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More Than Words(9)
Author: Jill Santopolo

Joseph Gregory wrapped both arms around his daughter, and they stood like that, draped in the blanket, watching the lights explode in the sky.

“I nearly forgot your birthday present,” he said, after a moment, pulling a box out of his pants pocket. “Early, like the fireworks.”

Nina laughed and took the long, narrow box.

It was from his favorite jewelry store, the one on Main Street in East Hampton. She untied the ribbon and opened it. Inside was a tennis bracelet made of sapphires. She ran her fingers across the stones.

“It’s the same setting as the diamond bracelet I had made for your mother,” he said. “I thought you could wear them together. It’ll be a good way to remember us both.”

“It’s beautiful,” Nina whispered. She laid her head against her father’s chest and let his shirt absorb the silent tears that leaked through her lashes.

“When we get back to the city,” he said, tightening his arm around her back, “we should go over the financials for the corporation. There are some things you need to know before you take over.”

“Sure,” Nina said, clearing her throat, concentrating as hard as she could on keeping her voice steady. Seashells. Jellyfish. Seaweed.

And then a firework went off, bursting open above the water, and Nina raised her head to watch.


That night, after their parents were asleep, Nina and Tim snuck back down to the beach. Nina was in shorts and a sweatshirt, her feet bare. Tim was dressed the same way.

“Remember the summer I was afraid of the ocean?” Nina asked him. The wind was blowing her hair, and she and Tim were pressed against each other for warmth.

“I would’ve been afraid, too, if I’d gotten clobbered by a wave like you did.”

She’d been ten and wouldn’t even put her toes in the water for weeks, until her father decided that she needed to get over her fear. So she, Tim, and her father had stood in a line, holding hands, with Nina in the middle, jumping waves together.

“I will never let go until you’re ready,” Nina’s father had told her. “But we won’t stop until you can jump without us.”

By the end of that weekend, Nina had made peace with the ocean again. But she’d never again felt quite as safe as she did that day between her father and Tim, with both of them holding her tight.

“Did I ever thank you for helping me that day?” Nina asked.

“I don’t remember,” he said. “How about a thank-you kiss, just to cover your bases?”

Nina rose up on her toes and kissed him, tasting his minty toothpaste, feeling his beard against her chin.

“I love you,” Tim said, when they broke apart.

“I love you, too,” Nina answered.

Then he tugged her toward the pool house, which had a sauna on one side of it. “There’s some privacy in here,” he said, locking the sauna door behind them in the dark, but not flicking the switch to turn on the heat. They were in a small cedar room with a wooden bed covered in a towel and a foam pillow, outlined in dim moonlight that came in through the window. “Not sure how comfortable this will be, but there’s no chance our parents will find us.”

Nina climbed onto the wooden bed, brushing the sand from her legs. “I think it’ll do,” she said quietly, loving how secret this rendezvous felt.

Tim climbed on with her and kissed her, their bodies facing one another. She ran her fingers along the delicate curve of his ear and then down the line of his jaw, where his beard ended.

“Oh, Nina,” he said.

He reached for her, sliding his hands into her shorts, and she moved against his fingers, feeling herself relax. Then she wrapped her fingers around him and stroked, matching his rhythm.

“Now?” he asked.

She could feel how hard he was getting, how much she wanted him.

“Yes,” she said. She slipped her shorts and underwear off, and lay on her back, his favorite way to make love.

Tim hovered above her and slid inside. Nina closed her eyes and felt him, Tim, her Tim. He moved more slowly than usual, his knees against the wooden slats of the sauna bed. Nina liked it better this way; it gave her the time she needed to luxuriate in the feeling of him against her, until, “I’m going to—” she said, and Tim bent down to kiss her as an orgasm rippled softly through her body. He orgasmed, too, and then rested his head on her chest.

Nina ran her fingers through his short auburn hair. It still amazed her that life had led the two of them together like this.

It had felt so strange, at first, to go from best friends to something more. She’d spent so long putting Tim in the friend box that relocating him to the boyfriend box felt like a redefining of terms as uncomfortable as calling orange juice milk. It had been weird to see how his face changed when he’d climaxed the first time they were together. He looked like her Tim, but not. It was a new expression, and it had unnerved her. Now she was used to it. Used to calling him her boyfriend. Used to the expression on his face when he came, how it transformed him into someone new. Their relationship had become something different. And Nina was grateful for it.

So grateful that she tried to forget about the question Leslie had asked her months ago, the one she couldn’t figure out an answer to: Why do you feel like you have to get used to it?


Nina’s father had planned to come back to the city for brunch on the third Saturday in August, but he wasn’t feeling up to it the day before and decided to stay put.

“You just want to get in a little more beach time,” Nina teased, attempting to make light of the moment. “I see what’s going on.”

Her father had mustered up a laugh, but both of them knew what was going on. They just didn’t want to acknowledge it to each other.

The next morning, Caro called.

“Darling,” she said, when Nina picked up her phone at the campaign office. Tim was golfing at Chelsea Piers, and then they were supposed to meet at the Boat Basin on 79th Street just after noon. Tim’s friend Sebastian, his fiancée Julia, and a few other couples including Priscilla and Brent were planning to spend a few hours on Sebastian’s sailboat for his birthday, before Nina went back to work. “TJ and I are still going to The Grove for brunch, but you know that the guests come each month to see your father, not us. I know Timothy said the two of you were planning to have lunch on Sebastian’s sailboat. I hate to ask, but is there any chance you could eat with us instead? Your father didn’t want me to call you. To be honest, Nina, I think he’d hoped you’d offer. But . . .”

Nina sighed and tried not to feel stung by Caro’s words. She should have offered. She’d known it when her father called. It was her job now, but something had held her back. “Of course,” she said, blocking off the third Saturday of every month in her calendar as she spoke. “I’ll tell Tim he can still go on the boat, but I’ll see you and Uncle TJ there.”

“Oh, wonderful,” Caro said. “And I was thinking, in September . . .”

“Already in my calendar,” Nina said. “October, too.”

“See you soon, darling,” Caro said. Then she paused. “I know this isn’t easy. But you know you won’t have to face it alone.”

Nina had to clear her throat before she could say, “Thanks, Aunt Caro. I’ll see you soon.”


Nina’s dad came back to the city for good the next week at his doctor’s request, earlier than he’d planned. The thing Nina found the most troubling was that he acquiesced without a fight.

But instead of worrying about that, instead of focusing on how wrung out her heart felt, how dark a place she could spiral into, Nina focused even more intently on the campaign. Marc Johnson was polling well. They were in for a fight.

“We can do this,” Jane said, every morning, reminding the staff, reminding herself.

Nina truly believed in Rafael. She admired his determination, the way he inspired her to be the best version of herself, to think harder, to push her mind further. Being around him was intoxicating—which was why she tried to keep her distance. Alcohol was dangerous when you consumed too much of it. When it was the thing you always wanted, the thing you were ashamed to find yourself dreaming about.

In those weeks, it seemed like every time Nina looked across the room she would find Rafael’s eyes on her. While he was talking to Christian or reviewing talking points with Jane.

She wondered if it was on purpose, or if that just happened, his gaze moving toward hers. She imagined it was out of his control. And she wondered how often her gaze slid over to him, without her realizing, too.


It was nearly one in the morning the night before the primary. The hum of the office had disappeared, though Nina could still hear car engines and squealing tires through the open windows in the main area, where all the desks were jammed next to one another. The city never slept, and neither, it seemed, would Nina or Rafael. They were alone together in a conference room, putting the final touches on tomorrow’s potential speeches—alone for the first time since their lunch at the diner. Nina caught his eye across the conference table and then quickly turned away.

As much as she’d refused to admit it, she knew their attraction had been growing slowly over the past months, like temperature rising barely perceptibly, half a degree at a time. But those tiny invisible increments added up to something enormously detectable. Nina wondered if they’d reached that point. And if they had, if she could continue to ignore it—pretend that the sweat didn’t exist, that she still needed her jacket. Nina felt like she had to. If she didn’t, it would mean that so many pieces of her life, carefully balanced upon one another, would come tumbling down.

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