Home > More Than Words

More Than Words
Author: Jill Santopolo


He’d imagined the baby would be a boy. A son to take to ball games, to watch his favorite movies with, to teach to drive stick. A son who would slay the Jabberwock with him, who would pick up his own sword and fight the manxome foes alongside his old man. The way he had. A son who would continue his legacy, the family’s legacy. An heir.

Standing with his baby girl in his arms, her head resting in the crook of his elbow, he felt the need to say he was sorry. To apologize for imagining her a boy. Because from the moment she was born, the moment he first saw her, it was as if a seed had been planted in his heart. It quickly rooted there, and now, three days later, he felt it growing, filling him with pride and love and determination.

“Nina,” he whispered to the fragile baby in his arms. “I will raise you to be strong. I will raise you to be powerful. I will raise you to be fearless.”

His daughter stared at him, her eyes blue like his, her cheeks round and pink. “And I will protect you,” he said. “Until the day I die. That’s my pledge to you.”

The baby reached her hand toward him, touching his chin with her fingers.

The pact was sealed. The deal was made. And Joseph Gregory would spend the rest of his life trying to keep that promise.


Sometimes Nina Gregory got lost in the elasticity of time. When she was concentrating on something with a singular focus, time seemed to stretch, like a rubber band pulled taut, until—snap!—the sound of a cleared throat or a car horn would make time feel normal again.

She was lost there now, putting the finishing touches on the speech her boss, Rafael, was going to give at tonight’s campaign fund-raiser. “You’re in the Nina zone,” her college roommate, Leslie, would have said if she were there.

Then, just as Nina got to the last sentence, her phone buzzed, bringing her back to the present. It was Tim.

On a call that’s running over. Probably be about 20 mins late tonight. Sorry!

No worries, she typed back. I’ll be there.

Can’t wait to see you quickly appeared on her screen.

Nina smiled. Same, she wrote.

Tim’s answer was a smiley face and a thumbs-up emoji.

When Tim was on forever-long conference calls with the start-ups he worked for, he would scroll through emojis, sending strings of them to Nina, summarizing his day in cartoon images. Getting those texts always made Nina laugh. Deciphering them reminded her of the rebus puzzles the two of them used to solve together as kids, when they shared the backseat of her father’s car, before they knew their futures would twine around each other.

As she was responding to Tim’s text with her own emojis, Jane, the campaign’s communications director, leaned on the edge of Nina’s desk. “Big favor,” she said, twisting her micro braids into a bun. “Would you be okay staffing tonight’s event on your own? Mac and I need more time to hammer out the details of Rafael’s position on charter schools before I prep him for that New York One interview.”

Nina didn’t usually staff events. Most speechwriters didn’t. But she happened to be going to this fund-raiser because her closest friend from high school was hosting it. Actually, Priscilla was hosting it because Nina had asked her to, though she’d made sure no one at the campaign knew that.

“No problem,” Nina said, shifting her attention to Jane. “I’m sure I can handle it. Just tell me what I need to know.”

As Nina hit print and e-mailed herself the speech as backup, Jane gave her a crash course. “Mia’s running advance for the event, so you don’t have to worry about the logistics. All you have to do is introduce Rafael to donors with information that he can use to start a conversation. I’ve got the guest list along with their photos and what we know about them—I’ll text it over. But you could probably manage without the list anyway.”

Nina nodded.

“Make sure he always has a drink in his hand—a weak one,” Jane continued. “He likes vodka soda with a twist of lime.” She was ticking the pointers off on her fingers. “And make sure no one monopolizes too much of his time. Mia will have the gift bags set up—so you don’t have to worry about that either. She can help if you need anything.”

Nina nodded again. “Got it,” she said.

“I promise, it’s not hard,” Jane answered, pushing herself off Nina’s desk.

“Don’t worry,” Nina said, gathering her bag and her blazer. “We’ll be fine.”

She grabbed the speech and walked into the hallway. Rafael was waiting right outside the elevator bank, his tie perfectly straight, his gray suit jacket folded neatly over his arm.

“So it’s just you and me, huh?” he said as Nina stopped beside him, buttoning her blazer.

“That’s what they tell me,” Nina replied. She looked up and he smiled.

The Daily News had written about Rafael’s smile twice, calling it “high-wattage” and “compelling,” part of “Rafael O’Connor-Ruiz’s Charm Offensive.” Nina could understand why. There was something about his smile—the unselfconsciousness, the way his eyes crinkled, how it showed both rows of his teeth—that made it impossible not to smile back.

“I think we can manage,” he said, running his left hand through his thick black hair.

Until last fall, Rafael had been an immigration lawyer, defending New Yorkers who were facing deportation. And then he and his wife divorced, he took a leave from his firm, and he announced in January that he was going to run for mayor of New York City. That was four months ago. Nina had been his fourth hire, after Jane, Mac, who was the campaign manager, and Christian, who ran the fund-raising outreach.

“I have complete faith in us,” Nina answered.

The elevator came just as her phone buzzed with a text from Jane.

“Our car is outside,” Nina said to Rafael. “Jane said to tell you the driver’s name is Frank. He took you home last week and is a Yankee fan.”

“Frank,” Rafael repeated. “Yankee fan. Right. I remember him.”

Rafael had made it very clear during his first meeting with his senior staff that he wanted to know the name of every single person he came in contact with during the election cycle, so he could address them properly when he said hello and thank you. He wanted everyone to feel valued, no matter their job.

“Do you know how annoying that’s going to be?” Mac had grumbled, when the meeting ended.

But Nina loved that Rafael had made that request. It reminded her of her father, actually, who knew the name of every bartender, housekeeper, and bellhop who worked at the Gregory hotels.

“Did it ever occur to you,” Jane had said to Mac then, “that you should probably know these people’s names anyway?”

Nina had hidden her laugh behind a cough, but since that first meeting, she found herself siding with Jane over Mac whenever there was a side to take. And she liked that Rafael seemed to, as well.


“So this fund-raiser,” Rafael said to Nina as they rode the elevator down twelve floors. “You know the hosts?”

Nina nodded. “Priscilla Winter and Brent Fielding. Pris and I went to school together from kindergarten through twelfth grade. Her family made their money in steel, but now they’re in biotech. Brent runs a hedge fund. He grew up in Boston.”

The elevator doors opened, and the two of them walked out of the lobby toward the waiting car.

“Frank!” Rafael said, when he saw the driver standing at the car door. “Great to see you again. Thanks for being so prompt.”

“Of course, sir,” Frank said, opening the door for Nina before walking around to the other side to open one for Rafael.

Nina looked around the backseat. Water. Tissues. No candy. Her favorite drivers were the ones who brought butterscotch.

As they pulled into the New York City traffic, Nina shared her phone’s location with Mia so their progress down the city streets could be tracked, and then handed Rafael the printout of the speech. As he memorized, his lips moved, his hands gesticulated. It was like his own kind of performance art.

Nina leaned back in her seat, watching him practice her words. With his broad shoulders and the cleft in his chin, he looked like Hollywood’s idea of a politician. Handsome, charming. He was brilliant, too. Nina loved translating his ideas, his passion, into the precise words that would fire up his audience. But behind his polished façade, behind his megawatt grin, he was an enigma. “What are you thinking?” she sometimes wanted to ask him.

Her phone buzzed again. Nina looked down, expecting a note from Jane or another emoji-filled text from Tim. But it was her father.

The woman holding the professorship your grandmother endowed at Smith is retiring and there’s a reception in six weeks. They asked me to make a speech, but I don’t think I should plan that far in advance. Would you RSVP yes in my place, Sweetheart? I’ll forward you the e-mail.

Nina read the words. And then read them again. Benign as they might seem, they felt like a vine tightening around her chest, making it hard to breathe. I don’t think I should plan that far in advance.

Every moment of every day she tried to forget that her father was sick. Again. That the doctors had said there wasn’t anything they could do this time. She’d hated seeing him go through chemo three years before. But then, at least, there was hope, the chance that they’d still have days sailing their boat on the Atlantic Ocean, nights drinking scotch on the rooftop of their hotel on Central Park South. Now there wasn’t. Which was why Nina tried to forget about it the best she could.

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