Home > More Than Words(2)

More Than Words(2)
Author: Jill Santopolo

But when he sent texts like this, forgetting was impossible.

The squeeze in her chest became a sting in her eyes. Shit. Nina never let herself cry anymore. Not in front of anyone. Not even Tim. She thought about emotionless items to keep her feelings in check. Forks. Light bulbs. Pebbles. But though she battled against them, she couldn’t stop her tears this time. She looked around the car. There was no way to escape. Nowhere to be alone. Nina sniffed quietly, hoping Rafael wouldn’t notice, as a tear snaked its way down her cheek.

He looked up from his phone.

Nina turned away, hiding her face from him. Mom, she thought, sending a message into the atmosphere, please help me out here. Please keep me strong and focused. Fuerte y centrado. Fuertrado. She’d been talking to her mom in her mind since she was eight, when she was really at a loss. Usually it helped.

“What is it, Nina?” Rafael asked in a soft voice she’d never heard before. “Are you okay?”

She closed her eyes, tilted her head back as if gravity could keep her tears at bay. But they seeped out from under her closed lids.

“Hey,” he said. “Is it something I can help with?”

Nina took a deep breath. She tried again. Paper napkins. Plastic spoons. Wooden toothpicks. Her mind was clearing. She opened her eyes and blotted tears with her fingertips. “I’m sorry,” she said, turning to face him. “It’s my dad.”

For a moment, Rafael didn’t speak. He just put his hand gently on hers, as if to say: I’m here. I understand. It wasn’t something she’d expected. Nor was the callused skin on his fingertips, tough like a guitar player’s. There was so much they didn’t know about each other. Still, the warmth of his fingers made things better. She gave him a brief smile.

“I really am sorry about that,” she said, fumbling in her purse for a tissue. “My father just texted, asking me to step in for him, to give a speech because he isn’t sure if he’ll be able to, and—it caught me off-guard.”

“I was a mess when my father was sick,” Rafael said. “I’m impressed with how well you’ve kept it together these past few months.”

Nina knew his father had died of congestive heart failure five years before—she knew his whole biography—but she’d imagined him handling that heartbreak with the same pragmatism he seemed to have used to get over his divorce. In the months she’d known him, Rafael had been all facts—and passion about how he could make the city better. But emotions—those had been locked away, kept secret. Or maybe just saved for people outside the office.

“I hate being a mess,” she told him.

He nodded sympathetically.

“Something like this,” he said, slowly, “it makes you see the world through a different lens. I think it’s hard not to fall apart when your view of life is shifting.”

She looked at him, amazed. He’d put into words a feeling she’d been trying to explain to Tim for weeks. “It’s part of every decision I make now. I try to forget about it, but it’s there, sharpening my focus, narrowing my choices.”

She finally found a tissue and used it to dab at her eye makeup. Then realized there had been a box of them sitting in the car door all along.

“My sister was pregnant when my father was dying,” Rafael told her. “And she told me that every decision she made about my niece—from her name to what her nursery looked like—was filtered through the idea that my father might not be around to meet her. It’s why my niece’s name is Emilia.”

“Your father was Emilio,” Nina said.

Rafael nodded. “My sister always loved the name Tiffany. If my father hadn’t been sick, I’m sure my niece would have been named Tiffany. It’s just one small example, but—” Rafael shrugged. “I’m sorry you have to experience it,” he said. He took her hand in his again and squeezed, the pressure saying, without words: I get it. I’ve felt it. His eyes said so, too.

“I’m sorry you had to go through it twice,” she said, thinking about his ex-wife.

“My mom’s still around,” Rafael answered.

Nina smiled. “I know,” she told him. “I meant with Sonia. Someone else in your life who disappeared, who you lost.”

Rafael looked at her for a beat, as if weighing her words, as if weighing his own. “I hadn’t thought about divorce like that before,” he said. “But you’re right. The grief, the shock, the untangling of emotions. It’s not all the same, but a lot of it . . . you’re right.”

“I guess both of our perspectives on life are changing right now.”

“I guess so,” Rafael said, and he squeezed her hand once more.


By the time Mia met Nina and Rafael in front of the Norwood Club, the warmth that had flowed between them had cooled. But something had changed. When they got out of the car, Rafael waited for Nina so that they walked up the stairs side by side. She felt less like his staffer and more like—well, she wasn’t sure quite what—like a colleague or maybe even a friend.

A tiny blond woman holding a glass of champagne threw her arms around Nina as they walked through the oak doorway.

“Pris!” Nina said, laughing. “It’s great to see you, too.”

“Everything okay?” Pris whispered into her ear. “I heard your dad hasn’t been in the office very much this week.”

“It’s all fine,” Nina lied, hugging her friend back. “He’s been working from home.”

“Oh, good,” Pris said. “I’ll tell my dad. He has an empty spot at a charity poker tournament on Wednesday and was hoping your dad could join.”

Nina nodded and turned to Rafael, who’d been quietly watching the two women. “Pris,” she said. “This is Rafael O’Connor-Ruiz. Rafael, Priscilla Winter.” Then she remembered Jane’s rule. “Priscilla and Brent are about to head off to Cannes for the film festival.”

Rafael stuck out his hand. “Thank you so much for hosting this fund-raiser,” he said, his face lighting up, that megawatt grin in place.

Priscilla smiled back. “Oh, our pleasure!” she said. “When Nina tells us a candidate is worth supporting, we listen.”

Nina cringed. She’d been unmasked. Rafael looked at her and raised an eyebrow but then turned back to Pris. “So tell me about this trip to Cannes.”

Brent joined Priscilla, and the two of them chatted with Rafael, while Nina flagged down the waitress and ordered herself a Sauvignon Blanc and Rafael a vodka soda, heavy on the soda.

She walked over to some of the other women there, people she knew from the board of the New York City Ballet, which she and Pris both served on.

“When are you going to see the Balanchine?” Maggie Lancer asked, after hugging Nina hello. “I hear it’s just fantastic.”

“Tim and I have tickets next month,” Nina said. “But I heard that Romeo and Juliet this summer is going to be even better. Zachary’s dancing Romeo.”

“Zachary is stunning,” Maggie said. Then over Nina’s shoulder, she saw a couple walk into the room. “Oh, Hayley’s here! I have to talk to her about our dinner plans next weekend.”

As Maggie walked away, Nina cast her eyes back toward Rafael. A small crowd had gathered around him, and they were all laughing at something he’d said. There was no denying his presence, his ability to draw people toward him. But at the same time, it looked to Nina like her friends were treating him as the night’s entertainment. It made her slightly uncomfortable.

She was just about to walk toward him when she felt arms wrap around her and lips on the top of her head. Nina took a deep breath. Redken shampoo. Shea butter soap. Sandalwood shaving cream. Ever since he started shaving, Tim smelled exactly the same, a mixture of those three scents. That was one of the most comforting things about Tim; he was such a creature of habit. Nina could predict what she’d find in his refrigerator on any given day. She could even buy his clothes: Brooks Brothers slim-cut jeans in indigo denim, striped button-downs, V-neck sweaters, and navy blazers where he stuck his spearmint gum—always Eclipse, where you popped the white square through a thin piece of silver foil. There were never any surprises with Tim, and that was so much of what she loved about him.

Nina turned into Tim’s embrace and fit there perfectly, tucked right underneath his chin.

“Sorry I’m late,” he said into her hair.

She tilted her head and rose on her tiptoes to give him a kiss. “Barely late at all,” she said. “Don’t worry about it.”

“Thanks.” He squeezed her shoulder with one hand as he waved a waiter over with the other. “Just wine tonight?” he asked her.

Nina shrugged. “Technically I’m working,” she said. “Want to meet my boss?”

“Of course,” he answered. “I’ve heard enough about him.”

Once Tim placed his order and said hello to a few of their friends, she led him toward Rafael, who was now in a conversation with Priscilla and one of Brent’s work friends.

“Tim!” Pris exclaimed as they got closer. She gave him a hug and a kiss on the cheek.

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