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.