re sorry you came up here.”

She stopped her search and sat on the edge of the bed for a moment, looking right at him, smiling.

“No. I’m not sorry I came up,” she said realizing as she did that it was true. “Not at all. It’s just that I have work.”

“So be a little late for work. Get back in here.”

He threw back the sheets and patted the space next to him on the bed. Riley averted her gaze, shaking her head.

“I really have to go, Shawn.”

“I’ll holla at you later then.”

“Maybe,” she said, “we should just leave it at this.”

He narrowed his eyes, looking as confused as though she’d suddenly spoken to him in an entirely different language.

She looked at him.  “The thing of it is, I’m with somebody.”

He leaned back into the pillows. “You’re with somebody,” he repeated.

Riley pulled her pants on and crouched to look for her shoes. “I know how that sounds, especially after . . . everything. But . . .” She gave up trying to explain – how could she when she didn’t even understand it herself?

Shawn watched as she stood in front of the mirror, running her fingers through her hair and was still watching her when she finally turned around, ready to go.

“You in love or something?” he asked finally. There was a mocking note in his voice that she didn’t too much appreciate.

“I didn’t say that. Just that I’m with somebody.”

He leaned back against the headboard but said nothing more. He still seemed to be processing this new information when Riley turned toward the door pausing to look back at him one last time.

“Have a good show in Baltimore. And . . . you take care.”

He didn’t answer and so she left, shutting the door quietly behind her.

“So how was it?”

Riley froze at the question and reached down to glance through the menu, hoping it covered for her inordinately long hesitation.

“Your interview,” Brian prompted. “How’d it go?”

“Oh. It was fine,” she looked up and gave him a quick smile then turned away to get the attention of their waiter. “You ready to order?”

“I always get the same thing,” Brian said. “So tell me what it was like being around rap royalty. Was Russell Simmons there?”

Riley laughed, in spite of herself. “No, Russell Simmons was not there. It was a crowded, noisy nightclub full of nineteen year olds. Ahm, I’m thinking maybe I’ll get the duck curry to change things up a bit.”

“But you went someplace else for the interview, right? Where was it? Like Nobu or . . .”

“No, we went to Pepper Island. He didn’t strike me as the Nobu type to be honest.”

Then the waiter arrived and Riley was relieved to be talking about Vietnamese summer rolls instead. Once he was gone, however, Brian seemed to want to resume grilling her for information.

“So what type was he?”

“You sound like you want me to fix you up with him,” Riley teased. “It’s not like you even listen to rap. All I’ve ever heard you listen to is neo-soul.”

“I’m just curious, that’s all. He’s one of the few who stays out of trouble. Seems like he might be smarter than most of them.”

“Well, I can confirm that he does seem pretty smart. But in most other respects, he was completely what you would expect.”

The lie tasted bitter on her tongue and she regretted it immediately. From what she’s seen he was nothing at all like you would expect. But it wasn’t like she knew Shawn at all – it might be true; it was likely to be true that he was the same as the rest. Certainly one-night stands with random women had to be a staple in his profession and it wasn’t as though she’d broken new ground with him or anything.

And besides, she’d been seeing Brian for two months. He had at least learned some measure of loyalty. More than she had displayed the previous night. Between them there had been none of those awkward conversations about exclusivity, just a seamless blending of lives in an extremely short period of time. He liked the same movies she did, and got the same jokes. They talked about politics, books and music and found to their surprise that in those areas as well, they were more alike than not. He had left a job in finance to go to law school and was busy most evenings studying with other 2Ls but that was fine too.

Riley liked that he was fully occupied with his own ambitions, didn’t expect her to act like a “girlfriend” and was curious about her work instead of threatened by how demanding it was. On this occasion though, she would have preferred to be spared his curiosity. Each question only raised the possibility that she would have to tell another untruth.

“The important thing is that you got enough out of it to write a good story,” Brian said now.

“I think I did,” Riley mumbled.

For the rest of their meal, they talked only about neutral topics and Riley pretended to herself that she wasn’t having trouble looking Brian in the eye.

“So let me get this straight – you slept with him after what, just three hours of conversation?”

After dinner, when Brian had to run back to the law library, Riley called Tracy over and they’d opened a bottle of wine.

“It was a little more time than that.”

“Okay. Four hours,” Tracy laughed. “So much for journalistic integrity.”

“You’re supposed to be making me feel better about this, remember?” Riley stepped over her friend’s legs, propped on the coffee table.

Tracy shook her head. “And then you ran out like a scared little girl afterward? That is just classic.”

“I didn’t know what to do! I woke up and all I could think about was how crazy it was that I was even there, and how crazy it was that I wanted to stay.”

“So in spite of your high-minded feminist ideals, you became just another casualty of thug-appeal.” Tracy said. “How hot was he?”

“Pretty damn hot,” Riley said. “And he wasn’t a thug. Not at all.  He was actually kind of interesting.”

“A rapper who’s interesting?” Tracy said. “Then he must be the best kept secret in hip hop. And if he was so interesting why’d you high-tail it out of there like that?”

“Brian.”

Tracy nodded. “I forgot about him for a second.”

“I forgot about him for the whole night,” Riley said. “That was what was so terrible. I was vibing with this man and when he touched me it was like . . . I don’t even know how to explain it.”

Tracy was suddenly serious. “And you stayed the whole night?”

“Yeah. At one point we just kind of sat around and talked.”

“What do you talk about with a rapper?” Tracy asked dryly.

“Will you stop it with the ‘rapper’ stuff? We talked about . . .” Riley broke off and laughed. “We talked about the Baltimore Orioles. And scuba diving. And music. He liked talking about his music. And I talked about the story I’m working on and . . .”

She stopped and smiled.

They had talked a lot, she now remembered. The sex was amazing and at first had overshadowed just about every other memory she had of the evening but now she recalled how their conversation had continued once the first rush of hormones had been dealt with.

For at least two hours, they talked about everything and nothing. And then while he was explaining something – she couldn’t remember now what – she wanted him again so she reached for him and he came to her like they’d been doing this for years.

“Hello? You there?” Tracy was waving a hand in front of her face.

“Y’know what’s awful? Brian literally did not enter my mind the entire evening. Until I woke up naked. I mean, who does that?”

“Well, it’s not like you’ll see him again, right? So no harm, no foul,” Tracy shrugged.

“That’s right,” Riley agreed. “No harm, no foul.”

2 thoughts on “Commitment – Chapter One

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