When Ava found the strength in her legs, she turned on her heels and started toward the garden. Dimitri silently followed her until Ava stopped at the edge of a fountain to brace herself.
“Ava,” he said over her shoulder, “look at me.”
She did not obey. The tears that had blurred her vision on her walk now streamed down her cheeks. “I want to be alone.”
Dimitri embraced Ava around the waist, startling her. Suddenly, his touch didn’t seem quite the same anymore. She had always known that he had other women, but never imagined that he would subject her to a situation like this. “I want to go back to Saint Petersburg,” she murmured. “I can’t stay here.”
“Don’t be foolish,” Dimitri said, settling his chin on her shoulder. “I guessed you must have known about them. I just thought it better not to mention that they lived here, or you might not want to come.”
Ava turned to face him now, seized by rage. “How could you bring me here without talking about this?! I’ve seen in the papers that you’re with a different woman everywhere you go. That’s how I first saw you, so I didn’t think I had the right to complain. But you said you loved me, that no one cared for you like I did. Was that all a lie?”
“Of course not. I do love you. But the three girls in there are not like the girls on the yacht. They are special, too, and they also have part of my love.”
Ava shook her head in disbelief. “I don’t want part of your love, Dimitri. I agreed to share your body and your company but not your feelings! If you love me the same way you love those three, this won’t work!”
“Shit! This is why I don’t get involved with young girls. You are all Cinderellas!” Dimitri’s expression hardened in a way Ava had never seen before. “Do you know why I made you fall in love with me, Ava? Because it gives me a power that my expensive gifts can’t buy. Women in love fuck better. They’re more intense. That’s why I played the good boy when you came to my house to offer yourself on a tray. I knew you would think that I was your Prince Charming and that you would fall head over heels for me. But now you’re seeing who I really am. And it’s take it or leave it. I like you, I like fucking you. And I really adore the fact that you don’t give a damn if I give you a diamond or a box of matches. I just have no patience for this drama!”
Ava stared at Dimitri as shocked as when she had awoken to her father molesting her. She could hardly believe the words that were spatting out of his bitter mouth. Just moments ago, he had been the warmest, most caring man she had ever met.
Dimitri had been the perfect wolf in sheep’s clothing.
“Now I’m going back in there,” he said, “and I hope you will join us.”
“Well, then there’s the gate. You can find your way to the airport and get your own ticket back to Saint Petersburg.”
Dimitri started to leave and Ava screamed, “You know I don’t have the money for that!”
“I know. Even if you did, the apartment I lent you is no longer available. And since you quit your job, I can only imagine how hard it will be to start all over. So you should stop being difficult and stay. Without me, it won’t take long until you are selling your body on the streets. You didn’t even finish school, my dear. What other talents would you have?”
When Dimitri left, Ava collapsed on the edge of the fountain. Neither her mother running out on them nor the death of her beloved grandmother had left her feeling so devastated. Now she understood why some love songs used words like hurtful and brokenhearted. The pain was physical, not symbolic. Her chest ached as if her heart had been pulled out, or as if Dimitri had struck her in the stomach. Her disappointment was indescribable and her inability to do anything so disempowering. Ava had always despised people who committed suicide, but the feeling of being used was so traumatic that she finally understood what it was like to simply want to end the pain.
She sat on the stone-paved floor and when her tears subsided, she tried to rationalize the situation. Ava glanced at the front gate again and considered walking the three and a half miles that separated Dimitri’s home from the main road and then hitchhiking back to the city. There, she could find out the price of a bus or a train ticket back home. But she had the equivalent of a hundred and fifty dollars in her pocket and that wouldn’t get her far.
Ava tried to relax. Her dominant feeling now was anger, and anger had always been a powerful resource to draw on to reach her goals. Mara, the gold digger whom she had met months earlier, had taught her an important lesson: Wealthy men want a woman who won’t annoy them like their real wives and girlfriends do. If you can offer them a good illusion, they’ll give you everything.
The time she had spent with Dimitri in Saint Petersburg had proved to Ava that she was not a gold digger. She had just wanted love. But now, her heart was dead and so was her sense of decency. If, despite her own resistance, fate had pushed her into becoming someone’s luxury prostitute, then it may as well be a billionaire like Dimitri Petrov. She was just as attractive as those other three bitches, and there was truly nothing waiting for her in Saint Petersburg. Dignity and poverty? Not anymore. She did not want to end up like her father.
If Dimitri’s heart was not available, then she would settle for his bank account.
Ava spent over two hours in the garden. She had needed the time to say goodbye to her old dreams and create new ones. She had been able to bury the vulnerable girl who had fallen in love with Dimitri and now sought to become the materialistic, mature woman she needed to be. She would never be a ballerina, nor would she be the manager of a decent store in Saint Petersburg, but she knew that she could be something far superior to Mara and the three wives of Sheik Petrov.
Just like her father, Ava could be a gambler. She could bluff. Only the game she was about to play was a long, tricky one. But the reward would be a power she had never possessed: beauty and intelligence combined for the sole purpose of manipulating men.
She was up to the challenge and Dimitri’s fancy world would be her school.
Ava looked again at the omnipotent mansion. Dimitri wanted her to stay? Now she wanted to. She would only leave this house when she had become the greatest courtesan in Russia.
When Ava returned to the house, the living room was completely silent.
Dimitri and the girls had gone to their rooms, and the majordomo came to greet her. “Ms. Kostova, my name is Kirill. If I may, I’d like to show you to your quarters.”
“First I would like a tour of the house,” she said, with newly acquired confidence.
The majordomo nodded. “With pleasure.”
The house had eight suites. Dimitri occupied the presidential suite, while each girlfriend stayed in one of the larger suites. The smaller suites were designated for guests. There were five common bathrooms, a professional kitchen, a library, a game room, a home theater, a full gym station and sauna, a swimming pool and a tennis court. Kirill also explained that a driver would take Ava wherever she needed to go in the limousine. But Dimitri loved cars and he always drove himself in either a Ferrari, Maserati or Lamborghini.
It was 6:45 P.M. when Kirill subtly mentioned, “Dinner is served at seven-thirty. Would you like to go freshen up, ma’am? We can continue our tour tomorrow.”
Kirill had chosen his words well and Ava sensed the employees knew how to best please eccentric billionaires. She had to learn how to do that, too.
"Of course, Kirill. Go take care of your duties. I remember the way back to my room.”
Ava walked a long stretch through the opulent mansion before she heard any signs of life. Dimitri’s suite was located in the center of the mansion on the third floor, while his girls’ rooms were hierarchically on the floor below: Natalia and Oxana’s in the east wing, Ilona and Ava’s in the west.
The sound that Ava heard had come from Ilona’s room. It was a long, dull moan; one that was distinctly painful. Ava crept up to the face of the closed door and pressed her ear against its heavy oak surface.
“You’re mine, aren’t you?” Dimitri asked.
“I am,” Ilona said, quietly.
“Then say you’re happy up there.”
“I’m happy, Dimitri.”
“Great. You’re not going to have dinner with us today. I’ll see you later.”
Ava headed hastily to her room, but Dimitri came out before she could reach her destination. “Oh, so you’ve decided to stay?” His tone was both scornful and challenging.
Yes I did. And I will milk you for all you’re worth, you son of a bitch. Ava tried to imagine what a perfect girlfriend would say. “Of course I want to stay. I was just insanely jealous of you.”
With those words and a smile, the tension in Dimitri’s face vanished, and he blushed with vanity. “That’s good to hear.” He came closer and stroked Ava’s hair. “And I’m sorry for the things I said about manipulating you. I–”
“You don’t need to explain. I know that in your own way, you really love me. This is going to be hard for me, I can’t lie, but I promise I am going to try.”
Ava’s passionate kiss elicited a soft moan from Dimitri’s lips. When they pulled away, his face was glowing as if their fight had never occurred. “Let me show you our house, baby! You’re going to love it here!”
He started to pull her by the hand, and Ava laughed. “Wait, I’ve already looked around. And don’t we have to eat at seven-thirty?”
Dimitri smiled. “In case you haven’t noticed, Ms. Kostova, I’m the king of this castle. And things here happen on my time.”
Five minutes later, they were inaugurating Ava’s bed.
Dimitri would truly be good schooling for Ava. She would learn about sex, manipulation, and how to win the power games that men exude over their women. One of the most important lessons, however, occurred on the very first night, just after dinner. Once they had finished eating, Dimitri invited the three girls to Ilona’s room. The poor blonde was dressed in kinky lingerie, sitting in a cage that was hanging about five feet high in the middle of the room. She had been confined in that cramped cage for hours now, so it was no wonder that Ilona was in pain.
“What the hell is that?!” The words escaped Ava’s mouth before she could filter them.
Dimitri smiled. “Never a dull moment in this house, Ava. But don’t worry, Ilona is here of her own free will, isn’t that right, my dear?” He looked at Ilona, who nodded, and then turned back to Ava. “Each one of my girls is supposed to develop special talents. Things that make me keep them. You’ll see what Ilona lets me do with her when she comes out of there with her numb legs.”
Ava tried to process the information. “And why do the rest of us have to stay and watch?”
The question seemed a common one for newcomers—Natalia and Oxana exchanged glances and laughed.
“So you know what your competition is offering,” Dimitri responded, “and won’t stop inventing new ways of entertaining me.”
Ava had considered herself sexually liberal with Dimitri, but facing her caged contender, she figured that if she intended to stay in the game, it was time to become familiar with the sado-maso-sodo-group activities that Mara had mentioned.
Apparently, Dimitri appreciated all of them.
Ava spent the next year and a half adjusting to a surreal world of lust and luxury, a bubble of privilege that she had not imagined existed, even in her dreams. Beyond the entourage of butlers and drivers, she had a personal trainer, professional masseuses, and English and French tutors. But whenever Dimitri was in Moscow, it was like getting ready for a great party. He didn’t like to see the same outfit twice, so the shopping never ended. And makeup artists and hairstylists came to the house daily to take care of his wives.
In some aspects, Dimitri was a sociopath, but he had his generous side. He took Ava to all the operas, plays and ballets she could possibly want. One night when he was in her bed, after the performance of The Lady of the Camellias, Ava confessed her frustration at not having become a ballerina, and Dimitri said, “Well, since you already know the basics, let’s hire you a private teacher to improve your skills.”
“It’s too late now,” she said laughing. “I’ll be twenty next month.”
“It’s too late to become a professional. Not to do it as a hobby.”
Two days later, Ava was learning ballet from a former member of the Bolshoi.
Also one rainy afternoon when they were in Paris, Dimitri sprang into their penthouse suite and exclaimed, “Get dressed—you’ve gotta see this!”
Dimitri took Ava to an art gallery in Saint German de Prés and led her to a rather large portrait hanging on a back wall. Ava slowly raised her eyes to the red curls adorning the top of a soft, milky-white face and frowned.
“It’s you in another incarnation, isn’t it?” Dimitri said, still in awe. “If it hadn’t been painted before you were born I would swear you had posed for it!”
Ava hadn’t seen the painting before, but she quickly put the pieces of the puzzle together and was filled with disgust. Yes, the woman possessed very similar features to hers, only because it was a portrait of her mother. Just before the cowardly woman had run from her family, Ava had surprised her on the street holding hands with a stranger. Her mother said he was a French artist who had asked her to pose for him shortly before she got married. Ava’s mother had worked as a seamstress in a factory for most of her life and the years had worn her out, but she’d remained beautiful.
The artist had smiled at little Ava and said in his broken Russian, “You look a lot like your mom. Maybe one day I will make your portrait.”
Nine-year-old Ava had smiled back. She was far too young to understand that this man was about to destroy their home. Ava remembered her mother had called him Julian, but did not recall his last name until she saw the signature on the painting. Venot. Julian Venot.
“So?” Dimitri asked. “Do you want me to buy it for your birthday?”
Ava briefly told the story to Dimitri and said, “Let’s go. I never want to see this painting again.”