By Julie K.L. Dam
November 18, 2002 12:00 PM

On a video shoot in Los Angeles for her new single in late October, Jennifer Lopez and Ben Affleck were engaged in their favorite contact sport: public affection. They kissed. They cuddled. Practicing his beginner’s Spanish, he whispered sweet nadas in her ear. The crew—who have worked with J.Lo for years—had seen her with boyfriends before. But not like this. “I see the real J.Lo around Ben, and I never saw that really before,” says photographer Tony Duran. “Around Ben she acts like a woman. She likes when Ben holds the door or dotes on her. Without a doubt she is the happiest she has ever been. You can see it in her eyes.”

You certainly can’t miss it on her left ring finger. Since Lopez was first spotted flashing a large rock earlier this fall on the set of Jersey Girl, her upcoming romantic comedy with Affleck, rumors of an engagement have flared—and been denied—on a weekly basis. Now sources confirm that the never-married Affleck, 30, has presented Lopez, 33, with a pink-diamond solitaire he chose himself and had custom-made by Harry Winston within the past four weeks. “She was very surprised—and she’s not used to being surprised,” a friend says of Affleck’s proposal. “Everybody’s in a love-fest mood.”

So why the big secret? One source says the pair hoped to keep their engagement under wraps until it was revealed in her interview with Diane Sawyer (who, sources say, pried the news out of a reluctant Lopez) on ABC’s Primetime Live Nov. 13. Then there’s the little matter of ex-husband No. 2. Though Lopez and dancer-choreographer Cris Judd announced their split last June after just nine months of marriage and filed for divorce two months later, she can’t remarry until the divorce is finalized on Jan. 26, 2003. Sources say she and Affleck intend to wed on Valentine’s Day, but they still have time for a change of plan. “There’s no loophole,” says L.A. family law attorney Lynn Soodik. “It doesn’t matter if you’re the governor or a celebrity, it doesn’t matter how much money you have, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been married for one day; six months has to go by.”

While some might consider an enforced waiting period wise for such a new pairing, friends of Affleck and Lopez don’t seem concerned. Unlike her first husband, waiter-turned-restaurateur Ojani Noa, 28—whom she married in 1997 and divorced a year later—and the quiet, shy Judd, 33, “Ben’s her equal,” says a Lopez pal. In her interview with Sawyer, Lopez described her beau as “brilliantly smart, loving, charming, affectionate, and I just admire him in every way.” As for Affleck, says Phil Alden Robinson, who directed him in The Sum of All Fears, “if he was going to jump [into marriage], he would have jumped by now. He’s had every opportunity. I think he’s a really smart, sensible, warm guy, and if he’s decided this is the woman for him, then I’d bet on it.”

What they’ve lacked in time they’ve made up for in contact. Since meeting on the set of the mob comedy Gigli last winter and going public with their relationship in July, Lopez and Affleck have been practically joined at the lip. Between kisses—in restaurants, parked cars and stores from Manhattan to Miami to L.A.—they’ve indulged another common passion: shopping. In Philadelphia they laid out more than $1,000 on designer togs; in Coral Gables, Fla., they picked up an estimated $200,000 Aston Martin sports car; on a trip to Atlantic City back in August, Affleck dropped $50,000 on a Rolex for his beloved-and another for her mother, Guadalupe, 56. “Her family really loves Ben,” says a source close to Lopez. The pair have also made several trips to his home state of Massachusetts, where they stopped in on Affleck’s mom, Chris, 59, visited his grandmother and even ducked into Boston’s landmark Trinity Episcopal Church.

They’ve also put in three months of practice playing man and wife on the set of Jersey Girl. On Aug. 26 Lopez stopped by the Paulsboro, N.J., set on her day off to see Affleck. As she approached, he grinned and waved his costume wedding ring at her. “They were all over each other. It was so mushy,” says Ena Fauntleroy, 35, who witnessed the on-set snuggling. It would be an oft-repeated scene. On another occasion, Lopez showed up to cheer Affleck on. “She was hanging over the balcony watching him work,” says Bob Gosser, manager of Top of the Towers, where the scene was shot. “Every time when he was done, she would hang over the balcony, blow him kisses and say, ‘You did great, honey.’ ” The smoochathon continued when the shoot moved to a local elementary school. “When they were away from the set, they stopped and kissed,” reports first-grade teacher Sally Berenato, who watched the action from her classroom. “From their trailer in the parking lot to the building, they stopped and kissed. When they left the building to go back to their trailers, they were dancing together in the schoolyard.” Says costar George Carlin: “It’s clear that they don’t have to act about the love part.”

Ah, but even movie stars cannot live on love alone. So when Affleck and Lopez stop by for Sunday brunches at Bubby’s in Manhattan’s Tribeca neighborhood, where they’re bunking in their rental apartment while finishing up the Jersey Girl shoot, it’s all about the pancakes (for her) and the huevos rancheros omelettes (for him). They eat. They read The New York Times. And leave SI00 tips on $50 checks. “No one really bothers them or notices them,” says an employee. “They don’t get all lovey-dovey here.” No doubt they save that for home, where Lopez often whips up pasta and chicken dishes for her betrothed and they savor what downtime they have. And perhaps indulge in a little wedding—or family—planning. Would she like Affleck to be the father of her children? “Absolutely yes,” Lopez recently told MTV. When they’re together, says Affleck’s Daredevil director Mark Steven Johnson, “it’s like the rest of the world has kind of fallen away.”

Julie K.L. Dam

Elizabeth Leonard and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles, Sharon Cotliar, Liza Hamm and Natasha Stoynoff in New York City, Michael Cohen in Miami Beach and Bob Calandra and Elizabeth Cobb in Philadelphia