“Your Highness. Miss Wood…”
The soft call pulled me out of sleep. Immediately, my muscles began to complain from the strange positions they had been in all night, especially my neck. It took me a minute to get my bearings, but slowly I remembered where I was, and memories from the night before were quick to flood back; images of laughing, talking, and learning about Zane flickered behind my eyelids.
Next to me, he moaned a little, having a bit of a harder time waking up. He yawned and stretched his strong arms out in front of him as his eyes blinked open. We both looked up at the voice to see Shara, one of his trusted entourage, smiling gently as she stood over us in our reclining theater seats. Her suit today was a cobalt blue, as impeccably tailored and put together as the one she had been wearing the day before.
“Good morning,” she said to us once our eyes were opened enough to look at her properly.
“Good morning, Shara,” replied Zane in a tired voice. “What time is it? Did we sleep here?” He turned to me and his face softened.
“I guess so,” I said with a little laugh, running a hand through my disastrous, sleep-ruined hair. A bit of a flush spread on my cheeks. “We must have stayed up later than we thought; it’s hard to tell the time in here.”
Shara leaned down. “Your Highness, I’m sorry to bother you, but the day is already in full swing. As you previously requested, Miss Wood’s return flight home is scheduled to depart in an hour.”
The news was unpleasant, and Zane and I looked at each other with surprised, sad faces.
“Wow, already?” I asked. “This is the end of my visit? I can’t believe how quickly it flew by.”
“Me either,” Zane agreed sadly. “I didn’t mean for us to stay up the entire night watching movies; I had some other plans for us while you were here.” He glanced at the gold watch on his wrist. “I can’t remember the last time I slept in so late.”
“It has been years, Your Highness,” Shara informed him with a laugh. To me, she said, “His Highness typically has a strict schedule that begins before sunrise.”
Zane turned back to me with expectation on his face. I felt the same anticipation in my chest, but didn’t know what to do about it. We had made a signed contractual agreement about this visit. I would spend twenty-four hours with him, and he was to send me a million dollars; the timer on my twenty-four hours was almost up.
So why didn’t I want to leave and head back home? The job was finished, my pay was secured, and without even having to deal with an awkward refusal of sexual favors. This was exactly the best-case scenario I had been too afraid to hope for. And yet, it wasn't enough. Something about it was terribly unsatisfying, like seeing a fresh-baked chocolate cake and being offered only a spoonful of frosting.
“I guess we had better gather your things and get you ready to go,” said Zane as he moved to get up from his chair. Both of us had stiff, angry muscles from the night in the recliner, and we laughed as we groaned like grumpy old men, trying to stretch them out.
“Shara, tell the driver to be ready and the pilot that we’ll be on time. I’m going to walk Julianne to her room and help her with her luggage. We’ll meet you out front,” said Zane to his assistant.
Shara nodded and turned to leave the room, clutching her ever-present planner in her arms.
Zane offered me his arm as he walked me through the palace hallways back to the luxurious bedroom I had never even gotten the chance to use. My luggage had been placed neatly at the foot of the bed, untouched since it left the trunk of the taxi. I checked all the zippers were still closed, deciding I didn’t have time to change or try to clean myself up before the flight. It didn’t matter, anyway. I had a full bedroom on the jet, and no one to impress on the flight home.
Besides, I didn't feel much like making myself glamorous this morning. There was a heavy gloom over my heart that was all the more upsetting because it was so unexpected. I'd had a genuinely fun night with Zane—a rare event in my life, especially lately. Men were a puzzle I could never solve, and I didn't have time to if I wanted my already-struggling career to stay afloat. They angered me, confounded me, hurt me, always carrying more baggage in than they were willing to shoulder themselves. I was tired of feeling like I had to be a background character in someone else's life movie. It made me like a pawn, a plot device to get from one place to the other.
Zane was the first man in a long time to have shown me actual kindness while expecting nothing in return. He was willing to reward me, and make my life better, just for the chance to spend time with me. He wasn't threatened by my success, and how could he be? He had more power than anyone I would ever know, which left him free to show me support and interest that no other man had.
He actually cared about me, and as I gathered up my luggage to leave, I realized I cared about him, too. Royalty or not, Zane was a good man. He didn't deserve to be lonely. I imagined him wandering the palace halls, sad but having no one to talk to about it, and it broke my heart.
I came out of the bedroom with my luggage and a flat smile. I found it hard to look in Zane’s eyes at that moment; it felt too uncomfortable—painful, almost.
“Well,” he said, shoving his hands awkwardly in his pockets. “Thank you again for coming, Julianne. I can’t tell you what your visit meant to me. I’m very happy you accepted. Did you have a pleasant time?”
I nodded. “I did, thank you. It was the best time I’ve had in a long while.” I sighed. “Life’s kind of been on a downslope since my ex cheated on me. This trip reminded me that not everyone in the world is out to steal everything for himself. I really needed to remember that… thank you, Zane.”
The Sheikh flushed a little in the cheeks, and gave me a shy, unexpected smile. “I’m glad I could make you happy, even if it was just for a day. I’ll make sure Shara sends your payment safely to you as soon as you’re in the air.”
Heavy silence filled the air between us. I could hear in the distance the sound of the security guards chattering to each other, making the last preparations for my journey to the airport. Some deep instinct welled up in my heart. It wanted me to take another risk.
“You know,” I said before I lost my nerve. “I was thinking… Are you incredibly busy today? I mean, you’re probably busy every day, but—”
“No, not particularly,” interrupted Zane, with hope in his voice.
I shrugged. “It wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if I grabbed a later flight back to LA. I don’t have anyone waiting for me when I get home, and no jobs are going to pop up anytime soon. What’s the harm in leaving a little bit later?”
A dazzling grin spread over Zane’s face. “Really? Are you sure? I would love to have you here for the afternoon, so long as you’re sure it won’t upset your plans. I really wanted to show you around the city.”
“I’m sure,” I nodded, smiling. “And that sounds great, I would hate to leave this place before I even got a chance to see it a little.”
“Excellent. I’ll tell the staff.” He pointed back to the bedroom. “I suppose, in that case, we should both get freshened up. I’ll tell Shara to have everything prepared for us.”
“That sounds wonderful!”
“Good. I’ll send for you in two hours. Let my staff know if you need anything at all.” He bent and grasped my hand, kissing it gently. I flushed slightly as he winked at me and strode down the hallway to find Shara, a spring in his step.