Saint-Tropez, France. Summer of 2005.
At the age of twenty-two, Ava Kostova belonged on the cover of Vogue magazine. Her delicate features were accentuated by a sensuous mouth and long-lashed, dark-blue eyes. Unlike most redheads, her skin was a flawless creamy white, with absolutely no freckles. It created a stunning contrast to the scarlet curls that cascaded down her back, like scrolls of red calligraphy on a fresh patch of snow.
Ava admired her reflection in the boutique mirror. The black Chanel dress caressed her subtle curves closely, like a second skin over her long torso and firm hips, and she recalled the first fancy dress she had ever worn.
She had bought it with the money from the diamond ring she had stolen.
“Voila!” said William Palmer, the man she had met at a party two nights before. They hadn’t left his suite since, and that afternoon, he had taken her shopping. “Didn’t I say that you would look stunning in this dress?”
William was sixty-two and lived in Miami. He was married, but escaped to Saint-Tropez every summer looking for a beautiful young girl to hang on his arm. That year, Ava intended to hold that position.
Palmer rose from the armchair when Ava appeared from behind the screen divider. When he neared Ava, the saleswoman stepped away, giving the two their privacy.
Palmer’s eyes traveled down the body of his new acquisition and he widened his smile. “You are a find, Ava. I’ve met very few women as beautiful as you.” He laughed, vainly. “And I have met many, many beautiful women.”
“I’m sure you have, darling. You flatter me.” Ava approached him, eyes filled with sweetness, and lightly kissed his lips. “Merci.”
Palmer nodded in approval. “Ah! Beautiful and smart. You are every man’s dream, Ava. You will go far. Very far.”
Ava offered him a smile and returned to the dressing room, thinking, If he only knew how far I’ve already come...
Saint Petersburg, Russia, 1988
At the age of five, Ava dreamed of becoming a famous ballerina. Russia prided itself on having some of the most brilliant ballerinas in the world and Ava was certain that one day she would be one of them. What she did not take into account was the end of the Cold War, and the fall of the Soviet Union.
The entire country had collapsed, and with it, so had Ava’s parents. Her father began drinking, and her mother had become irritable and impatient. They had suddenly been thrown into a state of perpetual poverty with no end in sight.
“You can’t keep up your ballet,” her mother said. “If we had only one daughter we might try, but we can’t pay for your ballet and your sister’s piano lessons. So follow Irina’s example and forget about it!”
But Ava was not a limp fish like her sister. She would not settle for anything that did not please her. “That’s not fair! I am the eldest. My choices are more important.”
Her mother scoffed. “Maybe it will work out in your next life, when you are born a royal. Now, Your Highness, get out of my sight before I lose my temper!”
Ava continued to fight with her parents over her dreams, but was met with the same sermon again and again. The family could hardly afford dinner each night, let alone a daughter’s impractical dreams. That’s when Ava turned on her sister, blaming her for the family’s misfortunes. If she hadn’t been born, maybe the family would have been able to survive through this transition.
A few months after Ava’s tenth birthday, her mother ran off with another man and they never saw her again. Soon after, Ava’s father had lost his job as a machine operator in the textile industry and found a living fixing things and reselling used objects. His drinking habit was growing steadily, so his widowed mother moved in with him to take care of the house and help raise the girls.
Ava’s grandmother used to say that her granddaughters’ generation would suffer more than those born under Communism. Now, as in the Western world, there would be rich families and poor ones, and they would have to bear the differences. The rich girls would have all the boutique luxuries that were now flooding the market, while the poor ones would be left outside, drooling on the shop windows’ glossy surface.
Her grandmother was right, but Ava was not like the other poor girls from her neighborhood. She knew she was prettier and cleverer. She had decided that when she grew up she would find a way to get everything she wanted. At that moment her sister seemed to be the only thing in her way. Because of Irina she’d already had to give up ballet class, and as they grew up, she knew she would have to give up countless other things because of the little brat. As a result, Ava punished her sister for years to come.
Summer of 2001
At eighteen years old, Ava was the queen of her house. She made sure that Irina knew who was in charge, and as a result, Irina had grown up weak and insecure. Despite their occasional fights, Irina always ended up doing what Ava told her to do, either for fear of her sister’s retaliation or merely because she was tired of arguing with her.
Their grandmother had died a year earlier, leaving a huge gap in both girls’ lives. They decided to abandon school to make some money, since their father’s wages alone couldn’t support the roof over their heads. Irina eventually found a job in a deli and Ava in a small jewelry shop. They both worked hard all day, and took care of the house at night. Their father had become an invisible creature, skulking around his room, always behind walls. He slept most of the day and always arrived home late. The only time he made an appearance was when he scolded them for forgetting their chores, or not having dinner ready when he was hungry.
Months passed, and Ava’s exhausting routine was getting the better of her. So she took it out on Irina. One night, she arrived home to find her sister crying in bed. Assuming it was just another one of her cries for attention, Ava just rolled her eyes and headed to the shower. Ava ate alone, thinking about how she could increase her commissions at the store. She watched some TV, enjoying the peace of not having to share the remote with anyone else. When she returned to their room, Irina was asleep. On the following morning, she woke up to find her sister gone along with all her belongings.
Ava was aware that she had been hard on Irina, but the realization that she had likely been the reason for her sister’s departure made her feel terrible. Irina had always been a coward, so she must have been truly unhappy to do something so out of character.
Ava visited Irina’s deli and discovered that her sister had stopped by to tell her boss that she would quit, but had not told him where she would go. They owned no cell phones or computers, so Ava wrote Irina an email from work, hoping she would read it somewhere. She tried not to sound too annoyed by Irina’s departure, hoping she would reply. Irina had no real friends to ask for help, and Ava worried what might happen to her in the city all by herself. When Irina hadn’t returned to the house in the evening, Ava told her father everything.
“Irina has always been selfish. She left of her own free will. I’m not going to waste my time looking for her,” he said simply.
Not knowing what else she could do, Ava focused on the practical side of the situation. Now with one less mouth to feed, her father’s salary would be enough for the household costs, and she would be able to afford some small luxuries.
But things did not improve. Although there was a little more money, Ava’s father wasted it on poker and drinking. After one particularly unprofitable night, her father came home in a terrible mood. He entered Ava’s room and watched her as she slept soundly in her bed. With a lick of his lips he thought of a way to improve his mood…