Given the chance to explore the lavish bedroom I was staying in was an extra treat. The bathroom alone was nicer than any I had ever been in, full of gorgeous gilded details and accents in vivid coral. A huge window opened up to a courtyard full of lush plants and the calls of peacocks that strutted fearlessly around the palace grounds. I stood under the hot water in the shower and felt the tension I had been carrying wash off my body, down the drain.
Taking another risk felt wonderful. Not only the risk to come here and meet Zane in the firs
t place, but to delay my departure and spend more time with him. Some instinct was stirring in my heart, and the urge to follow it was almost overwhelming. It was the same urge I had felt to move to LA and try to make it as an actress. Whatever one wanted to call it, following this feeling had always gifted me with positive results, even if they came with a lot of hard work first.
What Jack did to me had made me afraid to trust my gut for a time. How could I, when I failed to see the horrible man he was all these years? Rattling my confidence was the least of what he did. It was a frightening prospect to suddenly not trust your own mind or decisions, to know you had let danger so close to you.
I was trying to listen to my gut again, and find trust in my instincts. My first big test had been accepting the proposal Katherine brought from Zane. And the second test had been moments earlier, in the hallway, when I refused to leave before I was ready.
I wanted to spend more time with Zane. Things felt better here; they felt right. Maybe it was strange that I was finding comfort halfway around the world, but I didn't care. Comfort had been in short supply lately, and I was going to get as much of it as I could.
Lightness replaced the dread that had weighed my heart earlier. I hummed to myself as I scrunched up my wavy hair in a towel, letting it air-dry so that the heat of the desert wouldn't hold so hard against my scalp. I was all smiles leaning into the gold-edged mirrors as I did my makeup to bring out the green of my eyes and brightness of my hair and skin. I pulled out a cute yellow sundress from my luggage and matched it with nude-colored gladiator sandals. Coupled with a small clutch purse and my sunhat, I was ready for a tour of Al-Dali.
Zane met me at the front entrance of the palace. He had showered, too, and had shaved, his dark beard meticulously edged and groomed. Whatever product he put in his hair was perfect for it, sculpting a beautiful wave that looked soft and kept its shape. Over his strong frame, he wore a crisp white button-up shirt and loose pants of dark tan. The outfit was dashing, and would help keep him cool in during the hot day. He smiled at me from behind dark sunglasses; I could feel his gaze ghosting over me anyway.
“You look stunning,” said Zane as he kissed my hand. “That color is very becoming on you.”
“You don't look too bad yourself,” I replied with a small curtsey. “You could be in the movies, you know.”
“There's no need to flatter me,” he said, waving a hand dismissively.
“I'm serious. You have the looks for it,” I promised. “The ladies would eat you alive.”
Zane laughed self-consciously and ran a hand through his hair. “Well, I won't pretend I haven't had fantasies of being a great actor. But I think, if anything, I'm better suited to being a director.”
“Oh?” I asked, locking my arm in his elbow as he led us down to the waiting car. “Why is that?”
Zane shrugged. “Maybe it's all the education on ruling I received my whole life. I'm very good at understanding people and getting them to contribute their best talents to a project. Really, that's what ruling is about. The rest is details.”
“That's not a bad point,” I agreed.
“Maybe someday I’ll be able to find some time for that dream.”
I smiled at him. “I really hope you do.”
Zane helped me into the back of the limo before he climbed in behind me. In the comfort of the air-conditioned car, he sent the driver on a winding tour of the city, to introduce me to at least the surface of his culture.
The driver dropped us off at the grand bazaar, a place where shopkeepers and consumers descended every morning to buy and sell goods in one of the oldest and largest marketplaces in the world. Even though the digital age was alive and well, and vendors were using the latest payment technologies on smartphones and credit cards, the marketplace still took place within the same sprawling stone structure it had occupied for the last thousand years.
People recognized Zane and descended on us with smiles and hand-shakes, and though I didn't speak the language, it was clear they were paying him honors and compliments when they spoke to him. Vendors tried over and over to give him free merchandise, free food, free favors, but he refused every time and instead passed the gift onto someone else in the crowd who probably needed it more. When he caught me lingering at one of the scarf merchants, Zane insisted on buying me whatever I wanted, and I left with a bagful of fantastic new fashion accessories that no one else in Hollywood would have.
It was clear that Zane was beloved by the people of Al-Dali. Even though he said his grandfather was a bit of a violent man, his own father was not, and I was sure he would have been very proud of his son. Zane truly loved his people, and didn't show an ounce of elitism or distance in spending time with them.
The crowd was pretty excited to see me, too, and it was a lovely surprise. I still couldn't believe I had so much popularity in a country I knew almost nothing about, but every few feet there came a request for an autograph or photo, or a sweet old merchant offering me something and calling me beautiful. It had been a long time since I’d experienced moments like this in Los Angeles; my last big film premiere was almost a year ago. There was nothing like the rush of an adoring crowd, and it recharged me.
After the bazaar, the limo led us out of the city limits to an archaeological site, an ancient temple, one of the oldest ruins in the country. Under the blazing sun, we listened to one of the professors who worked on the site as he explained the importance of its survival. We wandered under great stone columns, sculptures of fantastic beasts, and murals of kings and cities that had been buried in the desert sand long ago. It was difficult not to be overcome by awe standing in such a place. As Zane had pointed out, my predecessors were the originators of cinema, but I didn’t have centuries of ancestors to worry about disappointing, the way he did. He knew almost as much about the ruins as the professor; Zane clearly respected his roots. It made me feel a bit silly for not even remembering the names of all the US Presidents.
Once we had explored the temple, Zane wanted me to see the modern Al-Dali, too, and decided the best place to do that was its science center and conservatory. Tucked in the middle of the bustling downtown metropolis, it was a sleek modern building that housed a natural history museum, aquarium, astrological observatory, and botanical garden. It ran entirely on green energy, with solar panels and a rooftop garden that visitors could access. Even though it was a weekday, the place was bustling with activity, including several groups of schoolkids on field trips.
The sprawling complex was more high-tech than anything I had seen in LA or New York. As well as being one of the main funders of the non-profit organization behind the center, Zane explained that he had assisted in selecting its board of directors, making sure to hire the best and brightest minds in their fields and paying them what they were worth. He wanted to make a serious investment in Al-Dali's future, and educating its children, he maintained, was the best way of doing that.
Every new thing I learned about Zane only made him more attractive. I knew guys who had charm and talent and who gave to charity, but Zane was literally building the future of his country one step at a time. Hollywood men weren’t even close to that level of selflessness.
As the day went on and hunger finally overcame the excitement of tourism, Zane was all too happy to take me to one of his favorite restaurants in the city. It was a small place that I would have called a mom-and-pop-shop had we been in the US.
The owner, a short, elderly man with a wrinkled face, was delighted to see Zane and spoke to him with some familiarity. Zane didn't hesitate in embracing him like an old friend, and we were directed to a dark booth in the back of the small restaurant, the most private place he could provide. Zane's security took up nearby locales, but the place was mostly empty. The handful of diners that did share the space with us were trying not to stare at the famous dining party in the back. I saw a fair share of smartphones being raised as people tried to get pictures of us, but decided I didn’t really care. I was happy bein
g out with Zane, and there was no reason to hide it.
“I love coming here,” Zane said with a smile as he placed his napkin in his lap. “It's been too long since I've gotten away from the palace for a meal in the city.”
“I'm sure it's difficult considering your chef can make you basically anything you want, and you don't even have to get out of your pajamas,” I joked.
Zane chuckled. “That's true. But as talented as my chefs are, there is no way to duplicate another person's special recipes, and this place has some of the most special flavors in Al-Dali. I keep trying to convince the owner to come work for me so I can have his food all to myself, but he will never accept my offer.”
“He says he likes his life the way it is. He just keeps his little restaurant and spends the evenings with his wife and grandchildren.”
It was a sweet answer. “I can’t say I blame him. That sounds really lovely.”
“Exactly, how can I try to talk a man out of that?” agreed Zane. “So instead I just visit here as often as possible and recommend it to everyone I can. That way, he can keep saving for retirement so he can hire someone else to run this place and be with his family all the time.”
I looked at him and felt my heart warm. “You’re really an amazing guy, you know that?”
Zane shook his head bashfully, his cheeks turning a flushed red. “I’m not. Just a hungry one.”
I let him rest in his humility and gave him a flirty nudge with my shoulder instead. Zane returned it playfully, making us both smile.