San Francisco 1991
The Rostoff household was in an uproar.
The official cause was an upcoming celebration of Peter’s eighteenth birthday.
The real reason, however, was a family reunion of sorts, because after five long years , Dmitry Rostoff was finally coming home, to the States , to his family estate in California, Zolotoe Selo, to attend his son’s big day.
Every member of the household was frenzied with anticipation.
Only Elizabeth was calm and seemed absolutely unaffected. She went through each day as usual, without any interruption in her schedule, as normal as you please.
Not even Ivan, who was closer to Elizabeth than any other member of the stuff, had noticed any changes in her behavior. After Peter announced that Dmitry had accepted his invitation and would be flying here for his birthday and staying in the manor house, she just nodded and calmly ordered her son’s rooms to be prepared immediately. That’s it. No emotions, no objections, no reaction whatsoever.
God only knew what was really happening inside her heart. Or her head.
Ivan long ago gave up any attempts to solve the great puzzle that was Elizabeth Rostoff.
He was terrified of her, completely in awe from the moment he began to work for the Rostoffs. And foolishly and helplessly in love. Even after so many years…
It was never a question for Ivan as to who was really the Master of the household, even when Elizabeth’s father-in-law and her husband were still alive. She was the domineering force, the power to reckon with, and for Ivan that counted the most.
He loved her completely, was obsessed with her; has fantasized about her every night. And she knew it. Oh, she knew, all right! And used it. Constantly. Ruthlessly.
Sometimes he hated her, and dreamed of revenge. Other times he ached for her, wept for her, called for her from the depth of his soul.
But never once, in many years of his employ, had he questioned her decisions or her orders. That was what made him indispensable to her: his blind obedience , which he himself preferred to call loyalty. Whatever his Mistress wished —  he hurried to execute. Always.
And so, per Elizabeth’s order, Dmitry’s rooms were immediately scrubbed from top to bottom and aired. All furniture was polished until it gleamed and smelled subtly of lemon and wax. Old grandfather’s clock was ticking seconds away, its pendulum lazily swinging, awaiting its master.
Anticipation hung in the air like a rain cloud, thick and heavy.
Natasha slowly walked all the rooms of the suite where Dmitry would be staying for his visit. It had became her habit for the past few days to come here at the end of each day and simply stay in silence for a minute or so. She didn’t know what was so special about that particular suit e that pulled her like a magnet except the fact that he will be occupying it, sleeping in the huge bed, looking out of this window, sitting in this chair…
Five years, Natasha mused. Five long years she didn’t see him, didn’t talk to him, and knew about his life only from Peter. From the bits and pieces of information that Petya provided, Natasha had learned about Dmitry’s life in Paris, his work, his friends. But nothing about his private life. And that was fine with her. She didn’t want to know. It wasn’t her concern. He wasn’t her concern.
Or so she tried to convince herself. Every day for the last five years…
No, really, she didn’t care if he was involved with someone. Of course, he was. Svetlana was dead for a long time. Life should go on with or without people we love, and that was only natural.
So, why is your life going nowhere?
Oh, my life’s just great! Habitually Natasha kept debates with her opponent– her inner voice that recently seemed to disagree with her constantly.
I have a family, even friends. I have all I need; all the life I can handle!
Yeah? Then why are you coming to his rooms every night? Do you like torturing yourself?
I’m not! Torturing myself, that is. I just…
You just… what? Remembering? Dreaming?
Well, yes. And what’s wrong with that?
Nothing, except that dreams are cruel. You should know that.
She sighed. Yes, she should. And she has. She shouldn’t even think about him, not now, not ever. Except…. many things that couldn’t be ignored (even if she wished it) were binding them: Svetlana, the kids. And, yes, the memories.
He left five years ago without a word. Just like that. Like he never was.
She felt rejected. Betrayed. And knew she had no right to feel that way. He never said anything, never promised anything to her. He never even touched her except that night in the gardens when he held her. Close, but not close enough.
The memory of that one night haunted her for a very long time. Instead of ignoring them or locking them inside, Natasha often intentionally dragged her memories from her subconscious mind, forcing herself to face them. At first, that exercise cost her dearly, but it also helped her to accept the truth she didn’t mean anything to Dmitry Rostoff; that their chemistry was just a fluke born out of the traumatic experience they shared, and that both of them were better off without it.
She accepted it, learned to live with it. But she could never forget.
Whatever happened–or not happened- – between them five years ago was not finished, because it didn’t die a natural death but was brutally amputated. And like any chopped limb it throbbed and bled. Still.
When he left five years ago, he stole some intangible but the vital part of her that could never be replaced. She wasn’t the same person after that. She could never be healed completely. She could never be whole again.
And Natasha accepted that, too. She was hurt before, brutally. Her scars were invisible, but they still existed. Five years ago she just added one more scar to her collection. No big deal. She was a survivor, Natasha reminded herself firmly. She will go on; she’ll be fine. She was fine. The trick was to look only forward- – never back. Past belongs to the past. Dmitry belonged to the past. Her stupid infatuation with him belonged to the past.
It was long buried and forgotten.
And who are you kidding, girl?
Natasha sighed helplessly. God, why now! Oh, Dmitry! Why after all these years have you decided to come back? But she knew the answer: Dmitry Rostoff was coming home for his son’s eighteenth birthday. She’d be more surprised if Dmitry would not attend because Peter was the only member of his family Dmitry truly and deeply loved and cared about.
Absently playing with a delicate gold cross around her neck, Natasha wandered around the room a bit, then walked to the huge Palladian windows and looked out. The full splendor of Elizabeth’s gardens failed to grab her attention now. All she could think about was just how on earth she would face Dmitry tomorrow and pretend as nothing had happened all these years ago?
But pretend she will.
Oh, she’d rather die than give him the satisfaction of knowing that he broke her heart once upon a time…
God, she was so naïve, so pathetic! Natasha considered falling in love with Dmitry as one of the most stupid things she’d ever done in her life.
The most stupid, period.
Then again, maybe it wasn’t love at all. Maybe it was just a crush; she stubbornly debated with herself; maybe when she saw him tomorrow, she wouldn’t feel a thing and would wonder instead what she’d ever seen in him. After all, she wasn’t the same person anymore. That poor girl, devastated after her best friend’s sudden death, dragged throughout half of the world to another country, breathless and terrified, with the helpless baby on her hands, that girl did not exist anymore.
She was a totally different person now, stronger, smarter. Older, she sighed. She’ll be thirty soon, in a couple years. Natasha was a mature woman who can take care of herself and even boss around her two children. She smiled, thinking of them, her kids, Petya and Katia. They were her pride, her joy, and hope. Every single day she gave her thanks to God for bringing them into her life. She didn’t feel cheated because she didn’t have her own kids or her own family. Those two were all the family she needed. She honestly considered Peter and Katia her own children, was proud of both of them and loved them to distraction.
She honestly forgot that she hadn’t carried them inside her body or wasn’t the one to give birth to them: in her heart and soul, they were hers.
And that was what mattered the most.
Natasha very often forgot they had another living parent: their father. Mostly because that parent was absent from their lives.
Especially in Katia’s case.
Why couldn’t he love her, Natasha wondered in a gazillions time, hurting for the little girl? Wasn’t he curious – -just a little –about the child he created with the woman he loved?! Did he ever wonder how she looks, for goodness’ sake?!
How can anyone stay away from his flesh and blood for five years and not even bother to call or send a card for a birthday?! Oh, there were gifts and presents from Paris after each of Peter’s visit with Dmitry, but Natasha long ago figured out that all of them were bought by the boy himself, bless his kind heart. She was pretty sure Dmitry didn’t have a clue about all these toys and cute clothes “from Dad” which Petya usually carried by truckloads and presented to his half-sister.
Damn the man, how could he be so cold and unforgiving?
And damn her for carrying too much, for hurting and remembering.
Never again, she vowed fiercely. Never again would she let her heart be so open, so trusting, so vulnerable. Never again would she deceive herself, dreaming of happily ever after. Because there was no such thing as happily ever after…
Svetlana’s dream of love and happiness turned out to be the most tragic event of her life. But it gave her and you Katia…
Interrupted by the noise of loud breathing behind her, Natasha looked over her shoulder, smiling at the picture.
“Well, boys, thanks for coming to fetch me,” she said to the two huge German Shepherds standing at the door, waiting for her. She wasn’t startled or surprised to see them here. As a matter of fact, she was expecting her intruders to show up even sooner. “I would invite you in, but it isn’t my room, you know,” she explained to the dogs seriously, “and, anyway, it’s time for me to go.”
She walked toward them, and the two dogs immediately started to thump their tails against the floor in anticipation, whining a little. Natasha gave each dog a head rub, all the while trying to avoid their tongues. But she didn’t escape their wet greetings. Frankly, she didn’t try all that hard, and these two hooligans knew it. The pair of trained guard dogs Dmitry got five years ago after an unsuccessful attempt on Katia’s life were huge and ferocious looking, one tan and black, the other silvery grey. But both were putties in Natasha’s hands, not to mention Katia’s. Both dogs adored their little charge, fiercely guarding her inside the house and especially outside of it, not letting anyone except Natasha and Peter to approach the little girl–not even Elizabeth.
Natasha figured out a long time ago that dogs merely tolerated Elizabeth as the necessary evil (and only to the point). You can’t trick animals, she supposed, nor the children. She remembered Katia’s reaction to her grandmother when she was a baby. It changed with years, of course, but subtly. Katia didn’t break into hysterics nowadays whenever she saw Elizabeth but become instantly alert and unnaturally quiet. Same as two German Shepherds. Nope, couldn’t fool animals and children…