Dimitri Petrov lived in a rustic townhouse by the canal that was said to have been originally purchased by Alexander Pushkin for a friend. It exuded sophistication and as Ava walked into the living room she was overcome by the attention that had gone into restoring it. The plaster on the walls had been removed in patches to expose its centenary bricks; a nice contrast to the modern glass panels and brushed steel flanking them. The running boards on the floor were made of dark wood, covered by white rugs, and the furniture was contemporary and masculine. It was fair to say that the place reflected its owner’s personality—strong, dynamic and sensual.
While Ava climbed the stairs leading to the terrace, she spotted two girls in their early twenties, wearing the tiniest miniskirts she had ever seen. She wondered if they were some of Dimitri’s official girlfriends. They looked at Ava with indifference and strode into another section of the house.
Ava walked unsteadily in her extra high Jimmy Shoos. It had seemed like a good idea to wear them for Dimitri at the time, but now that she was there, her nerves were throwing her balance off. She couldn’t believe that she was about to offer herself to a playboy. A stranger. Ava’s eyes filled with tears and she drew a deep breath.
It’s this or the gutter. She tried to focus on the slippery floor below her heels.
Dimitri was sitting outside on the terrace, wearing jeans and a white shirt that accentuated his light tan. His eyes were hidden behind sunglasses; his brown hair, now a bit longer, blew in the afternoon breeze. When Ava entered, he rose and offered his trademark sarcastic smile.
“Ava, what a surprise! What brings you here?”
She looked at the security guard who had accompanied her, and Dimitri signaled for the man to leave them.
“You look even prettier than the last two times I saw you.”
Ava laughed inside. He made it sound as if they were old acquaintances. Okay, this is going to be tough, but if I’ve come all the way here, it’s better to spit it out.
She couldn’t lock her eyes onto his. “Well, the last time we met, Dimitri”—it was still strange to call him by his first name—“you led me to believe that you wanted to get to know me better. Are you still interested?”
Dimitri removed his sunglasses and looked straight at her. “Of course I am, but my yacht is still full of girls. What made you change your mind?”
Ava lifted her head. Her flawless skin and big blue eyes resembled those of a porcelain doll. “Do you want the truth?”
“My father tried to rape me last night and I left home. I don’t have anywhere to go.”
Dimitri’s good-humored smile faded. “Wow, it doesn’t seem like you will ever give me a predictable answer, huh?” Ava shrugged, and he chuckled. “How old are you?”
Dimitri leaned back in his chair. “Well, Ava, I don’t usually get involved with girls that young. I thought you were at least twenty-one.”
“That’s what everyone thinks,” she rushed to say. Dimitri no longer seemed so interested. He was probably about to call the guard to escort her out, which would simply not do since she had no plan B. The dirty façades of the brothels flashed across Ava’s mind, so she added desperately, “You can pretend that I’m twenty-one. I won’t tell anyone.”
Dimitri cleared his throat. “Regardless of your age, last time we met you made it clear that I was too old for you.”
Ava opened her mouth to explain that he had mistaken her, but soon realized that Dimitri was joking. She laughed. “Alright. I deserve to be teased. I said I was not for sale and now I’m here, right?”
Dimitri fell silent for a moment, studying her, and then rose. “I have a better idea.” He strode into the adjacent room and came back with his wallet and a business card. “I wasn’t born rich, Ava, you should know that. And aside from the attempted rape, I’ve been exactly where you are.” He opened his wallet, counted out the equivalent of one thousand dollars in Rubles and handed them to her, along with a business card.
“I found what you told me last time to be very noble, and I don’t want you to change your mind because you find yourself in an extreme situation. There’s money here for you to keep going for a few days. And I want you to contact this woman. She manages my real estate in the city and is going to find a place for you to stay until your life gets back on track.” Dimitri looked at his gold Rolex and added, “But it’s better for you to go now or you won’t get this done today.”
Ava was perplexed. “But I thought—”
“That I would rip off your clothes and jump on you?” When her eyes said yes, Dimitri laughed. “Ava, I have two girls downstairs at my beck and call, and many more just a phone call away. You came here because you needed help, nothing more. It would hurt my ego if I laid a finger on you.”
Ava left without understanding what the hell had just happened. She was clueless. About life. About men. About Dimitri Petrov. How come the man who had ten thousand women on his boat, who flirted with the same ease with which he breathed, refused a beautiful girl who had practically thrown herself on his bed?
He really must have a big ego. And, apparently, a big heart.
Ava had grown up among petty people who fought over every crumb of bread, and she knew she wasn’t an exception. Now, a total stranger had given her a hand and asked for nothing in return. Dimitri Petrov had been a pleasant surprise.
Half an hour later, Ava was in the office of the broker that Dimitri had recommended, and in another three, in the apartment he had lent her indeterminately. While she unpacked her bags, Ava joked with herself, Nothing like having rich friends. And then she shook her head. Friend? Dimitri Petrov didn’t quite fit into that category, but she was grateful he had decided to be her benefactor.
The broker explained that Dimitri had bought the building and turned the old apartments into modern studios that he rented out to tourists and traveling professionals. It was a nice crowd and Ava loved the spot. Her studio overlooked a quiet street. It was not large, but the walls still smelled of fresh paint and the furniture was modern and functional. It was close to everything she needed: supermarket, pharmacy, and the bus stop was only a block away. It was without a doubt much better than the dark, cluttered house in which she had grown up. She wanted to thank Dimitri, but what could she offer a man who had everything?
Ava walked to a nearby store, bought fancy stationery, and sat to write him a thank-you note. When she was finished, she caught a taxi and went back to Dimitri’s house.
The same security guard from her first visit greeted her. “Miss Kostova, right?” She nodded and the man said, “Mr. Petrov has just gone to the airport.”
Ava felt a twinge of disappointment, but what should she expect from an important man like that? For him to sit at home? “I just want to leave this for him,” she said, handing the envelope to the guard.
“Of course. Is it urgent or can it wait until he is back?”
"It can wait. But please hand it to him personally.”
When Ava returned to her new home, night had already fallen and the lights along the Neva sparkled in the water like brilliant gemstones.
Ava opened the door, armed with two bags of groceries, and inhaled the scent of fresh paint. It would be good to have her own place some day. While she cooked, she amused herself by imagining where her next apartment would be; if she ended up managing Mr. Lishin’s store, she could rent an apartment in the same building, and actually pay the appropriate rent. Then, if she found a job with one of the important jewelers on Nevsky Avenue, she could move to a bigger apartment with a beautiful view.
So many possibilities were beginning to open themselves to Ava. Dimitri Petrov had told her that she was perfect, and since he hadn’t made any advances on her, maybe he was actually being honest. And if Dimitri found her perfect, she didn’t even need to limit herself to Saint Petersburg, or even Russia. She could become a famous model and live in London, Paris or Milan.
Only after washing the dishes and retiring to her room did Ava descend back into the real world. Everything had changed so drastically in just a twenty-four-hour period. Her father had been good to her as a child, and she did not know how to feel towards him now. With all the drinking over the years he had become but a vague presence in Ava’s life and now, after what he had done the night before, she pitied the bastard. The man had lived in solitude for years now, with only his broken heart to accompany him. From his wife leaving him to the crumbling of his Soviet childhood home—it had all left him destitute.
Ultimately, Ava decided the father she had once loved had died years ago, and that it was simply better to move on. Her family memories would be limited to those of her grandmother and sister. With thoughts of Irina in her mind, Ava eventually felt the tug of sleep embrace her warmly.
Ava woke up early, put on a nice dress and arrived at work half an hour early to make up for her absence the day before. Mr. Lishin had seemed understanding when they had spoken over the phone. But she could not afford to lose this job so she insisted on working two full days without pay to make up for it.
Upon seeing Lishin turn the corner toward the store’s entrance, Ava put on her best smile. “Good morning, sir!”
“I’m glad you showed up, Ava, and don’t bother faking you were sick yesterday. Your father had come by looking for you. He said you had struck him in the face and left home with his mother’s diamond ring.”
Oh, no… “My father is confused, Mr. Lishin. He’s been drinking too much.”
“I noticed,” Lishin snapped, as he opened the shop door, not facing Ava. “It was a tremendous embarrassment. He cursed and screamed. All in front of my customers.”
Sensing where the conversation was headed, Ava panicked. “My father attacked me, Mr. Lishin! I just defended myself. I couldn’t come to work because I was looking for a place to stay.”
“Well, your family problems are none of my concern. But is it true that you took your grandmother’s ring?”
Ava hesitated, not knowing how to explain herself. Lishin filled the silence, “Look, you are a smart girl and I had plans for you here, but I cannot trust someone who steals from their own family. I’m going to have to let you go.”
Ava had spent most of the money she received from her grandmother’s ring to purchase the outfit for her meeting with Dimitri. And the money he had given her wouldn’t last long. Even if he were generous enough to let her live in the apartment for a while, she would still need to find another job.
Since she was already dressed up for work, Ava spent the day visiting various jewelers and boutiques and asking if they were hiring. It wasn’t until mid-afternoon that she found a small jeweler in a shopping mall who was looking for a junior assistant. The woman liked Ava and said she would be willing to hire her if her previous employer could provide a good reference letter. Ava simply thanked her and left.
Before, Ava could never have imagined herself working at a restaurant or deli like Irina had. But she could not afford to be picky. Ava entered the deli where Irina had worked, and a dozen similar establishments in the neighborhood. None were hiring. Finally, she found a dive bar that would pay her sixty percent of what Irina used to make to wash dishes and help in the kitchen. The place was dirty, had an odd assortment of customers, and the cook eyed Ava as if she were dessert. She told the manager that she would think about the offer and left.
It was approaching 7 P.M. when Ava decided to return home. She had eaten no more than an apple for lunch. And despite the calluses that had formed on her feet from walking the entire day, she had wandered for nearly another hour, trying to put together the pieces of her life.
Jobs seemed as rare as when her father had been fired. Knowing this, Ava wondered how he’d had the nerve to confront her employer, especially after what he had done to her.
It made her despise him more than ever.
As she passed a small café, she spotted a young blonde girl sitting alone. Ava recognized her as one of her customers. The girl had visited the shop twice, and on both occasions was hanging on the arm of a wealthy banker from Zurich.
Ava approached the girl. “Hi. My name’s Ava,” she said with a shy smile. “I helped you a few times at the–”
“The jewelers! How could I forget? You were such a talented saleswoman, you always convinced my friend to buy more than he intended to. I guess I owe you!”
They both laughed and then the blonde girl, Mara, asked, “What brings you to this part of town?”
“Well, I lost my job at the jeweler’s and have been looking for a similar position all day. No one seems to be hiring in the entire city. I even went to a couple of restaurants and a dive bar. Nothing.”
Mara studied Ava from her young, soft face to her designer shoes. “You are very pretty. You shouldn’t be wasting time with hard working jobs. They will wear off your beauty, and beauty is the greatest asset we women possess.”
Ava knew Mara was a gold digger and did not know how to answer her, so she changed the subject. “Are you waiting for someone?”
“Yes.” Mara pointed through the café window at a tall brunette in her early fifties who was standing behind the counter. “Tatiana, the woman who owns this place. But she will be busy for another half an hour, so why don’t you sit down and have a coffee with me while I kill time.”
Ava took a seat and Mara smiled, lowering her voice. “Let me tell you something, Ava. I am jobless just like you, but Tatiana knows many wealthy men. Thanks to her, I met that guy from Zurich and now that he left, I will ask her to hook me up with someone else. Why don’t you do the same?”
In Ava’s opinion, gold diggers and prostitutes were quite alike and she had never considered becoming either. The reaction she provoked in men, however, was undeniable and now, jobless and determined to never return home, she wondered if her beauty would wind up being all she would have to offer.
For a moment, she tried to forget her own morals and convince herself that sleeping with strangers wouldn’t be so bad. In fact, she had already tried this with Dimitri, so how much worse could it be with other men?
No. What she had done with Dimitri was wrong. However, he didn’t pay for sex; he had several girlfriends and took care of all of them. And most importantly, he was not just rich, he was attractive, smart and fun—the type of guy she would like to have as a boyfriend regardless of his wealth. Thus, even without love, it would be very easy to have sex with him. Now that she thought about it, sleeping with strangers was not a great idea. She pictured herself in bed with a perverted old Swiss banker, or a curious tourist looking for special favors, and gagged.
I will help the cook at that dirty bar, Ava thought. Just until I find something better.
But she knew the money wouldn’t be enough, and they needed her to start at 4 P.M., which would make it impossible for her to get a day job, since most of them ended at five.
Mara studied Ava’s pale face. “Please forget what I said, Ok? You seem very young for this kind of stuff. It’s just a shame to see you struggling so hard when you could easily have anything you dream of.”
Ava did not find doing those things as easy as Mara made them seem, but she appreciated her concern. “There’s nothing to apologize for. Quite the opposite. Thanks for offering me a way out. I just think I cannot do it.”
“Oh, honey. The best way to discover what you are capable of doing is by doing it. Years ago, when a friend of mine told me about her lifestyle, I was as shocked as you are now. But you wanna know something? I tried it and I don’t regret it a bit. Tatiana organizes parties exclusively for loaded men to meet women, and you’re pretty enough to be there. The only problem I see is that you probably won’t have the money to get started.”
“You mean that she charges some sort of commission?”
“Yeah. Up front. And it’s a lot of money. She claims that it’s almost impossible for a girl to leave her parties without a good catch. So, as she can’t keep track of everything the guy will give you later, she charges you a two-thousand Euro admission fee.”
“It’s an investment. And you will also need nice clothes and accessories. If these guys realize you are desperate, they’ll use you and give you nothing.”
Ava shook her head and took a sip of her Cappuccino, lost in thought. Her mind was back to Dimitri. Initially, because he was the wealthy man she already knew. She speculated about going back to his home, now more determined to seduce him. But she found herself remembering his generosity and wondered how lucky a woman would be, if a man like Dimitri gave up his playboy life to love only her.
Masha understood Ava’s silence as if she were having second thoughts. That reminded her of the initial few days when she had plunged into that life and she sympathized. It could be truly difficult, especially when one had no idea what she was doing.
“Look, Ava, I’m going to give you some free advice, okay? With wealthy men, you don’t charge for the sex. These guys don’t want prostitutes, they want perfect girlfriends who don’t annoy them like their real wives and girlfriends do. If you are smart enough to feed them a good illusion, you can get anything out of them, from clothes to real estate. Some girls even marry them. But remember, beauty is only the initial bait. It’s your other talents that make the difference.”
Ava nodded unsteadily. “I see…”
“Yeah, you don’t really seem cut out for it,” Mara said, laughing, and Ava joined her.
“I’m really not! So tomorrow I guess it’s back to job hunting.”
Ava hoped that had finished the conversation, but Mara added, “Well, just know that I didn’t have the money to get started either. I just wanted it so badly I found a way to make it. That’s what drives you in life, Ava. How much you want something.” Mara gazed at the distance where Tatiana stood, now talking to an attractive young woman. “For me, the parties are just the beginning of the hunt. I save money every year to go to the south of France with my friends. That’s where the best opportunities are.”
“France!? That must really cost a fortune.”
Mara turned back to Ava. “Not if you go with other girls. And it’s a much higher return. Here you’ll pay two thousand for a single party and if you don’t get anything, it’s over. My group has eight girls. We pay a couple of thousand each for our transportation and to rent a little apartment for the last two weeks of July, when the best parties happen. We’re not on the guest list of course. But each of us buys one piece of hot clothing and a pair of shoes, and since everyone wears more or less the same size, we share everything. From there, it’s just about looking stunning and showing up in the right hotels, bars and nightclubs to snag the magnates searching for fun.”
“And this really works?”
“Most of the time. These men are there on their yachts and private jets. If you do a decent job, they adopt you for the entire summer, take you traveling with them and shower you with presents. Last year I met an American who dealt in oil. He took me to Monaco and Sardinia in August, and to Florence and Venice in September. I had to quit my job, but who cares? In two months, I got a diamond bracelet and an amazing wardrobe. The bracelet helped me pay my rent when money was tight, and the clothing helped me perform my job with my middle-weight benefactors, like the Swiss guy you saw.”
Ava laughed. “You classify your men like boxers?”
“Not really. I just said that for you to understand. I prefer to call them Gold, Platinum or Black.”
Ava’s eyebrows knit together and Mara realized she hadn’t understood. “Those are credit cards. Gold is good. Platinum is better. And Black represents the millionaires.”
“I assume the richer they are, the more they demand from you, right?”
“Exactly. One needs to be ready for anything. They enjoy sado, maso, sodo, group… you name it!”
Ava was grateful she had met Mara that night. After the blonde’s testimony, she was certain she lacked the nerve for a career of that kind. But she could not deny that the girl’s stories seemed as though they were out of a novel. She imagined a bunch of girls squeezed into a tiny apartment in Saint-Tropez, sleeping on the floor, waiting in line for the bathroom, and passing dresses and accessories around. It seemed surreal, but somehow she knew Mara was telling the truth.
“I’ve gotta go now,” Ava said, standing. “Thank you for the coffee and for your advice.”
“Not at all. I really like you.” Mara jotted down her email address and cell phone number on a napkin. “And take this, in case one day you change your mind. In Saint-Tropez, one more girl always strengthens the group’s plan.”
Tatiana approached Mara a few moments later and Ava stood watching them from a distance. It was remarkable how until then, she had not considered that there were occupational hazards to such a job. Whether she was a cheap prostitute or a professional gold digger, there would always be someone trying to take advantage of her. There were all the usual risks, the violent clients, the drunks, the drug addicts, and those who enjoyed the sexual eccentricities Mara had so casually mentioned.