I unfolded the menu before me, and realized quickly that I was in a bit of a pickle. With an embarrassed smile, I leaned over to Zane and said, “I think I'm going to need your help.”
He looked over, ready to ask me why, but one glance at the menu did the trick. The entire thing was written in his native tongue, a language I didn't speak or read.
“Yes, I guess that would be a problem,” he laughed.
“I only ever learned high school French,” I told him with a giggle.
Zane put his menu down and leaned closer to me, putting one arm around the back of the booth. “I can help you. Let's start with what you're in the mood to eat. Something heavy, or light? Maybe some soup?”
“Are you kidding? This was a long day out in the sun. I'm starving. Give me something full of meat and spices.”
He laughed and nodded approvingly. With his other hand, he pointed at one of the menu items. “This is what you want. It's called mansaf; basically it is a dish of rice and lamb with flatbread. The spices are quite delicious, and the meat will melt on your tongue.”
Though the meal sounded plenty delicious, I was distracted by how close Zane's body was to mine, and the smell of his cologne. We had spent such a wonderful day together, and as we sat together, something felt shifted and different between us.
I let Zane order the meal he had suggested for me, and the old man brought out a beautiful antique tea service with steaming water and a selection of choices for us to enjoy while we waited for our food. The tea was incredibly soothing after the long, exciting day.
“I'm so glad we were able to extend my stay,” I told Zane with a soft grin. “It feels like a thousand years since I went out and had a good day for no reason, especially with company like yours. I needed this, thank you.”
Zane seem surprised. His full lips curled at one end. “That doesn't sound good. Why haven't you had good days lately?”
I didn't want to burden Zane with my problems, but as I stared into his dark eyes, I couldn't deny the empathy and sincere feeling of concern I found in them. His gaze was like a tractor beam, and he had me in his pull.
I took a deep breath. Few people had heard anything about my life right now; I couldn't believe I was about to share it with the Sheikh of Al-Dali. “Things just aren't that great right now, to be honest.”
He frowned, concerned. “Oh? How so?”
“The industry is very fickle. When I was younger, I couldn't turn down offers fast enough. But lately only scraps have been trickling through my door—TV movies, roles that are beneath my skill and make me look stupid. You know deep down that the industry is misogynist, and you deal with a lot of it even in the good years. But this is the first time I've ever actually had to face the truth of the world I committed my life to.”
I was surprised to hear the words coming out of my mouth, but instantly felt weight lifted off my soul.
Zane listened intently. His eyes were sad. “I'm so sorry to hear that, Julianne. I can't believe you would be so devalued in your industry. There's nothing fair or right about that.”
“No, there isn't,” I agreed with a sigh. “It's really hard to deal with. Plus, add onto that the humiliation of what Jack Lister did to me and how almost everyone in LA has decided to back him up… It's enough to make me feel like I made a huge mistake ever going out to that city and trying to act.”
Gently, he reached for one of my hands and clasped it warmly in both of his. Looking into my eyes, he said, “Don't ever feel regret for following your dreams. Even though the reality turned out to be much more different and complicated than you expected, that has nothing to do with you, Julianne. Your worth remains and so does your talent; it's them who have let you down. I'm sorry this is happening to you.”
Overwhelmed, tears welled up in my eyes even as I smiled back at him. I nodded. “Thank you, Zane. I really needed to hear that.”
“I'm not just trying to ease your pain, I mean it. You are so talented. And you didn't deserve what Jack did to you—no one would.”
Even the mention of his name made my stomach turn. “Jack is monster. I kick myself every day for not seeing the truth of what he was until it was too late. And it's so hard to watch people I thought cared about me—or at least cared about working with me—ignore me while they trot around with him. I've never felt so alone.”
“Cowards,” sighed Zane, shaking his head. “Monsters like him exist everywhere, clambering up the ladder, stepping on person after person to get there. They work very hard to deceive people; you can't blame yourself for falling for it any more than you can blame yourself for losing a race to an Olympic athlete. Jack has a lot of practice at what he does. Of course he's going to win.”
“I hadn't thought about it like that,” I replied.
“I've known men like him. Once I notice them close to me, I swiftly change course. Or if they work for me, I make sure they are assigned somewhere far away from the core administration. They are rare, but the cowards, like the ones who sided with Jack even after he humiliated you, are much more common. It's impossible to avoid them. They will always be around to trail after the perceived winner in order to make themselves look stronger.”
“And in doing so, they helped Jack's victory. It's like a snake eating its own tail.”
“It happens when everybody is fighting tooth and nail for a piece of the pie. When people don't want to work together, but only want to get ahead.”
“If that doesn't describe Hollywood, nothing does,” I chuckled bitterly.
“I will never understand Hollywood's treatment of women,” said Zane sadly. “Or American culture in general, I suppose. You're not even thirty years old and already considered less valuable by your industry—it's nearly opposite to how things work in Al-Dali.”
“Oh?” I asked, curious. “What do you mean?”
“Women in my culture do not have a 'sell-by date'. Elderly women are the most revered group, which means every year of a woman's life, she becomes more powerful and respected. You can see this in our movie industry, too. Roles are written with older actresses in mind, and it's the young actresses who must work to prove themselves among seasoned veterans. Looks alone won't get them very far,” explained Zane.
I shook my head in disbelief. “Seriously? Where can I sign up for your version of the Screen Actors Guild?”
I laughed along with Zane, but in the back of my head, knew I was half-serious about wanting
to explore the industry of Al-Dali. If everything Zane said was true, how could I ignore it? Maybe being introduced to Zane was a bigger stroke of luck than I had originally thought. From the second I landed in Al-Dali I had found a level of comfort I couldn’t explain. Maybe the universe knew I needed to be here, because there was hope for me—just not in LA.
My thoughts were interrupted by the arrival of our food, the fragrant spices filling the air as steam rose from the dishes. The restaurant owner made sure we had everything we needed before departing to give us privacy.
After a few minutes of quiet, I turned to Zane and said, “Hey, I just wanted to say thank you for what you said. It feels good to be able to talk to someone who understands.”
Zane stopped spooning rice onto his plate, and turned a heavy gaze to me. A gentle smile crossed his lips. “I'm happy I could help. I know we don't know each other very well, Julianne, but I hope you'll believe me when I say that I want you to be happy and taken care of.”
His words touched my heart. I couldn't find any words to reply with. Instead, I put my hand over one of his and gave it a squeeze. Zane quickly returned the gesture, his touch sending excited sparks through my nerves.
Dinner was as delicious as Zane promised, and when the owner brought out a complimentary bottle of wine for us to enjoy with our dessert, we didn't say no, although Zane tucked an extra bill of money under the receipt on the table for the owner to find after we had gone. We finished the wine and lingered in the booth until one of Zane's security guards interrupted to tell us it was time to head to the airport, or we would miss the planned takeoff time for my flight.
I had thought the extra time with Zane would make me feel better about leaving, but somehow I only felt worse. Every moment I spent with him only made me want for more.
The heavy tension in the limo as we made our way through the city told me that it wasn't just me who was upset about my visit ending, but neither of us seemed to have the words to say to fix it. We listened quietly to the local radio station and watched the lights of the city go by.
The jet was waiting on the tarmac, Raj and Nareem waving excitedly from the staircase as we got out of the limo. A warm desert wind blew around us, dancing in my hair. The security guards busied themselves with unloading my luggage and giving the plane one last inspection, leaving Zane and I alone for our goodbye.
“I had a marvelous time with you, Julianne,” he said, smiling down at me. “It was more amazing than I even hoped for when I sent the proposal out. I'll never forget it.”
I stood close to him and gazed into his eyes. “I feel the same. This has been exactly what my spirit needed. Thank you so much for sending that offer, and for treating me like a queen while I was here.”
Zane laughed a little and brushed a loose strand of hair from my face. “You are a queen.”
Flushing, I had to look away from him, overwhelmed by my feelings. My heart ached to hold him, but I didn't have any words to help me get there.
In a rush of impulsiveness, propelled by a nameless urge, I leaned up on my tip-toes, wrapped my arm around his neck, and kissed him softly on the lips. It was quick and sweet, but Zane's face was flushed with heat when I pulled away.
“I'll be back to visit as soon as I can,” I promised. “If that's something you would want.”
Zane's grin answered his question before he could. “More than anything.” He took both of my hands in his and kissed them sweetly.
My heart soared, and it took every shred of my willpower not to throw myself in his arms at that moment. Instead, I gave him a bashful smile and a wave and turned for the plane before I could lose my cool.
Once up the stairs, I turned back to look at the Sheikh one last time. Zane stood by the limo in the twilight, waving at me and smiling.
I found a window seat and watched him until his guards directed him back in the limo so they could clear the tarmac for takeoff, the car’s taillights fading into the distance.