For the rest of the week, Ava continued looking for work in various shops with no success. On Friday evening when she returned home she found Dimitri Petrov in the lobby. He looked absolutely gorgeous in his gray suit and light-blue shirt, and Ava couldn’t help but think, Could he be waiting for me?
As if responding to her question, Dimitri took an envelope out of his pocket and she immediately recognized the note she had left him.
Please let me thank you for everything you’ve done for me.
I might be too young for my initial offer, but
not to cook for you. Will you have dinner with me one night?
When she approached him, Dimitri smiled in that boyish way of his, and said, “How could you tell my guard that this wasn’t urgent?”
It was the worst day in the world to have a man like Dimitri over to her house. To have anyone over, Ava thought, remembering the dishes in the sink and the underwear drying on the shower door. She smiled and said, “It’s so kind of you to come. I wanted to thank you. The apartment is excellent and the money you gave me has helped a lot. I recently lost my job, so this should tide me over until I find a new one.”
Dimitri’s face grew serious. “I’m sorry about the job. But I’m glad you like the apartment.”
Ava could not keep him in the lobby with that idle chatter. “Look, Dimitri, I wasn’t expecting you tonight. The house is a bit messy and I’ll probably have to go out and buy something. I can’t make a decent dinner with what I have in the fridge.”
“You won’t have to. I came to ask you to dinner.”
A date? Horrified, Ava realized that a pathetic smile had settled onto her face. “Thank you. But the plan was that I would reciprocate. You’ve already done enough for me.”
“So now you owe me two dinners,” he smiled. “Now please, go change. I can wait for you down here.”
Ava would had preferred it that way, but she was living in Dimitri’s place. How could she not invite him in? “That’s not what I meant,” she said. “Of course you can come up. Just promise me that while I’m in the shower, you won’t go anywhere near the kitchen.”
Dimitri raised his right hand in a solemn gesture. “I promise.”
Ava laughed and headed toward the elevator with one of the richest men in Russia on her heels.
As the elevator ascended toward the fifth floor, Dimitri casually chatted about the circumstances surrounding the construction of the apartment, but Ava was not listening. She wondered what his intentions were. Could he have changed his mind about sleeping with her? But if that were true, why did he suggest waiting downstairs?
Ava turned on the living room light and invited Dimitri in. Her hands were moist as she shut the door and gave an uneven smile. “Well, I don’t think I need to say my home is your home, but please, sit down.”
Dimitri accommodated himself on one of the armchairs and Ava almost laughed at the contrast. He did not fit the simple décor or the smallness of the room. The man was larger than life.
“I don’t have any alcoholic drinks, but would you like a juice or a soda?”
“I’m fine. Thanks.” Dimitri reached for a magazine on the coffee table and said, “Go ahead. Pretend I’m not here.”
Sure...That’s so easy. “Alright. I’ll be right back.”
Ava did not like the idea of wearing the same outfit she had worn to Dimitri’s house the week before, but it was the only decent one she had. When she returned to the living room, however, he did not seem to care – or notice – that the dress was the same.
“You look magnificent,” he breathed. He rose and offered her his arm, like a true date. “Shall we?”
Dimitri took Ava to the most elegant restaurant in town. As they entered, several heads turned to look at them. The maître d’ came to greet them, bowing as if to his king and queen, and took them to the best table in the room. All eyes seemed to follow them. First they fell on Dimitri, the star, then to Ava, as if to determine whether or not she was good enough for him.
Ava caught herself gripping Dimitri’s arm tightly. Her knees felt like jelly and she feared that they would fail her. When they sat down, she relaxed a little. People were still looking at them but at least she no longer needed to worry about walking. Then she looked down at the table, and, seeing the array of glasses and silverware spread before her, realized she was just about to confront a further set of problems.
Dimitri couldn’t halt the grin that was forming at the corner of his lips. “Try to relax. I wanted to bring you here to develop antibodies.”
“Antibodies?” Ava cocked an eyebrow. “To what? Feminine hostility?”
Dimitri laughed. “No. You must be used to that, being as beautiful as you are.” He looked around. “Until a few years ago, I never imagined setting foot in a restaurant like this. The first time I came here, even with enough money to pay the bill for all the tables around me, I still felt a knot in my stomach. A feeling of not belonging.” He paused briefly, and then added, “It’s this feeling you need to be immune to. If you believe that you are good enough to go anywhere, to sit at a table with kings and heads of state, the doors will open for you.”
For the rest of the night, Ava attempted to follow her new ‘friend’s’ advice. She ignored the people around her and concentrated on the pleasure of being in a dream: the music, the decor, the impeccable service. Dimitri patiently explained the menu to her without the least hint of mockery, and she felt affection towards him for acting as her mentor. No one had ever cared about her enough to teach her anything—not even her parents.
Dimitri spoke about wines, fancy food and the new chef he had hired for his house in Moscow. Ava caught herself laughing, devouring every moment of his company. Dimitri was extremely charismatic and when she looked at him she wanted to touch him, to taste his mouth. She wanted both to have him and to be him.
Dimitri made Ava feel so safe that when she rose to use the restroom, she walked steadily under the curious stares, as if she were a regular. She no longer felt like the girl who had entered there an hour earlier. She still didn’t have the money to pay the bill, but she belonged there.
On the way back to Ava’s apartment, Dimitri mentioned that he would be traveling again the next day and she said, “You always seem to be going from one place to another. Don’t you get exhausted living like that?”
“Sometimes. But I try to exercise, eat well, and always find time to have fun. I don’t intend on having a heart attack at forty like so many Americans.”
And there was the smile that said, Don’t worry, I have my 5,000 girls to take care of me.
“Great,” Ava said, surprised at the wave of jealousy that washed over her. “And where are you headed this time?”
“Kazakhstan. I’m getting into the mining business. It’s quite lucrative.”
The driver parked in front of the building’s gate, but showed no sign of leaving. Dimitri left the car and personally opened the door for Ava, offering her his hand. He had probably arranged for the driver to let him perform this little stunt, just to impress her.
All evening Dimitri had been giving her mixed signals. Most of the time he had behaved like a true friend, someone that—as he said himself—had been in the same boat. But during several brief moments, she had also found his eyes openly lingering on her lips, or her neckline, as if he wanted her to know that he was lightly flirting with her. Now that they were standing on her sidewalk, she wondered whether he would try to kiss her. And if he did, if she should invite him up.
Dimitri interrupted her thoughts by placing a gallant kiss on her hand. “I really enjoyed myself tonight, Ava. Have a good night, my dear.”
Ava tried to hide her disappointment. She didn’t want him to leave yet. She wanted to know if she would see him again. Out loud, she simply said, “Good night, Dimitri. I had a great time, too. Thanks again for dinner.”
“My pleasure.” Dimitri returned to the backseat of his Mercedes and said, “You’ve come out better than I did my first time there.” He smiled. “I’m proud of you.”
Ava stood on the sidewalk until the black vehicle had vanished from sight. She was only eighteen, was absolutely alone in the world and completely broke. But even still, she was formulating plans for the career she would have one day and for the apartment she would buy. She was proud of herself, too. Yet, it had been Dimitri who had said it out loud, albeit in his playful way.
Ava sighed heavily and headed toward the reception, feeling a knot in her throat. How unfortunate that her father had attacked her. Had that not happened she wouldn’t have taken her grandmother’s ring, she wouldn’t be unemployed, and most importantly she wouldn’t have gone looking for an enchanting billionaire who was completely out of her league.
“Ms. Kostova?” the doorman called when he saw her enter.
Ava tried to hide the red stinging in her eyes. “Yes?”
“A few packages arrived for you today, ma’am. Can I take them upstairs now?”
“There must be some mistake. I’m not waiting for anything.”
The man grinned. “They’re from Mr. Petrov.”
Ava fell silent, processing the information. He probably had brought whatever it was that afternoon before she arrived and told the doorman to make the delivery only after he had left. “OK,” she said, still stunned. It was better to stop trying to understand Dimitri.
Five minutes later, a different man was ringing Ava’s bell. He was armed with two shopping bags, an enormous box decorated with a ribbon, and a smaller package about the size of a book. He placed everything on the sofa, as Ava had instructed him, and headed back to the door.
Lacking the guile to tip the man, Ava just thanked him and bid him goodnight.
In the largest box she found the red chiffon dress she had been admiring the first time she spoke with Dimitri. It had cost a small fortune and she smiled, stupefied. But Dimitri’s extravagance didn’t end there. The other bags revealed a pair of Valentino shoes, a Chanel clutch and a magnificent royal blue silk dress.
Wow! She laughed out loud and finally opened the smallest box. It contained a cell phone and a handwritten note:
There are many girls on my yacht, but none like you.
That’s why I want to be your friend
(at least until you grow up).
She laughed and then resumed reading.
I hope you like my gifts.
The saleswoman at the store where we met helped me.
She said you go there all the time, but never buy anything.
I thought it was time to change that.
You belong to places as beautiful as you.
Will you have dinner with me next week?
Now that I have your number, I don’t need to show up unannounced.
He had merely signed it, “D.”
Ava reread the note a dozen times, impressed that Dimitri’s handwriting was just as strong and sensual as his personality. When she lay down to sleep, she was convinced that she was falling in love with him. It no longer mattered that he was twice her age and had an infinite number of girlfriends.
Three days later, Ava finally found a job in a small shop that sold second-hand designer goods. She had always been an avid reader of fashion magazines, combing through the big boutiques on a daily basis. The store manager thought she understood the subject well enough and would be a good acquisition. Beyond helping clients, Ava would also assist in selecting and pricing the articles of clothing left in consignment.
She kept her cell phone at her side all week, but Dimitri never called. Why would he? she wondered. He had already done enough for her, and wanting him to reciprocate her feelings was ridiculous. Even so, Ava found herself researching him on the Internet and collecting his photos from magazines. Each week, Dimitri always appeared next to a new female companion, but Ava soon discovered that he had only three official girlfriends and not five. Finally, some progress!
She spent a long moment looking at a picture of all of them together, and memorized the names of the three beauties: Natalia, Ilona and Oxana.
Exactly one week had passed since Dimitri had gone to Kazakhstan, which meant that he must be back in Saint Petersburg by now. But the contact list in her new mobile was blank, and if Dimitri hadn’t given her his personal number, it meant that he did not want to be bothered. It seemed that communication between them would be unilateral whenever he was interested.
Ava attempted to busy herself with other things in the meantime. The store hours on Saturday were longer than during the week and she made good sales. Some interesting pieces of clothing appeared on consignment and she wrangled a few for herself with the commission she had made.
Only on Sunday afternoon did Dimitri send a text message from a restricted number. “Still traveling. Will be in touch as soon as I’m back. D.”
It was two more weeks before Ava heard from him again. This time, Dimitri called from his landline in Saint Petersburg, and the mere sound of his voice had Ava trembling with excitement.
“I’m here,” he said excitedly. “The deals went great, but I had to stay longer than planned. How are you?”
Missing you. “Great. I got a job and if everything goes well, soon I’ll be able to pay you the rent.”
“Don’t worry about that. The only thing you owe me is dinner. At my place or yours?”
Ava laughed. That phrase generally did not refer to dinner. “At mine, if that’s okay. Unless you’re afraid of trying my food.”
“Not at all,” Dimitri answered, and Ava felt the flirting reemerge between the lines.
“Alright. How about tomorrow at eight?”
“Would 8:30 be too late for you? I have some things to take care of beforehand.”
“Of course. 8:30 is perfect. I don’t intend to cook seven courses like that restaurant you took me to, but you can choose the entrée.”
Dimitri said nothing but Ava could sense his smile. He seemed full of ulterior motives.
Before he could speak, Ava filled the silence. “What happened, Mr. Petrov? Cat got your tongue?”
He laughed, recalling he had used those same lines with her during their first conversation. “No. I just can’t decide. I’ll leave it up to you. I’m sure you’ll give me your best.”
Not a word was necessary when Ava opened her door the following night. Dimitri pulled her into an embrace and kissed her with such intensity she thought she would melt on top of him. He then scooped her up in his arms and carried her to the bedroom. Ava was wearing the royal blue dress Dimitri had given her. He carefully placed her on the bed, and pulled back to admire her.
“An angel in blue,” he said, keeping his distance. “I’ve never wanted anyone like I want you, Ava. But you are truly a child and I don’t want you to do this because you owe me a favor. Tell me the truth, do you want me, too?”
“Of course I do!” She approached him and stroked his face. “It’s different now. I would want you even if you were dead broke.”
The next minute, Dimitri was on top of her, the two moving in the same frenetic rhythm, and Ava savored the sensation of having that wonderful man to herself, even if only for that night. They made love three times and their desire seemed endless.
This is how sex should be, Ava thought, not like with the two inexperienced boys she had been with before. Dimitri knew exactly where to touch her, when to touch her, provoking and then fully satisfying her. But what amazed her most was that his power did not come only from his billions. Dimitri was a nuclear reactor, a powerhouse of perpetual energy without an “off” switch. And Ava hungered for more.
Dimitri went to see Ava every night that week, always bringing expensive gifts. But she didn’t care a bit about them. Her focus was solely on him. She wanted to please him in all ways possible and to surrender to him like she had never done with anyone else.
Over the next two months, Dimitri traveled quite a lot, but whenever he was in Saint Petersburg, Ava would soak every ounce of him up. Whenever Dimitri was gone, the entire city dimmed deeper shades of gray and grew darker until he returned. Any time Ava turned the TV on and saw him with other women, she fought the urge to get jealous. What could she say to him? That he should stop seeing others? That she loved him?
Dimitri Petrov had never promised her anything and Ava didn’t want to say anything to scare him away. She still remembered his words the day she had gone to his house. I have two girls downstairs at my beck and call and even more just a phone call away. He had not been exaggerating. As long as he came back to her whenever he was in Saint Petersburg, that was enough. At least, enough for now.
When Dimitri returned this time, his hands were empty, but he was about to offer the greatest of gifts. After they made love, Ava brought him a meal in bed, accompanied by a very sweet welcome back note.
Dimitri read the card and then looked at her. “No one does these things for me. Not wanting anything in exchange, like you do.”
“I love you, Dimitri,” Ava said, without thinking, and then embarrassed, lowered her eyes to the floor. “You’re so good for me. You deserve me taking good care of you.”
Dimitri raised her chin and when their eyes met, he smiled. “I love you, too, Ava, and I want you to come live with me in Moscow.”
It was the happiest moment of Ava’s life. I love you, too was all she had ever wanted to hear. A man like Dimitri Petrov did not have to lie. He did not need to do anything he didn’t want to. So if he had said that he loved her, it was because it was true. And if he had invited her to live with him, it was because in some way, he had found her more special than the other three girls he had been seeing.
The neoclassic, three-story mansion was spread out over two expansive wings. Past a façade of colossal columns, a butler opened the door and welcomed Dimitri and Ava inside. After entering the vast living room for a moment, Ava couldn’t help but let a laugh escape her lips. The place was nearly the size of the Red Square, and as luxurious as a castle. It was like walking into a dream. But the real surprise was when she turned around and found Natalia, Ilona and Oxana descending the stairs to meet them.
Dimitri had never mentioned that his three other girlfriends were living with him under the same roof, like the multiple wives of a Middle Eastern Sheik. The three women approached and one by one kissed Dimitri’s lips. They then turned to Ava and said, almost in unison, “Welcome.”
Apparently she was the only one unaware of the plan.