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The Billionaire's Virgin
By Jackie Ashenden
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2017 Jackie Ashenden
All rights reserved.
As Xavier de Santis, billionaire bad boy and youngest son of the second richest man in New York, slopped stew into the tin plates of the poor and needy at the Midtown homeless shelter his father had forced him to volunteer at, he realized it wasn't the actual physical reality of Manhattan's poor and needy that bothered him the most.
It was the smell. Not the unwashed bodies or the unkempt hair or the terrible breath. No, as unpleasant as all that was, that he could deal with.
It was the smell of hopelessness, of despair, that he had difficulty with.
He didn't know why, since hopelessness and despair were also prevalent in the social circles he moved in, but maybe it was because in his world they were just better hidden. Here, in the people lining up for what was probably their only meal of the day, they were right in his face.
It made him uncomfortable, and if there was one thing Xavier hated, it was being uncomfortable. Especially when being uncomfortable made him run at the mouth like a tool.
"I don't like it," he said to the old man with broken teeth who was standing in front of him holding out a plate. "I mean, I'm sorry. I just can't do despair." He lifted the ladle of stew and poured it out onto the man's plate. "Hopelessness, fine. Okay, no, it's not fine, obviously. But it's easier somehow, you know?"
The old man looked at him, his face utterly blank, then shuffled on as if Xavier hadn't spoken.
"What about you?" Xavier asked as another person moved in front of him, another old man who looked ninety but was probably only all of sixty. "Care for a little despair with your hopelessness? Or are you more a despair person with a side order of hopelessness?"
The man blinked at him as if he was speaking Greek.
"Half and half, am I right?" Xavier ladled more stew. "The hopelessness and despair are pretty even and you're not favoring one or the other? I like that. Life's all about balance, yes?"
The man shook his head, muttered something under his breath, and moved on to collect his portion of bread, while the volunteer on Xavier's left shot Xavier a disgusted look.
Right. He was probably talking too much again. But how else was he supposed to get through this? He preferred throwing money at a problem, preferably from a safe distance, not having to stare right into its grim, haggard face and worn, ragged clothes.
Unfortunately though, due to a drunken brawl with a paparazzo who'd been shoving his stupid fucking camera in Xavier's face, Xavier got to get right up close and personal with it.
The paparazzo, like so many of them, had been an asshole, instantly seeing dollar signs the moment Xavier had grabbed the offending camera and flung it into a nearby trash can. Dollar signs meaning assault charges, despite the fact that Xavier had barely touched him.
Normally Cesare de Santis, head of De Santis Corp, the country's biggest personal security manufacturer, and Xavier's father, usually let his sons deal with their own problems, but in this instance, he'd had to step into the breach, using his influence and liberal amounts of cash to make the pap drop the charges. He'd also made it very clear to Xavier that a public show of penitence was required, since having the de Santis name associated with violence was a step too far for buyers who didn't like to be reminded that personal security included weapons and that weapons could be actually used to kill people.
"Protection's what they're buying," his father had always said. "And that's what we're selling."
Xavier had no problem with that. What he did have a problem with was apologizing. That and abasing himself. He was a goddamn de Santis and he didn't have to prove how sorry he was for what he'd done, because (a) he wasn't very sorry and (b) he hadn't even landed a punch, though he'd very much wanted to.
Still, it was either volunteer at the shelter or lose the one thing in entire world he actually wanted, the one thing he'd spent most of his adult life working toward: ownership of his late mother's Wyoming ranch.
Blue Skies was owned by his father now and because Cesare knew Xavier wanted it, he held it over Xavier's head at every opportunity in order to get his son to do what he wanted. Cesare de Santis was a manipulative bastard and the real kicker was that it worked.
If Xavier wanted that ranch — and he wanted it very, very badly indeed — he had to do whatever his father said. Which meant working in De Santis Corp as a glorified salesman, demonstrating new products, sucking up to potential clients, and generally being the happy poster boy for De Santis Personal Security systems.
It was also why he was in this shitty Midtown homeless shelter, doling out slop, having come to do his volunteer stint straight from a party at the Met.
He hadn't even bothered changing out of his tux.
Through the window that faced the street, the paparazzi were hanging around, taking pics of him through the glass, though the de Santis security team waiting for him outside were doing their best to move them along.
Xavier smiled and gave them a jaunty wave. Which, on reflection, wasn't very penitent of him. At all.
The next person moved in front of him, holding out their tray.
"What can I get for you today?" he asked, getting bored now. "Will it be the stew or the stew?"
But it wasn't an old man standing in front of him this time. It was a woman.
She was little and dressed in a plain, dark blue button down shirt, a dirty brown overcoat at least three sizes too big for her, and a hideous, bright orange woolen beanie pulled down over her head. Her features were delicate and sharply angled, not pretty but intense-looking somehow, and her wide black eyes tilted up at the corners like a cat's.
Something burned in those eyes, a kind of fire that reached out and grabbed him by the throat, and Xavier, who always had something to say, suddenly couldn't think of a single word.
She held out her tray, bright black eyes watching him warily.
Reflexively, he smiled at her as he doled out her stew.
Her expression didn't change in the slightest. In fact, she looked away as if he didn't exist, moving on to collect some bread from the person next to him.
Xavier blinked. He couldn't think of the last time a woman hadn't responded to his smile. Or, come to think of it, had dismissed him so completely. It was enough to give a guy a complex, not that he was one for complexes. Hell, it was even kind of funny that a poor little homeless woman could cut one of New York's most sought after and notorious bad boys dead.
He grinned to himself and promptly forgot about it.
The next night, though, he was back at the shelter, late this time because he'd been giving a presentation to some government clients who'd insisted on dealing with him personally. He'd impressed the fuck out of them with the new De Santis development in body armor, and since his father had made it clear that if Xavier managed to close this particular contract, he'd be one step closer to getting ownership of the ranch, he was feeling in a particularly good mood.
He whistled as he doled out tonight's meal — lasagna this time — smiling at the downtrodden lined up in front of him.
Two old men, three middle-aged women, and one young guy with an obvious meth addiction later, Xavier found a hideous burnt orange beanie in his sightline. He frowned, then lowered his gaze to meet a pair of familiar bright black eyes.
It was her. Again.
A curious jolt went through him, which was just downright strange since he didn't go for women in dirty overcoats and orange beanies. His tastes ran to tall and athletic, or small and voluptuous, he wasn't that picky on shape, to be fair. If they were into him and he was into them, it was all good. But generally, he preferred to choose his partners from bars or parties, not homeless shelters.
So why this woman should hold his attention was anyone's guess.
She was just ... actually, he couldn't put his finger on what she was. There was a ... fire in her. A fire he'd never seen in any other woman, or at least not one that burned so brightly. For some completely inexplicable reason, it fascinated him.
He smiled at her again, giving her the full-on Xavier de Santis treatment that usually made women flutter and giggle like teenagers in front of their favorite movie star. But again, this woman blanked him like he wasn't even there.
This time it wasn't so amusing.
Oddly irritated for being irritated about it, Xavier put it out of his mind.
Until the next night when she turned up in front of him again, holding out her tray, those fascinating black eyes blinking at him.
"Good evening, madam," he said, because he'd be damned if he let a woman make him lose the power of speech twice in one week. "Will you be having the caviar?"
She said nothing. And when he doled out the clam chowder, she turned away as if he hadn't said a thing. Again.
He couldn't work out why he was so irritated, because what the hell did he care if some woman didn't respond to his perfectly friendly smiles? She didn't have to, and no doubt she had far more important stuff to deal with than smiling back. But still.
It needled him.
Night four and he came directly in from the office, still in his bespoke suit and tie, dishing out ladlesful of some godawful vegetable soup. The paparazzi outside had thinned out somewhat, the novelty of a de Santis helping out in a homeless shelter wearing off, which Xavier found a tad galling. He liked being the center of attention, and when the spotlight wasn't on him he started to get antsy.
As the people lined up for their meal, he found himself glancing at their faces, as if looking for someone. Sure enough, when he spotted that orange beanie, he felt something inside him settle.
Okay, ridiculous as this was, if he could demo the latest De Santis high-tech weaponry to the delight of the military, not to mention the government, then he could at least get some kind of fucking reaction out of one little homeless woman.
She approached him, holding out her tray. But this time Xavier didn't smile at her and he didn't say a word. He just looked at her. Looked straight into her black eyes and held her gaze with his, unleashing the full power of the infamous de Santis charisma on her.
She wrinkled her nose and turned away.
This time he wasn't only irritated. He was annoyed.
Ridiculous to get so worked up about a woman ignoring him, especially when he had so many women falling at his feet, and it really did make him a cliché to be so fascinated by the one woman who didn't.
But ... he just couldn't help it. He was annoyed.
Night five and he decided that if she was there, he was going to ignore her completely. No smile. No nothing. It was stupid for someone like him to let someone like her under his skin, utterly stupid.
But this time the black-eyed woman and her telltale orange beanie wasn't there.
Not that he cared. He had many other more important things to be worried about, such as securing this government contract and finally getting his father to hand over Blue Skies to him.
He couldn't fucking wait. It wasn't that he minded the city — much — but his heart had always been back in Wyoming, where their family had originally come from and where he'd spent summers as a boy. He'd always planned to move back there, though his father didn't know that quite yet. In fact his father wouldn't know that until Blue Skies was finally Xavier's, because he was pretty sure the manipulative old bastard would try and find some way to stop him if he did.
For Cesare de Santis, business — and therefore the entire known universe — revolved around New York, not some ranch in the middle of nowhere, and New York was where he'd insisted his family remain.
But not Xavier. He was going to get out as soon as he could.
Night six, and Xavier had come in before a party he had to go to in Hell's Kitchen. Only a couple of paparazzi hanging around this time, and these guys were more interested in fiddling around with their phones than in him. Which was aggravating.
He didn't look for the orange beanie — deliberately didn't look — and he didn't say a word to the people lining up for their meals.
Then suddenly there she was in front of him. Wearing the same outfit she'd been wearing three days earlier, that orange beanie pulled down low over her head. There was snow on the shoulders of her overcoat and shadows beneath her dark eyes. But those eyes burned even brighter tonight, as if something had stoked the fire inside her, and he had the oddest impression that he could hold out his hands to her like she was a fire, and his fingers would warm up.
He said nothing as she held out her tray to him, ladling in the same kind of stew that he'd ladled out six nights earlier. But as she turned away to get her bread, he murmured, "You need a new hat."
Her gaze flickered. And for a second, her dark eyes came to his.
Then she looked away.
It wasn't much, but it was the first reaction he'd gotten from her, and he felt it like a victory, a surge of satisfaction sweeping through him.
Next time, oh next time, he was going to make sure she didn't look away.
* * *
The guy was there again, watching her as she found a place at the table and started to eat. Mia could almost feel his eyes drilling holes in her back.
She didn't like it. She didn't like him looking at her, seeing her. She didn't like him watching her like he expected something from her.
Not that it was hard to work out what most men expected from her, but the weird thing with this guy was that she didn't think he was after sex.
She didn't know what he was after and that was the thing that unsettled her.
The first night he'd appeared at the shelter, she almost hadn't been able to look at him, he was so ... bright. And shiny. And clean.
He'd been in a tux and was so tall, all that spotless black fabric stretching out in front of her, and when she'd looked into his eyes, she'd felt something inside her fall away. They'd been blue. Blue like the little patch of sky she caught glimpses of from her current alleyway hideout.
She didn't like that either. Not his blue eyes or the shape of his face, the planes and angles of his nose, cheekbones and jaw arranging themselves into something she knew was probably handsome. More than that even. Or his black hair, the way it looked thick and spiky and soft, as if she could sink her fingers into it like a fur coat.
Nope. She didn't like handsome, blue-eyed, black-haired men in tuxes. They ranked highly on her list of people never to trust, along with cops, social workers, priests, and doctors. Basically anyone telling her they wanted to "help."
She didn't need their help. She didn't need anyone.
Mia gulped her food then got rid of the tray, all the while trying to ignore the man's eyes watching her. She'd been debating about whether to stay the night in the shelter since it was getting cold outside, but the man made her nervous so she didn't.
She hurried past him without looking at him again.
He looked like a god and she didn't trust men who looked like gods.
She didn't trust gods either.
Especially not ones who made comments about her hat.
That night she huddled in her spot between the Dumpster and the wall of the building behind it. She'd felt very pleased with herself for finding it because there was a hot pipe that ran up the side of the building that she could lean against for warmth. But tonight the cold bit deep, snow swirling in the air, and the hot pipe didn't feel hot enough.
Fucking winter. She hated it. When it got too cold, she was forced to go back to the shelters full of people coughing and hacking and complaining and crying. People who'd given up on life and on whom life had given up on as well.
She hated that too, the reminder of where her own life was headed if she didn't find herself a place to live. Then again, it was all attitude, wasn't it? Those people were a nightmare future she needed to face sometimes, to give her the strength to keep going, keep pushing. Keep surviving.
Because if there was one thing she wasn't going to do, it was to end up on the streets for the rest of her life. She wasn't going to end up like Old Catherine, the homeless woman who'd first helped Mia when she'd escaped from her gran and came out onto the streets. Who'd ended up dead in an alleyway with the detritus of her life scattered around her. Missed by no one, mourned by no one. Known by no one. No one except Mia.
Nope, no fucking way she was ending up like that. She was going to get herself off the streets. She was going to get herself a home.
Mia huddled against the pipe and stared up at the night sky, ignoring the sounds of a drug deal going down on the other side of the Dumpster. She couldn't see the stars in Manhattan, but she knew they were up there. Just like she knew that somewhere there was a home waiting for her.
Excerpted from The Billionaire's Virgin by Jackie Ashenden. Copyright © 2017 Jackie Ashenden. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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