We left behind the photographers and red carpet and entered the palace. Immediately I was blown away by vast halls of marble. Huge vases of tropical blooms dotted each room as Zane led me further into the building, its ceilings high, its halls seemingly endless.
“Please feel free to make yourself at home while you are here,” said Zane.
I couldn’t help but giggle at that. “Make myself at home in your huge palace? I don’t see a problem with that.”
He laughed, too, and after walking a little further we stopped in front of a closed wooden door carved with images of a beautiful dancing woman surrounded by tigers.
The Sheikh put a gentle hand on my arm. “Please, excuse me for just a moment.”
I nodded at him and watched as he disappeared into the room. I admired the art in the hallway for a few moments, and when Zane returned, he had changed out of his traditional garb and into an immaculately tailored pinstriped suit that highlighted his broad, strong shoulders and trim waist. He looked stunning, like he was ready for a red carpet premiere of his own, and I had to keep myself from staring at him.
“That outfit was just for the cameras,” he explained. “My constituents prefer that I greet foreign dignitaries in our traditional costume. The cameras love it, and I don’t mind indulging a few traditions.”
“Foreign dignitaries? I like that, it makes me sound like I’m brokering some peace treaty instead of just playing a troubled ballerina or something,” I laughed.
Zane chuckled as he finished buttoning up his suit jacket. “As I said, you’re well-loved in my country, Miss Wood. Your visit here means a lot to your fans here. It’s not often we get visitors from Hollywood.”
“Well, I’m happy to be here. And please, you can call me Julianne,” I told him.
“Julianne,” he repeated with a happy smile. “May I give you a tour of my home to begin our visit?”
“I would love that,” I admitted. “I have to say, I don’t know too much about your country. Not beyond what the news tells me, anyway, and what I’ve learned watching history shows.”
“So you know we are rich, ancient, and love soccer,” Zane joked with a wink.
I giggled. “Yeah, that’s about it.”
Zane gave a charming half-smile and proceeded down the hallway with me keeping pace next to him. “Fortunately, all of that is true. Al-Dali has a rich history of great civilizations and early settlements. More recently, we were lucky enough to uncover some of the world’s most massive oil reserves within our borders, and this has allowed us to elevate the status of the entire country and all its citizens. We have peace and prosperity now, which for centuries was not the case.”
I pointed to a section of the palace wall that was very clearly older, its stone carvings worn down to mere shadows, with shinier, newer white stone placed around it. “What are these darker stone accents? I’ve seen them everywhere, inside and out.”
“Good eye. When my great-grandfather built this palace, he did so on the ruins of one of the older palaces of my ancestors. Al-Dali has been the home of great civilizations for millennia, but much of what they left behind has been lost to the desert. This hilltop preserved quite a few archaeological wonders that were incorporated into the building of the new palace, in order to merge the history of Al-Dali with its present and future.”
I stopped to get a better glance of the section of wall, marveling at the expanse of space and time I was standing in front of. “Incredible,” I said breathlessly as my gaze ran over the weathered outlines of animals and people. “It seems like a lot of pressure to live with every day—constant reminders of the greatness of those who came before you.”
When I turned back to Zane, he had a thoughtful look on his face, tinted with sadness. But that handsome half-smile was still there, too. “Indeed, it is a lot of pressure. Quite similar to the pressure I’m sure you feel in Hollywood. Cinema is barely a century old; you are competing with its originators, its trailblazers. You see their names on the ground and live in their old houses. I imagine it can be very taxing.”
“You know, I never thought about it like that,” I replied. “But I guess you’re right. We haven’t really had time to escape the shadow of the first ages of Hollywood.”
“I think that pressure is familiar to anyone who is trying to achieve something with their life,” said Zane. He offered his arm to me, and I accepted, slipping my hand through his elbow. He led us down the hallway, my heels clicking on the marble floor. “Trying to somehow forge your own identity, steal just a little bit of sunshine from a forest of giants so you too can grow big.”
Zane’s thoughtful speech was conjuring up all the bitter emotions I was having about my career. He was absolutely right—being an actress was like being a starving little sapling in a redwood forest, just trying to push through the undergrowth so that one day I might join them, taking their place when one of them fell. Because fall they would, and the forest had to stay intact. Someone had to take their place—why couldn’t it be me?
I shook the thoughts from my head, realizing I hadn’t heard the last thing the Sheikh had said. “I’m sorry, what was that?”
“I was just saying we should stop by the kitchen, because my cook usually makes pudding for the staff’s children to have when they get off school, and it’s about that time.”
A girlish grin spread over my face. “Oh, I definitely approve of that tour stop.”
Zane was right about the pudding, but what he didn’t prepare me for was the beauty of his vaulted-ceiling kitchen that looked like it could hold a staff of twenty at the same time. There were only five or six working at the moment, but when big meals were being prepared, Zane said, this place was a circus of activity.
Nor did the Sheikh prepare me for the group of beautiful children, giddy after a long day in the classroom and a gourmet sugar rush. I was surprised when they excitedly told me they knew who I was, and they were all too happy to pose in a group picture with me. I signed each of their school notebooks, making sure to include hearts on the signatures. One of their mothers rushed them out of the kitchen impatiently, convinced they had bothered me enough, and Zane and I took the opposite exit out of the kitchen, into the dining hall.
And what a dining hall it was. Paneled with dark wood and accented with oil lamps, the grand table was probably twenty feet long, an elegant maroon silk runner extending its length. The table settings hadn’t been put out yet, but it wasn’t hard to visualize a gorgeous setup of china and crystal and well-dressed guests dining on dishes of steaming, first-class cuisine.
Zane showed me the water gardens, explaining that there wasn’t a palace within three thousand miles in any direction that didn’t have one. Every family that could afford to build them created their own smaller versions.
“When you are carving your existence out of an unforgiving desert, the opposite quickly becomes holy to you: water and life.”
He waved a big hand out towards the gorgeous square courtyard. A bubbling, ancient fountain sat in the center, circulating crystal-clear water that Zane said was from an underground well and fresh to drink. A veritable jungle of tropical plants, ferns and flowers surrounded the fountain and the courtyard walk, creating a tiny oasis in the middle of the palace. Birds sang happily, darting from tree to tree, and a smaller pond lay near the southeast corner, filled with shimmering koi fish and dotted with water lilies.
“This is like heaven,” I told him, taking a deep breath. The earthy smell of the desert was almost entirely overwhelmed by the sweet fragrance of flowers and freshness of water.
“That’s the idea,” smiled Zane as he gently touched the petals of a large pink flower. “When the desert drains your life and spirit, you can retreat here, to your own little piece of heaven where life flourishes.”
“I can see now why your society loves these gardens,” I agreed. “This is magical.”
The Sheikh’s face lit up and he bowed his head politely. “Thank you, J
ulianne. I’m truly glad you like it here.”
“I do. And thank you for inviting me. I don’t think I would have visited your country otherwise, and I know now that that would have been a huge mistake on my part.”
Zane smiled, and offered his arm again, leading me back inside the palace and down a new hallway.
“I have to tell you, Julianne, I’m truly thrilled that you’re here,” said Zane with a sly smile. “When I contacted your agent, I was convinced that you would write me off as an unnecessary distraction, or worse, some sort of uncouth stalker. I’m sure your life is very busy, and I’m grateful that you found the time to pay us a visit.”
I tried to let out a laugh, but it didn’t come very casually. Instead, it only seemed to amplify my obvious stress at talking about my current life status. I swallowed against a tight throat, and decided to be honest with Zane. He was already a fan of my work; I didn’t need to try and impress him any further.
“To be frank, I almost did write you off.”
He gave me a curious eyebrow. “You did?”
“Oh yeah. It was a hard ‘no’ when Katherine first read me the proposal.”
He paused a moment, and then asked quietly, “May I ask why you changed your mind?”
We turned a corner, heading down a new hallway that was shorter than the rest.
“My phone isn’t exactly ringing off the hook these days,” I confessed. “Things can change fast in Hollywood and, well, it seems I’m at the ‘ebb’ portion of the ‘ebb and flow’ of things. I decided, since being a risk-taker is what got me this far, that I should take another risk with you and say yes.”
Zane’s brow furrowed, as if he smelled something unpleasant. “That is unbelievable. Why would anyone not want to give you work? You are the most talented actress working in America today. They should all be clawing each other’s eyes out at the chance to hire you.”
I laughed and felt my cheeks flush. Zane’s eyes glittered at the sight.
“You’re too kind,” I replied. “More talented women than I have been chewed up by this same machine for a hundred years now. It’s just the way things are.”
“My father hated that phrase.”
“There was a lot wrong with Al-Dali when he took the throne,” started Zane, tilting his head as he recalled the memory. “My grandfather was a much more militarily-minded man, and left a lot of messes to clean up when he passed. My father said my grandfather’s staff and advisors liked to use that phrase when he questioned some outdated or illogical practice. He said as soon as he heard it spoken when he confronted someone, he knew he had to upheave everything and change it.”
“Wow,” I breathed. “He must have been a brave man. That sounds like the set-up to some Shakespearian-level conflict.”
For a hot second, I worried that my use of humor as a defense mechanism had gotten me in trouble once again. But Zane only laughed, his handsome face lighting up.
“It does, doesn’t it?” he chuckled.
“But it also sounds like that didn’t happen in real life.”
“No,” he chuckled. “Thankfully, things went much more reasonably for my father. Once he showed them things could be different—that ‘the way things were’ was always temporary—most people couldn’t wait to follow him into a peaceful future. To my recollection, my father never lost a single staff member to violence. He worked to be peaceful.”
“And you’re maintaining your father’s legacy?”
“Well, I’m trying,” the Sheikh replied, suddenly humble, a flush of red in his cheeks. “But that is a subject for another time. Right now, I have one more room to show you.”
We stopped in front of a set of double doors that, while made from the same dark carved wood as the rest of the interior, looked significantly newer. Zane gripped both golden doorknobs and turned back to smile at me.
The wry smile that appeared on Zane’s face—gorgeous as it was—suddenly brought back all the fear and anxiety I had been feeling during the landing at the airport. Was this the moment when the Sheikh, with all his pleasantness and drop-dead-handsome looks, would reveal that he was just another sleazeball with money to throw around? Something was behind that door, and it was just as likely a bedroom as anything. Anxiety bubbled in my gut, and the rehearsed speech I’d been mulling over came tumbling out like a word salad.
“Zane, I appreciate your proposal, but this isn’t the type of…thing I am.” I shook my head. “Girl I am. Thing I do. This isn’t the type of thing I do.”
But the Sheikh only smiled, bemused. He twisted the doorknobs and dramatically swung both doors open at the same time, revealing a beautiful and modern private cinema, tucked away in the west wing of the palace. My jaw dropped open just a little.