Ava woke up with her father’s hand between her legs and his vodka breath on her face. She opened her mouth to scream, assuming it was a stranger. As she recognized him, she was filled with such disgust that, instead, she smashed the bedside lamp against his head.
“You bitch!!” her father cried out in pain. The gash had cut deep, spilling blood down the madman’s cheek. He grabbed Ava by the arm and dragged her across the uneven concrete floor to the front door. He then threw her out into the night, shut the door and bolted it.
Luckily, it was summer and Ava had no problem sleeping under an awning at the end of the street. When her father left in the morning, she crept into the house and took her clothes and the money she had hidden in the false bottom of her music box. As she was packing, she sat on the bed and sunk her fingers into her hair. Go where?
Ava’s plans for her modest salary included new clothing and maybe modern dance classes, since she was now too old to become a world-renowned ballerina. But Saint Petersburg had recently become an expensive city in which to live and paying rent was now out of the question.
She considered talking to her boss, Mr. Lishin, to see if he would let her sleep in the storage room in the back of the shop. The problem was that he didn’t strike her as a man who would house a beautiful girl without ulterior motives.
No. She wouldn’t tell him about her personal problems. Her commissions were increasing and that job was her chance to climb toward a more lucrative career. The last thing Ava wanted was to lose it because she’d opened herself up to harassment.
Ava wound her music box and watched the tiny ballerina slide across the glass surface. The tune of Swan Lake filled the air and she smiled as she remembered her childhood dream of joining the Bolshoi Ballet.
I can’t let all of my dreams die, she thought. But she knew that she was careening toward that inevitable truth, no matter if she asked for her boss’s help or looked for shelter in one of the mansions—the old houses where homeless girls went to live and ended up becoming prostitutes. No. Her father had landed her in this mess and now he would help her get out of it.
Just a few days earlier, Ava’s father had told her that he was planning on selling his mother’s wedding ring and asked Ava to take it to her boss to get an appraisal. Fortunately, she hadn’t done so and now the money would go to her, not to his gambling and vodka. Her grandmother would have approved.
Ava rushed to her father’s bedroom while he was away and plucked the ring from his dresser’s bottom drawer to study it. The diamond ring had been in her family since the Romanovs, and she was sure the ring would fetch her at least four thousand dollars. Lishin wouldn’t pay more than half this price, but Ava knew which of his competitors would give her the best bargain. With this money, she could afford to rent a small room at a bed and breakfast, until she managed to get a night job to supplement her income.
It was approaching 9 A.M. and Ava had to go to work, but taking all her luggage with her would arouse her boss’s suspicions. She decided to call in sick and took the day off to move out. After she grabbed the ring, she bid the house farewell with a very adamant middle finger.
Nearly three hours later, Ava had two thousand eight hundred dollars on hand, but no room to sleep in. The city was crowded with tourists and students and the cheap places she had in mind were all booked. If she searched for any friends from her former school or neighborhood, they would take her straight back to her father. And she couldn’t afford a hotel.
Her grandmother was right. The new Russia had become a battlefield for those without money or education. She had watched all the pretty girls enter the jewelry shop, accompanied by wealthy lovers who took care of them. Men worked hard to make their money, while the girls just had to have the right curves. Ava hated the idea of being some rich man’s trophy wife. She still envisioned her future as an independent woman, able to take care of herself. But in times of desperation, it would be nice to have someone to rely on. Maybe she should stop wasting time flirting with handsome young men who were as broke as her, and find someone worth her time.
Nice idea, Ava told herself, but finding a wealthy boyfriend would take some time. If she returned home, her father would abuse her, and she needed a place to sleep tonight.
What to do?
With desperation firmly infecting her mind, Ava sat on a lonely bench by the canal, ready to surrender to her tears. She watched a tour boat float by her and focused on her own reflection in the passing windows. Even with her cheap dress and exhausted expression she looked beautiful. This settled the idea in her mind. She had a way out of this mess, and it involved an extremely wealthy businessman she had met just two months earlier. With the right outfit, right makeup, and right smile, she was sure he would try very hard to remember her.
It was time to go shopping. She needed to look more stunning than ever.
Dimitri Petrov was a man in the right place at the right time. After the fall of the Soviet Union, the new Federation of Russia needed heavy investments to recover its economy. Luckily, Dimitri was highly skilled in getting money from one man’s hands and into another’s. Soon after the collapse, he found his calling in telecommunications. He completely restructured the sector and eventually took his company public on the London Stock Exchange. When prices started rising, Dimitri sold many of his own shares and reinvested in other areas such as mining, oil and real estate. Eight years later, his fortune had long entered into the billions.
He was born in Saint Petersburg, and though he now lived in Moscow, was always seen parading around with beautiful women in his sports cars or onboard his luxury yacht. Ava had seen him for the first time two months earlier, when her boss had asked her to accompany clients on a boat tour around the city…
Ava couldn’t help but feel like a tourist throughout the trip, despite having been born in Saint Petersburg. She had always been poor, meaning she couldn’t experience any of the attractions the city had to offer. Instead, she had spent her time frowning at the large yachts that entered the port, knowing full well that she could never be a part of that world. As Ava observed the historic skyline from the tour boat, she noticed a large yacht enter the harbor, teeming with bikini-clad girls. Around it, two men in jet skis were performing synchronized aquatic stunts. One of them suddenly pulled away and approached the tour boat. He twisted the throttle to full speed and allowed the wake of the tour boat to send him into the air, where he performed a complete twirl and landed right-side-up in an extraordinary display. Everyone on the tour boat was ignoring the guide in order to watch him.
At the end of his performance, the man swung the back of his jet ski toward some of the tourists on the big boat, spraying them with a wide swath of frigid seawater. Everyone on the tour boat laughed and applauded, and the man bowed his head, thanking his audience for their attention.
The tour guide who stood beside Ava shook her head in disapproval. “Ladies and gentlemen, meet Mr. Dimitri Petrov, one of our most talked-about nouveau riche. He is 36, but sometimes thinks he is 12.”
"The girls seem to like him just fine,” said an Australian man, in blatant admiration.
“With all of the money he’s got, of course they do,” said the guide, looking at the girls on the yacht, “and Mr. Petrov takes full advantage. Word is that he’s got five official girlfriends.”
The tourists laughed again, and then returned their attention to the guide as he continued the tour. But Ava’s eyes did not leave the man on the jet ski. As if sensing he was being observed, Dimitri looked straight at Ava, a sardonic smile dancing on his lips, and waved.
Embarrassed, she turned her head back to the guide. Ava had never seen a man as rich and powerful as Dimitri Petrov, and everything about him seemed different; his confident attitude, his irreverence, and his contagious sense of humor. She thought about him for the rest of the trip, but she had no idea that she would meet him again and he would change her life forever.
Nevsky Avenue, the commercial center of Saint Petersburg, offered a great variety of stores, spanning from clothing to souvenirs and restaurants. The store in which Ava worked was on a less pretentious part of the famous avenue, to the east of the Moskovsky Train Station. Every day when she walked into work, she would admire the window displays of the high-end boutique shops. She was flirting with the idea of trying on an extremely expensive red dress, probably worth a half-year’s salary, when she came face to face with Dimitri Petrov for the second time.
“You were on the tour boat the other day, weren’t you?” Dimitri asked.
Ava turned around, looking for the owner of the deep voice behind her. It took her a moment to recognize him in a suit and tie, but his smile was unmistakable. Dimitri was taller than she had imagined and had the most beautiful lips she had ever seen. His eyes, before obscured by sunglasses, were olive-green and seemed to emanate their owner’s power. She fell silent, facing the celebrity who studied her in the same curious, playful way he had done days before.
“Cat got your tongue?” he said, smiling. “I’m not going to bite you. At least, not if you don’t want me to.”
Ava remembered the tour guide saying that the man had five official girlfriends. Yes, but he seems to be hunting for number six. “I don’t remember seeing you,” she responded finally. “You must have me confused with someone else, sir.”
"Whoa! Sir?” Dimitri laughed, placing his hand over his chest, as if he had taken a blow. “Do I really seem that old?”
The man exuded virility. “No,” Ava said dryly. “But much older than me, and I don’t know you, so that seemed the proper way to address you.”
“In that case, I’m getting rid of the formalities. My name is Dimitri. What’s yours?”
Ava could not help feeling flattered that such a wealthy tycoon was flirting with her. But what was the use of surrendering to his charm? That type of man did not date; they bought women with expensive gifts. She refused to be seen as a gold digger.
“You really need to think that long about telling me your name?” Dimitri asked. And this time, despite his smile, Ava noticed that he was growing impatient.
“My name is Ava. If you’ll excuse me, I have to get back to work.”
“You didn’t seem to be in the least bit of a hurry before I arrived. I suspect you just don’t like me.”
“Look, Mr. Petrov, I—” She stopped, immediately realizing her gaffe. Goddammit, this man makes me tense!
Dimitri’s smile widened. “So you do know who I am.”
Ava sighed. “Yes. And yes, it was me on the boat. Now I really do have to go.”
When she turned to leave, Dimitri gently grabbed her hand, which was moist with tension. “Are you afraid of me, Ava?” He was completely serious for the first time, and it made him dangerously attractive.
Yes. “Of course not. Should I be?”
“I don’t know. Maybe after what I said about the bite.”
Ava couldn’t help laughing. “I’m not afraid of you, okay? But honestly, I don’t understand why a man like yourself, Mr. Petrov, would—”
“A man like you, Dimitri, would approach a girl like me.”
“Because you are perfect.” He drew closer, his eyes fixed on hers. “Beautiful from head to toe. Why wouldn’t I?”
Ava blushed. Dimitri Petrov thinks I am perfect?! The idea of being with him was overwhelming. But her sardonic mind knew better. You are just another pretty girl. He does not know you, nor does he want to get to know you. The question is, do you want to be one of the five—thousand—girlfriends of a playboy?
She did not. Ava gazed at Dimitri, wondering if she would ever be that close to a man of such caliber again. “I am flattered. But I saw you on the yacht and that’s not for me.”
“Are you referring to the women?” Dimitri was clearly enjoying himself.
Ava shrugged. “The whole thing. I am a simple girl, but I am not for sale.”
Two long months had passed since she had met him last. Ava wondered if Dimitri would even remember her. She had scrambled together the best outfit she could find in a consignment shop, hoping that her long legs and slender curves would distract him from the relatively low price tag of her second-hand clothes. She approached the front gate of his residence, trying to breathe as naturally as she could, and rang the bell.
Dimitri was enjoying a late lunch when one of his security guards announced that there was a gorgeous redhead wanting to see him. “She says her name is Ava, sir. Should I send her up?”
Intrigued, Dimitri checked the surveillance camera—he could not connect the name to any familiar faces. Once he realized that he was staring at the girl who was not for sale, he smiled.