Home > More Than Words(10)

More Than Words(10)
Author: Jill Santopolo

She kept forcing herself to think about Tim. About what it felt like when they walked hand-in-hand through Manhattan and how soft his lips felt against hers when they kissed. About how easily they fit together—their lives, their families, their expectations. About how comfortable she felt in his arms. But there wasn’t this—this pull that drew her to Rafael.

She’d been so strong, so careful all summer. But tonight she was finding it hard. Tonight, when she caught a glimpse of how worried he was, of how much he wanted to win, all she wanted to do was comfort him the way he’d comforted her about her father. To rest her hand on his.

Rafael cleared his throat. “You want a Coke?” he asked, pulling two dollars out of his wallet and standing up, scraping the legs of the chair across the linoleum floor as he did. “I don’t know if I’ll be able to get through the next three minutes without another infusion of caffeine.”

“I’m good,” Nina said, shifting her eyes back to her computer screen, though she was more than a bit tired. She needed to get this done. She needed to get away from the temptation. She felt like Eve, staring at a forbidden apple. Or was the apple a kiss and Rafael the serpent? Or was she the serpent? “I’ll give version B one more pass, and when you get back from the vending machine, maybe you can try it out loud again?”

“Absolutely,” he responded. “But I hate version B.”

Nina smiled. “I know. I hate it too.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she watched Rafael walk across the conference room. Even at one A.M., after he’d exchanged his button-down shirt and suit jacket for a T-shirt and hoodie, his face unshaven and his hair a mess, Nina felt her body trying to point itself in his direction. Carisuapo, Nina’s mother might have called him—a combination of the words carismatico and guapo. Charismatic and handsome. Though if Rafael said it, it would sound more like caliuapo. Nina had gotten used to his Cuban accent—the dropped s, the r that sounded more like an l. As she sat there, watching him walk down the hallway, she found herself trying to figure out how he would pronounce other Spanish words. Difrutal. Depue. She pictured the shape of his lips as he spoke.

Nina closed her eyes and took a deep breath, trying to reset her mind. No more Rafael. No more lips. Tim, she thought, picturing his face in her mind. His hazel eyes with their reddish-blond lashes. His smile when she walked into a room. Her mind cleared, Nina focused on the speech, her eyes zipping across the computer screen, her fingers dancing on keys. This was just work. Nothing more.

Nina rolled her neck from side to side. She needed a run. She needed a massage. All this time bent forward over her laptop had tightened her shoulders. She tried to imagine Tim’s hands kneading her muscles, to see if her mind could convince her body the massage had already happened, but somehow it was Rafael’s fingers she saw. His manicured cuticles, the soft dark hair that climbed from his wrist toward his pinky. Involuntarily, she shivered. Stop it, she told herself.

Nina rolled her neck once more, carefully pushing thoughts of massages out of her head, and went back to her screen.

“I brought you a present,” Rafael said, walking back into the conference room a few minutes later and dropping a bag of M&Ms on Nina’s side of the table. His voice was resonant in the quiet room. He’d unzipped his sweatshirt and she could see the T-shirt underneath. It read Pluto: Never Forget.

“Thanks,” Nina said. “Nice shirt.”

Rafael beamed at her. She couldn’t help but smile back. “I was hoping you’d like it,” he said.

Nina could feel herself blush. She was in Rafael’s mind when he changed that night.

“It doesn’t take much, Palabrecita, does it?” Rafael’s smile somehow turned sweeter.

“What did you just call me?” Nina asked, feeling her blush deepen.

“Palabrecita,” he answered, leaning against a bookshelf as he drank his Coke.

“Poor little word girl?” Nina roughly translated the word, a mash-up of palabra and pobrecita, she figured. Her mother would have liked that. She used to call Nina intelinda, a combination of intelligent and beautiful.

Nina invented her own word combinations, but this was the first time Rafael had added to her invented dictionary. She hadn’t even realized he’d known about her portmanteaus. She usually just shared them with Jane and Jorge, who was in charge of the Get Out the Vote messaging.

Rafael nodded at her definition. “Poor little word girl indeed. I’ve kept you here late tonight. I just took a spin around the office and literally everyone else has gone home. Even Rocco.”

“The janitor?” Nina asked.

Rafael nodded. “And he usually stays pretty late.”

Nina rubbed her eyes, surprised her contact lenses didn’t feel more like sandpaper. Though the main room had windows, the conference room they were in didn’t, so it was hard to know what time it was when you were in there—her contact lenses were usually her only indicator of exactly how long she’d been awake. “I don’t mind,” she said. Though she should. She reminded herself how perfectly her life and Tim’s meshed together. How nice their future would be—each running their own company, summering at her grandparents’ place in the Hamptons, dinners with his parents, ski holidays in Alta, little redheaded children who would eventually inherit the hotels but would work in the corporation only if they wanted to.

“Well, good. I don’t mind either,” Rafael said, that unreadable look back in his eyes.

Then he came up behind her to read the screen over her shoulder. Nina swore she could feel the heat radiating off his body. She tried closing her eyes, but it didn’t work this time. Neither did imagining Tim welcoming her to his place at night with a hug. Milkshakes. File folders. Banana peels, she thought. But none of those tricks changed how close Rafael was, how nice it would be to lean back and rest her head against him, to feel his hands on her shoulders. The image of him giving her a massage popped back into her mind and she felt goose bumps rise on her arms. Mom, she thought, please help me if you can. Fuertrado.

“Maybe you don’t need to read this one out loud,” Nina said, looking at her screen.

Rafael’s face was so close to hers, it wouldn’t take much for their foreheads to touch, their noses. Their lips.

“Won’t it be bad luck if I don’t read it?” he asked, his face still inches from hers, his breath tinged with the sweetness of Coca-Cola. “If I don’t prepare to lose, then I will. If I prepare to win, I won’t.”

Nina laughed, the tension between them slackening as she did. “Are you really that superstitious?”

Rafael straightened up and ran his fingers through the hair just above his right ear.

“What?” Nina asked. “What are you thinking about hiding?”

Rafael shook his head. “It’s like you’re a mind reader. Did you major in telepathy in college or something?”

“Poli sci,” Nina answered. “But I wish they’d offered telepathy. Or telekinesis. I’ve always wanted to be able to move things with my mind.”

Rafael smiled at Nina again. “Poli sci. That’s right. I remember your résumé. You minored in Spanish literature. And then got an MBA.”

“That was for my dad,” Nina said. “I’d wanted to do a master’s in Spanish lit. As a way to connect with my mom . . . or to connect with her memory. Maybe I wanted . . .” It was getting late. Nina was tired. She didn’t usually talk about her mom so easily with anyone other than Leslie. It made her wish for things she could never have. But Rafael was . . . Rafael. She could see why he was spectacular in a courtroom—it was the same reason he was good at a fund-raiser or in front of a crowd. There was something disarming about him; it made her want to trust him with everything.

“Maybe you wanted what?” he asked, sitting on the edge of the table, his dark brown eyes focusing in on her.

“Maybe I wanted you to tell me about how superstitious you are,” she answered, her tired brain back in action, deflecting, defending.

He looked at her for a long moment, his eyes gentle. It seemed like he understood she’d revealed a piece of herself she wasn’t quite comfortable sharing. She raised her eyebrows, waiting for him to answer.

Finally, he knelt down next to her. “I can’t believe I’m going to show this to you.” He pulled his T-shirt away from his neck, matching her reveal with one of his own. “Look in my collar. Right near the tag.”

She looked at the soft skin at the nape of his neck, and then quickly shifted her eyes to his collar. Pinned to the fabric with a gold-colored safety pin was a black stone dangling on a short chain. “What’s that?” she asked.

“An azabache,” he said. “My abuela pinned it on my shirt the day I was born. I haven’t gone a day without wearing it since. It’s supposed to keep away the evil eye.”

Rafael let his shirt go and turned around.

“Do you believe it does?” she asked, curious.

“My abuela did,” he said. “And I . . . I don’t know. I mean, nothing truly terrible has happened in my life so far, I guess. And there have been a lot of good things.” He looked at her in a way that made Nina wonder if he counted her as one of those good things. “Can I definitively say that it’s not the azabache?”

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