Paulina Rostakova’s Adventures
The house (where else?)
“This,” I announced to Angela at breakfast, “is definitely the worst day of my life. No, worse than worst . . . it’s the pinnacle of horribleness. It’s hell and a nightmare combined. It’s serial-killer awful.”
That’s how it all started two days ago, with me complaining about my life. I have to say, it feels a bit weird writing everything that happened down in a journal, but hey, if it was good enough for a certain intrepid lady reporter, it’s good enough for me.
“Serial-killer awful?” Angela is the best stepmother a girl could have, if only for the fact that she is used to dealing with the drama queen that is Dad. So rather than calling me on my dramatic statements—which I admit were a bit over-the-top—she simply looked up from her laptop and gave me a sympathetic look. “I’m sorry, dear. You don’t have to help your father, you know. He simply said if you needed an occupation, you could help with the inventory. I will admit that there are few things I’d rather do less than spend the next four days inventorying flooring materials stacked in five warehouses, but if you are as bored as you say you are—”
“Of course I’m bored. I have nothing to do!” I said, slapping my hands down on the marble counter.
She pursed her lips, making me feel like a spoiled brat. “I’m sure if you needed something to fill your time, I could find a charity—”
“I volunteer everywhere,” I said, despair making me feel like I was floating in a sea of molasses. “I read to the old folks at the assisted-living place, I was a Big Sister until my kid moved to the other side of the country, I walk dogs at the old-dog sanctuary, and I bundle stuff at the women’s shelter. I help at the library with the special needs kids’ hour, and once a week I get a cardio workout by mucking out stables at the horse rescue. I hate to seem ungrateful, but . . . but . . .”
“But you want something to do other than volunteer at charities,” Angela finished for me, nodding. “I wish I could help you, dear, but charities are all I have experience with, especially now that we’ve founded the group to oversee all of the local area charitable organizations.”
I sighed and slumped down on a barstool that sat at the counter. The remains of my meager breakfast lay before me. “And now I sound petulant and spoiled.”
“Not spoiled—not in the sense that you grew up with affluence around you,” Angela said kindly. “You can’t help it if your father is the flooring king of Northern California. And I do understand your ennui. Your father is a bit . . .”
“Overprotective? Maniacally intent on ruining my life by not letting me have any freedom? Borderline obsessive about keeping me away from anything even remotely interesting?”
“He is afraid for you,” she said, giving me a gently chiding glance. “He fears you will be kidnapped again.”
“He’s just using that as an excuse,” I said, rolling my eyes. “I was six when that happened, and it was my mother’s parents who took me. They weren’t trying to extort any of his millions. They just wanted to see me since Mom had died and Dad was being his usual paranoid self.”
“If he is a bit overprotective—and I will grant you that not allowing you to choose a career that will take you away from us is not healthy for either you or him—it comes from a good place. He loves you, Paulie. He fears for your well-being.”
“He worries I’ll hook up with some man who wants me for his money, you mean,” I said sourly. “He’s beyond unrealistic if he thinks he can keep me stuck at home until I’m an old lady. I’m going to be thirty in a year! Thirty! Who else do you know who lives at home until she’s thirty?”
Angela had gone back to reading her e mails, but she did pause long enough to cock an eyebrow at me.
“OK,” I admitted, not bothering to look around a kitchen that was bigger than most of the apartments in San Francisco. “I will give you that living in a house that is borderline mansion and having my own suite of rooms makes it ludicrous to complain, but the point remains that he’s got a stranglehold on me, and I want out. I want to be free. I want to go places, and meet people, and . . . and have adventures!”
“Like that Nancy Bly,” Angela said, nodding as she continued to peruse her inbox.
“Nellie Bly,” I corrected, sighing. “She didn’t let anyone tell her she couldn’t do anything. She wanted to be an investigative journalist, so she just marched into a newspaper and demanded the editor give her a job. And he did, despite the fact that in the late 1800s there were no women reporters.”
“It’s not that your father doesn’t want you to be happy,” Angela said absently. “He loves you very much. He just wants to make sure you’re protected against those who might wish to do ill to you.”
“He wouldn’t be so paranoid if he hadn’t been part of the Russian Mafia,” I muttered under my breath.
“What’s that, dear?”
“Nothing. I swear, Angela, if it didn’t sound too ridiculous for words to say this, one of these days I’d tell Daddy that I’m going to run away from home.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” she said, tapping on the laptop’s keyboard, her mind obviously on her work. “Your father would insist you take a bodyguard with you.”
“Bodyguard,” I said, snorting derisively. Daddy had threatened me with that particular atrocity every single time I told him I wanted to move out on my own. As it was, every time I left the house I ended up having one of my father’s goons (as I thought of them) trailing me everywhere, every day, “just in the case,” as Daddy said. Only recently had Angela and I managed to convince him that I could do my volunteer duties without a steroid-swilling ex-military Russian muscleman accompanying me. “I just want to have a life. Is that so much to ask?”
Angela didn’t answer, being thoroughly engrossed in her correspondence. So, feeling like an overgrown child, I glumly made my way back to the three-room suite where I spent my time at home and pulled out a well-worn copy of one of Nellie Bly’s books. “I bet she would have made Dad listen to her if she was in my shoes,” I grumbled to the book, then felt a thousand times worse because what did it say about me that I couldn’t get out from under his thumb?
“I’m doomed,” I said morosely two hours later, lying on the floor with my cell phone held to my ear.
“What, again?” asked Julia, my closest friend, who ran the women’s shelter where I volunteered twice a week.
“I’m never going to get out of this house. Fifty years from now, I’ll be rattling around the big old empty place, just me and about four dozen cats.”
Julia laughed, but sobered up quickly enough. “I’ve told you that you’re welcome to seek shelter here, Pauls. You don’t have to have been in an abusive relationship with a romantic partner to qualify for our program—”
“I know, but my father isn’t abusive. He’s just super overprotective because he used to be in with a bunch of bad people before he left Russia and he thinks everyone in the world is just lurking outside the house waiting to nab me and hold me for ransom.”
“Maybe they are,” she answered lightly, then spoke rapidly to someone who had evidently come into her office before returning to me. “He is the flooring king of Sacramento, after all.”
“And environs,” I said glumly. “He’s very big about making sure people know how far-reaching his flooring empire is.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to remain a captive in your own home.”
“I’m not a captive,” I pointed out.
“You might as well be one. Paulie, you can leave! I keep telling you that. I’ll help you break free.”
“It’s not quite that simple,” I said with a sigh. Sometimes it was difficult making people understand my father. “Dad is very old-school. Daughters, to him, stay at home until they get married.”
Julia snorted. “This is not Soviet-era Russia. You don’t have to give in to outdated and misguided thinking. You are a modern woman.”
“I know, I know. It’s just that the couple of times I started to move out, Dad made himself sick with worry. I mean physically ill. Cardiac-unit kind of ill. I just couldn’t put him through that again.”
“That’s emotional blackmail, and you know it,” she argued.
“Yes, but it’s easier to deal by staying here than to risk killing my dad with worry.”
“Pfft,” she scoffed. “He’d survive. You’re just too devoted to family, that’s what it is.”
“Mmm-hmm,” I said, not wanting to continue the argument. We’d had it before, and nothing would change until Dad finally saw reason. “Change of subject time—oh hell.”
“Your life again?”
“No, Angela just texted me. She said she wants to talk to me at dinner about a new opportunity that just came to her attention. Probably she has another charity for me to spend time with. Ugh. Speaking of that, I have to get to the farm and help out with the horses. Today is the farrier’s day.”
“I’ll talk to you later. Maybe we could go see a movie.”
“Ha! Without escort?” I mimicked my father’s heavy accent. “Is not reasonable. Pipples want to take what is not theirs. Pipples want to break Rostakov, to make him much pain. Is not good to go out without protection.”
She giggled. “Well, then we can just get a pizza and binge-watch something on Netflix.”
“We’ll see. Maybe some handsome stranger will be at the stables and want to sweep me off my feet in a nonkidnapping sort of way, and then I can escape the Rostakova Dictatorship.”
“Laters,” Julia said, and hung up.
I spent the day at the rescue stable, enjoyed my time among the horses, donkeys, and other four-legged beasts, chatted with the other volunteers, and returned home in time to find a raging argument going on in what my father called his study (but was really just a large panic room that he’d outfitted as if he was a nineteenth-century British lord).
“—is not safe!” my father was saying in his loud, gruff voice. “You want her dead? Or worse? You work with my enemies? You want her fingers cut off slowly and sent to me, one by one?”
“No, of course not,” Angela said, her voice as calm as my father’s was emotional. Two large men with no necks and distressingly gruesome tattoos on their arms and hands stood flanking the door to the study. “But this opportunity seems heaven-sent, and I would hate to see her miss out on it. You remember me speaking of my niece Mercedes, don’t you?”
“Boys,” I said, deliberately being obnoxious. Boris—the no-neck on the right—had frequently been assigned to follow after me when I threw caution to the wind and went out on my own. He had no sense of humor and delighted in tattling on me to my father. Igor, his buddy, was almost as bad, although he was less bright, and sometimes I could bribe him into leaving me alone in a store for an hour.
“Paulina Petrovna,” Boris acknowledged in return, using both my first and patronymic names in the manner that he knew I disliked.
“I bet there’s a wall outside you guys could find to hold up,” I said, sailing through the doorway. “Preferably the one where the revolutionaries are taken to be shot.”
Igor cast a worried look to his comrade. “How does she know about the wall?”
I spun around to look at them in horror. Boris just smirked at me and closed the door in my face, leaving me trapped in an L shaped room that was partially lined with floor-to-ceiling bookcases filled with books that had never felt the touch of human hands. I stalked forward, making a mental note to ask my father if the boys had been joking, but the argument soon drove that thought away.
“Is not your niece I worry for,” Daddy was saying when I rounded the bend of the room and found them both standing at a massive oak desk. “Is others. You want her to go to Belarus? To Russia? She would be taken from me instantly.”
“Not if people didn’t know who she was, and there’s no reason to tell anyone her surname. She can use her mother’s name, after all.”
“Who can? Are you guys talking about me? Dad, you’re going to have a stroke if you don’t stop huffing and puffing like that. Your face is bright red.” I stopped at the desk, my interest piqued at the word “Russia.”
“You do not your mind about my face,” he snapped, but sat down with a grunt. “Your stepmama is crazy. Without brains at all. Is crazy idea.”
“It is not crazy. It is perfect. Paulie, dear, do you remember me telling you how my niece Mercy married an Englishman and went to live in England?”
“She wants me to visit her? I’ll do it!” I said, not caring about pesky things like details.
“No, it’s not that.” Angela smiled, and I was distracted enough by the genuine affection in her eyes to slip my arm through hers.
“Sorry, I interrupted you, darling. You go ahead and tell me what it is you want me to do that Dad thinks is so crazy.”
“Is crazy.” Daddy waved his big hands around in the air, his eyes narrowing until he was squinting at us. “Will not happen. Too dangerous. Rostakov has too many enemies.”
She patted my arm. “It really is ideal, because you’d have people around you, you see, so your father couldn’t say you weren’t protected. And Mercy’s brothers-in-law—two or three of them, I don’t remember exactly—would be there, too, and I just know they’d watch after you.”
“I don’t need watching after—” I started to object, but bit it off so she’d continue.
“And then of course there is the film crew. They’d be with you every step of the way, too.”
“You want me to be in a movie?” I asked, confused. “With your niece and her English family?”
“No, no, I’m not explaining myself well at all,” she said, a bit flustered now. “Let me tell it from the beginning.”
“Is no matter. Paulina is not go to Russia,” Daddy said darkly, slamming his fist down on the desk. “I am spoken.”
“Have spoken, dear,” Angela corrected automatically, then led me over to a red-and-yellow-striped love seat and sat down with me. “Mercy’s husband’s family is some sort of minor nobility. They had a television crew filming them at an archaeological dig two years ago, and now that same film crew wants to make a reality show about a race.”
“Like The Amazing Race TV show where people go all over the world and do weird things?” I frowned. “I really don’t want to eat bugs or repulsive parts of animals.”
“Not that sort of a reality show. Oh, let me show you Mercy’s e mail.” Angela pulled out a piece of paper from her pocket and gave it to me.
I smoothed it out over my knee while my father rumbled objections and threats, both of which Angela and I ignored.
Relive one of the greatest races of all time! [the promotional copy read] From the studio that brought you A Month in the Life of a Victorian Duke and the wildly popular Ainslie Castle Dig comes the re-creation to end all re-creations! Relive the thrilling 1908 New York City to Paris race that spawned legends!
“Wait a minute,” I said, pausing to look up at Angela. “Is this about that movie with Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis? The one where they race all over the place?”
“It’s all there,” Angela said, smiling and nodding at the paper.
Watch as participants don the clothing of a century ago and race across continents in authentic period cars! Thrill as they fight for superiority across dangerous lands! This one-month race will take its participants from the flat Midwest plains of the United States to the exotic locations of China, Russia, and Europe.
“Oooh,” I said, my blood seeming to come alight with the sense of adventure that fairly oozed off the paper. “It is like that movie!”
“Is dangerous!” Daddy growled. “Too dangerous. Better you stay home with Papa and Mama.”
“I’ll do it,” I told Angela, not even bothering to read the rest of the information.
“But, dear, you don’t know what it will entail—”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said, standing up, my heart beating so fast I wanted to dance and sing and crow to the world that, at last, adventure was going to be mine! “I’ll do whatever job this production company wants. I’ll be a gofer. I’ll be a script girl. I’ll be a personal assistant. I don’t care—I just want to be a part of it.”
“They will want you to be in one of the cars,” Angela said in her placid voice. “I’m afraid you will need to dress up.”
“Like Nellie Bly?” I asked, my spirits soaring. “Oh my god, could this be any more perfect?”
“Read Mercy’s information,” she said, nudging my hand.
“No. Is no good to read. She stays here, where she is safe,” Daddy said, getting to his feet again.
“I’m twenty-nine years old, Dad,” I said, snapping at him. “I’m an adult, and you do not have a say in this.”
“I have say,” he said, reeling back in a dramatic manner. He’s such a drama queen. “I am Papa!”
“You are a domineering man who thinks he gets his own way on everything, but I’m not a little girl anymore. I’m going.”
“You are not!” he bellowed, loud enough that the door opened and Boris stuck his head into the room.
“Go upstairs and take her message so you can read the information,” Angela said, urging me toward the door.
I obediently went toward the hall but cast a worried glance back at my father, who was now shouting to Boris and Igor that he would not allow Angela to throw his only child into the hands of his enemies. “Are you going to be OK with him in that mood?”
“Oh, heavens yes,” she said with a chuckle. “He just wants a little soothing. Once you’ve read the information, if you still want to do it, let me know and I’ll have Mercy connect you with the production company.”
“Tell her to connect away, because I’m doing it no matter what it takes!” I announced, then turned on my heels and ran up the stairs, my imagination already flying.