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More Than Words(3)
Author: Jill Santopolo

“Rafael,” Nina said. “This is my boyfriend, Tim Calder. Tim, my boss, Rafael O’Connor-Ruiz.”

The two men shook hands.

Pris looked at Nina standing next to Tim and grinned. “I predicted this,” she told Rafael. “Back in high school, I knew the two of them would end up together. It’s just . . . it’s like they were born to be a couple.”

“Oh?” Rafael asked.

“Our fathers were college roommates,” Nina explained, just as Tim said, “We grew up together.”

“And Tim’s dad is the CEO of Nina’s dad’s company,” Priscilla added. “So they’re basically like family already.”

Rafael smiled at them, but it wasn’t his Daily News grin. “It must be nice to be with someone who knows everything about you.”

Nina looked up at Tim. He probably did know everything about her. Or at least as much as one person could ever know about another. She wondered if Rafael’s smile had dimmed because he hadn’t felt that way about his ex-wife.

“Have you met the Lancers yet?” Nina asked him. “They were big donors during the presidential election.”

“Point me their way,” he said, and this time his smile reached across his whole face, though Nina was beginning to realize that there was a difference—small but perceptible: sometimes that smile was genuine, and sometimes it was just for show.

As Nina guided Rafael in the Lancers’ direction, he threw a quick look over his shoulder at Tim.

“Your boyfriend seems nice,” he said to Nina.

“Thanks,” she said. “He is.”

* * *

• • •

    Later that night, back at Tim’s place, as Nina was brushing her teeth with the electric toothbrush he had gotten her, she thought about that word: “nice.” It was a perfectly fine way to describe someone—complimentary even—but it was tepid. Flat. That was how Rafael saw Tim. She was surprised by how much it bothered her.


New Yorkers in Nina and Tim’s circle brunched on Sundays. It was a citywide tradition. A cultural touchstone. And the Sunday brunch at The Gregory on the Park was legendary. Nina’s grandfather had personally crafted the menu when he opened the hotel in the early 1930s. It was four courses. Decadent. And served with champagne. Tourists knew that if they wanted New York City’s finest afternoon tea, they went to the Palm Court at The Plaza. And if they wanted the finest Sunday brunch, they went to The Grove at The Gregory on the Park.

When Joseph Gregory took over the hotel in the 1980s, he decided to add a Saturday brunch, too. The first one was on the third Saturday in January 1989. Nina had been three, Tim had been five, and they’d sat with their parents at the front table near the door and greeted guests as they arrived. The guests loved getting to eat brunch in the same room as Joseph Gregory, which Nina now ascribed partially to people’s fascination with wealth, and partially to her father’s public persona; he was the affable millionaire who was just as happy chatting with the Yankees’ owners as with their fans. Nina knew that wasn’t entirely true, but it was what everyone thought. It was their truth.

It had been such a hit that her dad decided he would attend brunch the third Saturday of every month after that first one, except for in July when he was in the Hamptons. Nina and her mother had gone with him, until her mother died. Then it had been Nina and her dad until Nina went off to college, when Tim’s parents, TJ and Caro, joined him. Now, Nina and Tim came when they could.

Tim loved sitting at the head table, waving at the kids who walked in, nodding at the adults. Nina didn’t. Ever since she came back to the city after college, she’d felt uncomfortable at these brunches—dressed up and on display. But she knew it was good for business—and important to her father—so she never complained. Except to Leslie, who encouraged her to rebel by showing up one day in ripped jeans. Nina never had, but she thought about it often.

When she and Tim walked into The Grove that Saturday, a room filled with the same wrought-iron sconces and intricate crown moldings her grandfather had picked out, Nina’s father rose from his chair. He knew the room, knew where to place himself for the best effect, and stood directly in a beam of light, so it looked like he was glowing. Nina walked over and hugged him tightly. She was dimly aware of cell phones flashing in their direction, but mostly she inhaled the scent of his cologne—the tobacco, leather, and thyme that seemed to capture the essence of who he was.

“Joseph Gregory, Thrilled to See His Daughter for Brunch,” her father said, captioning the photos the guests were taking, writing the headline for the story. It was a game he’d invented when Nina was a kid, coming up with both the best and worst possible headlines that would describe any given moment of their lives—a way for her to understand consequences and repercussions. But since his cancer returned in January, he’d stopped offering up the worst headline. She hugged him harder, not caring that they were putting on a show for the guests. “Love you,” she said.

“More than words,” he answered, his rejoinder for Nina’s entire life.

As they sat, Joseph at the head of the table, Nina on his left next to Tim, TJ and Caro across the way, Nina tuned out the conversation for a moment to take a mental picture of the tableau. She wanted to remember this. Her father presiding over the family that he’d willed together through friendship.

“How’s the campaign going?” he asked her.

Talking politics with her dad was always tricky. Nina had heard a conversation that he’d had with TJ once about her job. “She’s going through an idealistic phase,” he’d said.

It had made her reevaluate what she was doing, wonder if everyone else thought she was being ridiculous, working for a politician instead of joining the Gregory Corporation right out of business school. But she decided that even if he was right, she wasn’t going to change her mind.

Working in politics made her feel like an agent of change in a way that working in the hotel business never could. Volunteering for the New Haven mayor’s reelection campaign in college, Nina had fallen in love with speechwriting. She’d sat in on policy discussions and then tried her hand at synthesizing the ideas into just the right words, finding a way to change minds. It was a challenge, a game with high-stakes results. And she and the mayor’s team had won. Business never gave her that kind of high.

“It’s going well,” she said. “We’re neck-and-neck with Marc Johnson.”

Her father took a sip of coffee. He’d donated to Marc Johnson’s campaign for comptroller four years before. “Well, you tell me when he’s a sure thing.”

Nina smoothed her napkin onto her lap. “Absolutely,” she said.

Joseph Gregory only endorsed winners, regardless of party or previous donations.

“But I’ll vote for him in the primary no matter what,” he added.

“Yeah?” Nina asked, surprised.

“Of course,” her father said. “It’ll look good for us if you chose the winner.”

Every time the Gregory name was associated with a success, it gathered power, cemented its meaning in people’s minds. That was something her grandfather had always said, something her dad repeated: Names have meaning. And you’re nothing without your name.

“Well, fingers crossed,” she said, taking a small roll from the overfilled bread basket. “So, anything exciting happening at the hotel this week?”

“We’re about to exchange the calla lilies for roses,” Caro said, looking around at the vase upon vase of flowers filling the restaurant. She managed all the events at both Gregory hotels, which included the seasonal changing of flowers at The Grove and the downtown hotel’s restaurant, The Garden. In the fall there were chrysanthemums, winter brought snowdrops, spring was calla lilies, and summer was roses. Nina’s grandmother had made the first arrangements herself, but now there was a florist that Caro had hired. The flowers were replaced each week, early Friday morning, before the restaurants opened for breakfast.

She turned to Nina. “Would you like to come watch?”

Nina had loved watching the flowers change with her mom when she was a kid. Thousands of them, filling the restaurant with their scent and color. It seemed like a ceremony, the welcoming in of a new season—and was overwhelmingly beautiful. “That sounds fun,” she answered. “I haven’t come in ages.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Caro said. “Can I steal you for breakfast afterward?”

Tim cleared his throat. “Ahem,” he said. “What about me?”

Nina nudged his shoulder playfully. “Are you afraid we’re going to talk about you? You know, your mom and I do have other topics of conversation.” Caro had always been there for Nina. She’d been the one who talked to her about what it would be like the first time she got her period and taken her prom dress shopping—both times. And Caro had made sure that Nina was on birth control before she went to college, even though it meant an argument with Nina’s dad.

Caro tucked her graying blond bob behind her ear. Nantucket blond, she started calling it, once the color began shifting toward white. “Of course you’re welcome, Timothy,” she said. “I’ll see you both at six A.M. on Friday.”

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