Ava never asked how Dimitri had acquired such an insatiable appetite for pain, but it became their secret. Depending on how tense his day had been, Dimitri would appear in Ava’s room with various toys designed to inflict increasing amounts of pain.
One night, she thought he was going overboard and said, “No! This is sick! Soon you will suggest you want to hurt me, too. I am not Ilona. I won’t let you!”
“Calm down, my dear, I would never ruin your beautiful skin. Or anyone else’s for that matter. I just like to feel it on my own.”
“Fine, but I won’t hurt you anymore!”
Ava expected Dimitri to get mad at her. Instead, he merely turned to her and said, “I’ll give you one hundred thousand Euros in cash, if you take care of me tonight.”
Suddenly, Ava smelled an opportunity. “I thought you never gave cash to your women, so they couldn’t save enough to leave you.”
“Yes, I am a credit card fan, but I’m willing to make an exception.”
Good, she thought. Ava had intended to squeeze jewelry, a great wardrobe and a valuable network out of Dimitri, but real cash could be her ticket out one day. All she would have to do was wait until he felt he’d had the full return on his investment, or she might gain a powerful enemy.
He was still gazing at her, waiting for her response, and Ava knew she had to resist a little longer. Dimitri had quickly lost interest in easy games.
“I said no, Dimitri. That’s why you have three girlfriends. Why keep the secrecy? Ask one of them to do it to you.”
Ava knew Dimitri did not trust his other girls. Natalia and Oxana were not models of discretion and it would be bad for his business if the media depicted him as a freak that enjoyed torture. However, she was unprepared for the answer he gave her.
“I never asked them, my dear, because unlike you, they agree with everything I say and it wouldn’t be any fun.” Dimitri smiled faintly. “And most importantly, because you are the only one who loves me. I could only do this with someone like you.”
Ava felt a knot form in her throat, but it was still business and she would not let her heart outsmart her mind. “Alright, but your offer is not good enough.”
“Oh, come on… One hundred thousand for one night is more than reasonable. It’s your last chance to get money out of me.”
“What I meant to say was, for a million, you could get yourself a free pass. I would do it whenever you want it.”
A big smile broke across Dimitri’s face. “Are we negotiating?”
“Indeed. Sleep on it and we will talk more in the morning.”
Ava rose from the bed and Dimitri held her arm, his expression now serious. “I don’t need to. Half a million, tax free, and you do what I ask. No questions asked.”
Ava accepted the offer and tried to avoid thinking about what Dimitri had said about her love. I have to do what’s best for me, she repeated to herself. He is sick.
Like other powerful men, Dimitri did not like to discuss his weaknesses. It was humiliating enough to admit his addiction to torture and ask Ava to help him. It made him submissive to her control, and he could not afford to play such a role in his line of business. So once the money was in her account, she started to follow his orders strictly, no matter how absurd. She tuned out her own conscience and fulfilled her unpleasant duty, like an executioner who must deaden his sense of empathy when bringing the axe down.
Although he never admitted it, Dimitri did not ask anyone else to act out his twisted sexual desires, so he never tired of their new routine over the years. He did not give Ava any extra money, but seemed grateful and frequently rewarded her with jewelry fit for an empress.
Dimitri always returned to his room after making love to one of his wives. With Ava, however, the arrangement had changed. After Ava would flog him, he was too exhausted to move, so he often fell asleep in her bed. It was then that she dressed his wounds, mourned the dreams she had dreamed for them, and enjoyed the only intimacy he was capable of having with a woman.
After four long years with Dimitri, Ava had grown tired. Or perhaps dormant was a better word. At high emotional cost, she had achieved the goals she’d set for herself on her first day in Moscow and it was time to leave. Seeing Dimitri asleep in their suite in Paris that night, Ava no longer saw the star on the jet ski, but a black hole that would only drag her down into a sad, empty life.
Still, she did feel bad for orchestrating her departure behind his back. Ava knew he would be devastated. But the choice had been his. She was a good package. If he had cooperated just a little more with her wishes, they could have been an immensely happy couple.
Ava allowed a tear to escape as she kissed Dimitri’s naked back, careful not to touch the recent cigarette burns, and silently said goodbye.
Ava had gradually removed most of her belongings from the house over the past few weeks, so the day she was meant to leave, she only had a few suitcases left to place in the rental car parked outside. She waited for Dimitri to return from his office, and, as expected, he was furious with her decision. He made threats, then offers, and when he realized that she wouldn’t bend, he turned on his heels and locked himself in his room without saying goodbye.
Ava loved Paris, but after having gotten used to the comforts of a multi-million dollar mansion, her one-bedroom apartment felt cramped, quiet. She had grown accustomed to the multitudes of guards, drivers, cooks, yachts and private jets. Life seemed much slower now. She now had to take the subway, do her own dishes and make sure she controlled her finances to stretch her money to the max.
She now had enough to live well without the need to submit to men for their support. But whatever sense of decency Ava had once possessed, it had been thrown from Dimitri’s third-floor balcony. He had broken something inside of her, not only by breaking her heart but also by teaching her that it was alright to become an opportunist. As her first and only mentor, Dimitri had deeply influenced the way Ava saw the world around her. She had lost faith in love and she could not stand the idea of letting any men become intimate enough to hurt her again, so she filled the emptiness in her life by establishing new materialistic goals.
Relationships had become very simple for Ava: men were providers and while she had one of them to support her, she did not have to work or spend her life savings. One day, she hoped, she would change her life—she would make friends and have casual lovers who wouldn’t have to pay to be with her—but if Mara was right and the life of a luxury prostitute ended around the age of 26, she had to use the freshness of her youth and beauty over the next couple of years to achieve her goals.
Ava’s first new goal was to find a wealthy lover to support her so she could invest the money Dimitri had given her into a fund for a rainy day. The second and more challenging goal was to buy the apartment she had dreamed about when she had first moved into Dimitri’s studio in Saint Petersburg.
Ava spent a month alone, enjoying Paris the way a commoner would, not worrying if her makeup or her hair were done perfectly. The sensation of freedom was heavenly. She would have liked to spend a year like that, anonymous, simply being a face in the crowd, but Paris was an expensive city, and so were her new goals.
As Ava began to frequent the city’s sophisticated spots, she realized that finding rich boyfriends was extremely easy, considering the talents she had acquired. On the other hand, all her targets were ugly and dull. Some were over sixty years old and barely could keep up an erection. But those same men, she learned, were the ones who would place her on a higher pedestal and give her everything she desired.
That year, Ava took two weeks off and traveled to Saint-Tropez. She immediately hooked onto William Palmer, an American with an appetite for fun. He took her shopping, sailing, and to all the great parties along the French Riviera. By early August, when he returned to the United States, Ava had squeezed out of him all the updates to her wardrobe that she wanted and over 80,000 Euros worth of jewelry.
Upon her return to Paris, she realized that she would never run out of men who would take care of her. Eventually, she became the exclusive property of François Caland, a 68-year-old food industry entrepreneur who lived in Toulon. Caland was the owner of one of the largest vineyards in France and owned two five-star hotels and various restaurants in Paris. He was married to a woman his age, but had been enchanted by Ava while visiting an art gallery. She exuded class, charm, beauty—and was extremely discreet. So he didn’t hesitate to take her as his mistress.
After Dimitri, Caland had been Ava’s most generous benefactor. He immediately gave her a credit card, paid for all of her household costs, and on their second anniversary, showed up with the deed for her dream home: a two-bedroom apartment on Avenue Montagne.
Only a few months after turning 25, Ava was proud to own her own place and still have most of the money Dimitri had given her in an investment fund. Soon, she would be able to retire from professional life and live like a “normal” person once again. That would have been the plan, if eight weeks later, she hadn’t fallen in love.
Spring of 2008
The object of Ava’s affection was a larger apartment a few blocks from hers. The price was a bargain—an emergency sale after a divorce—but the transaction had to be made immediately. Having no time to consult with Caland, who was abroad at the time, Ava decided to offer her current apartment plus ninety percent of her savings to upgrade. It was a lot of her own money. But as had happened in the past, Caland would agree that she had gotten a great deal and he would reimburse her. She didn’t think twice.
Unfortunately, right after Ava had closed the deal and moved in, Caland’s wife discovered their affair. The old woman went straight to Paris and made a tremendous scene in the lobby of Ava’s new place. The administration was not pleased to see Mrs. Caland show up armed with photos of Ava with her husband and making allegations of prostitution.
Caland found himself forced to end the affair to avoid facing an expensive divorce. Overnight, Ava found herself with just 28,000 Euros in the bank, a sky-high invoice from the interior designer who had just decorated her apartment, and additional expenses to pay that Caland would no longer cover.
If she sold the apartment immediately, she would lose a fortune, so she decided to rent the place until the scandal blew over and her finances stabilized. After packing, Ava sat by her bedroom window, watching couples sitting in the café below her. She could scarcely believe the nightmare she had driven herself into, just when everything had seemed so perfect.
She examined the long list of contacts on her phone and decided to call William Palmer, the generous American she had met in Saint-Tropez. Palmer had stayed in touch with Ava over the years, waiting in the wings once she dumped Caland. Perhaps it would be a good idea to spend some time with him in the US.
When Ava explained that she was free, Palmer cackled on the other end of the line. “This time it won’t be so exciting, cheri. I just got divorced!”
She laughed. “Right. It’s too easy now, isn’t it?”
Palmer cleared his throat. “Sorry, it seems like the cigarettes are finally killing me. Listen, Ava, I just bought a new business, and I’m up to my ears in work. How about you come here? You can choose between the house in Key Biscayne and the apartment in South Beach. My wife took all the rest.” Palmer laughed again, they chatted for a while longer, and he promised to send her the details of Ava’s flight.
When she landed in Miami, Ava collected her luggage and searched for her name among the chauffeurs waiting for their clients. She eventually gave up and pulled out her phone.
An unfamiliar voice answered and she hesitated, but recalling that he was now divorced, she decided there shouldn’t be a problem. Ava identified herself as a friend, without revealing her name or where she was and asked to speak with Palmer.
The person on the other end was actually Palmer’s 30-year-old son.
“My father suffered a stroke last night. He’s recovering right now, but he can’t talk. The left side of his body is completely paralyzed.”
Ava thanked Palmer’s son and slowly hung up. Her first thought was, Poor Will… The second, Now what? She could return to Paris, rent a cheaper apartment in a modest neighborhood, and go back to hunting. But since she had already crossed the Atlantic, she decided she might as well visit Mara in New York and check out the market here.
Ava had maintained regular contact with her Russian friend over the past few years, and when she had mentioned her plans in Miami, Mara said she would try to visit her in South Beach. When Ava called to explain her new situation, Mara encouraged her to fly that same day, and promised to introduce her to some interesting men at the party she was throwing in Southampton that weekend.
“Are you going to charge me commission?” Ava teased.
“No. But if you do well, you can buy me something cheap like an Alligator Hermes bag.”
The two laughed and then Ava said, “Alright. See you there.”
Later that night, Ava checked into a popular four-star hotel in Times Square—a tremendous downgrade for someone used to staying at the finest five-star hotels during her Dimitri days. But she had already sold most of the beautiful jewels she owned and her bank account was still dropping. She could not afford the luxury of a fancy hotel until she found another benefactor.
Ava planned to meet Mara in Southampton on Friday, but it was still only Tuesday. She wondered if she should start hunting at the finer art galleries and auctions in the interim, but finally decided to take those days to rest.
The clock read 6:20 P.M. but Ava was not hungry. So she lay on the bed and stretched. After two consecutive flights, her body was very stiff and her throat sore.
Ava cleared her mind, and took in long, deep breaths as she bent down to stretch her legs. Suddenly she snapped upright. A thought occurred to her—Irina and her husband lived only about an hour from Manhattan. Every time she had been in New York she had wondered if it would be viable to go see her sister. Now was the perfect time.
Irina’s number appeared in Ava’s cell phone under “Mrs. Foster”—she had memorized the name after staring at Irina’s wedding picture for hours after the detective left—but she had never gathered the courage to call.
But Ava was feeling brave tonight. She picked up her phone and pulled up Irina’s number in New Rochelle.
A maid answered the phone. “Hello? Foster residence.”
“I’d like to talk to Mrs. Irina Foster, please.”
There was a prolonged silence, and then the woman asked, “May I ask who’s speaking?”
Ava considered that Irina might not take the call if she knew it was her, so she improvised. “A friend who hasn’t seen her in a long time. I’ve just arrived in the US.”
After another moment of silence, the woman said, “I would prefer that Dr. Foster broke the news to you, ma’am, but since he’s still at work, I’m sorry to inform you that Mrs. Foster passed away over three years ago.”
Ava laughed nervously. “There must be some mistake. The woman I’m looking for is very young. Her maiden name was Kostova. She’s Russian.”
“That’s her. A tragedy. Just when she was going to have her first child...”
Ava dropped the phone in shock. After a moment, frozen, she collapsed in bed. As she stared at the ceiling, the sentence, she passed away, echoed around the room.
It had to be a joke. Maybe she had the wrong number? Would it be too much of a coincidence for there to be another Russian named Irina Kostova, married to a doctor named Nathaniel Foster, in the state of New York?
No. It was over. Irina was dead and Ava would never be able to ask for her forgiveness.
Flashbacks of their childhood together paraded before Ava’s eyes, ending with the photo of her sister in her wedding gown. She wanted so badly to cry, but her eyes remained dry. Her mourning was silent and contained; a pain that radiated in her bones. But she had been trained to shut out and apparently, her sister’s death was no exception. Ava quickly found herself contemplating what must have happened to Irinas’s husband and the most diabolical idea occurred to her: What if go meet him?
Nathaniel Foster might not be an oil magnate, but the detective had said he came from a wealthy family, owned his own private practice on a beautiful property in New Rochelle, and had an important position in a good hospital. He couldn’t be too different from the men Mara would introduce her to in Southampton.
If Irina were alive, Ava would have never looked at her husband with second intentions. But since that was no longer true, she needed to be practical. It was April and the powerful men at the top of her hunting list would only be available in June. Nathaniel Foster was not her brother-in-law anymore. He was just another well-to-do man and like most of them, was probably a spoiled, selfish pig who thought only with his genitalia.
There was no reason why she should not try to use him.