A woman mourning the death of her hotel-owner father and reeling from an astounding secret finds herself caught between the world of her longtime boyfriend and her passionate boss. By the author of The Light We Lost.
Jill Santopolo received a BA in English literature from Columbia University and an MFA in writing from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. She's the author of three successful children's and young-adult series and works as the Associate Publisher of Philomel Books, an imprint of Penguin Young Readers Group. Santopolo travels the world to speak about writing and storytelling. She is the author of The Light We Lost, a national and international bestseller that has been translated into more than thirty languages. More Than Words is her second novel for adults. She lives in New York City.
Nina Gregory has always lived her life within the lines, afraid to sully the name brought to prominence by her hotelier grandfather and father. Generally content to follow the path laid out for her by the father she adores, her role as a speechwriter for an unconventional New York City mayoral candidate is the one anomaly of her well-manicured life. Nina knows she is expected to take over her father's hotel business, so he humors her foray into politics. But then her father passes away from cancer, devastating her more than words can say. While grappling with grief, Nina uncovers the secrets her father left behind, devastating her even more. She wonders if she ever even really knew her father. And if she is her father's daughter, does she then even really know herself? ?The latest from best-selling author Santopolo (The Light We Lost, 2017) is a bittersweet and reflective novel of grief, loss, and coming into one's own. Fans of leisurely paced and character-driven novels will appreciate the time she spends developing Nina's voice and ensuring that it's heard. Copyright 2019 Booklist Reviews.
An heiress grieves her seemingly perfect and successful father until she learns he was hiding some devastating secrets. Nina Gregory grew up idolizing her father. After her mother died in a car accident when Nina was young, her father raised her by himself while running a ritzy hotel business in New York City. His standards were exacting, and he taught her that the Gregory name was the most important thing she owned. Nina loves her job as a speechwriter for mayoral candidate Rafael O'Connor-Ruiz, but she knows that eventually she'll take over her father's company. Her life seems mapped out in front of her—her boyfriend, Tim, is the son of her father's best friend and business partner, and she knows that one day they'll get married and have children. But she can't ignore the passion she feels for her job in politics—or the passion she feels for Rafael. When her father dies, Nina realizes she'll have to take over the company long before she's ready. She gives up her speechwriting gig and devotes herself to understanding the Gregory Corporation. In the course of her research, she discovers that her father wasn't the perfect, upstanding man she always assumed he was, and his relationship with her mother wasn't the dream it looked like from the outside. Shattered by the realization that her father was flawed, Nina starts to wonder if she should really follow in his footsteps. Does the path he set for her still make sense, or should she follow her passions even if that means risking everything? An heiress with multiple homes and romantic prospects may not seem like an inherently sympathetic figure, but Santopolo (The Light We Lost, 2017) manages to turns Nina into a well-rounded character. Despite a life of privilege that sometimes blinds her to the ways others, like Rafael, have struggled, she wants to use her power and money to do good things. Nina's struggle to decide between two men, one of whom represents her old life and the other wh o represents what she could be if she took a chance, is propulsive and compelling. The depiction of Nina's grief for her father is vividly raw, made more real by her eventual understanding that he was an imperfect human being. Full of drama, scandal, and romance, this is sure to delight fans of Santopolo's The Light We Lost Copyright Kirkus 2018 Kirkus/BPI Communications. All rights reserved.
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 fundraiser. “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 one another.
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 fundraiser 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 emailed herself the speech as back-up, 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.”
“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 told her, pushing herself off Nina’s desk.
“Don’t worry,” Nina said, gathering her bag and her suede 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 answered. 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 announced in January he was going to run for mayor of New York City. That was four months ago. Nina had been his fourth hire, after Jane, his campaign manager Mac, and Christian, who ran the fundraising outreach.
“I have complete faith in us,” Nina answered.
The elevator came just as Nina’s 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 fundraiser,” 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 print-out 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 mega-watt 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 email.
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 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.
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. Lightbulbs. 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 looked 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 fingers tips. “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 calloused 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 of 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 make-up. 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 wasn't 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 felt it. His eyes said it, too.
“I’m sorry you had to go through it twice,” she said, thinking about his ex-wife.
“My mom’s still around.”
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 if 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 blonde 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 fundraiser,” he said, his face lighting up, that mega-watt 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’s so much of what she loved about him.
She 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.
“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 in 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’s how Rafael saw Tim. She was surprised by how much it bothered her.