My already-heinous travel time was exacerbated by the detour Jack had forced me on with his surprise flight to Canada. I had to grab the last seat on a puddle-jumper to get me to the nearest city with an airport that serviced the Middle East, and then had to wait for a flight to Al-Dali holed up in the Diamond Club Lounge. I got a few stares as I made my way through the airport, but nobody stopped to ask me for an autograph. Maybe it was the fury still rolling through my body from Jack’s stunt; no-one wanted to approach a fuming woman.
I was able to get a seat in first class, and though it was nothing compared to the luxury of a private jet, I was just glad to have gotten a flight so quickly. I believed Jack when he said he had already sent the evidence to Zane. Every second that passed was another second he could be getting more hurt and angry due to Jack's lies. There was nothing I could do right now; I just had to pray I got to Al-Dali before the future I’d imagined for Zane and I was crushed forever.
I hailed a taxi outside the terminal after landing and asked the driver to take me to the palace. He turned in his seat and gave me a funny look, until he recognized my face and saw the stack of money I was waving in front of it. We got to the palace in less than fifteen minutes, expertly winding through city traffic. When we reached the gate and found it closed, the driver indicated he couldn’t go any further, and asked me what he wanted me to do.
It wasn’t a dignified solution, but it was the only one I had. I paid the driver and thanked him, then got my luggage out of the car and walked up to the security panel installed on one of the massive stone pillars. The taxi driver hadn’t yet pulled away; he stood there next to his car, leaning on the open door, watching me curiously. He must have thought this was some kind of joke.
“Great, like I need an audience for everything,” I muttered to myself.
I couldn’t waste any more time. Unable to read the language on the security panel door, I pushed the button that looked well worn. After a few moments, a curt male voice came over the speaker, addressing me in what sounded like Arabic.
“Please, can I speak to the Sheikh?” I begged into the mic. “This is Julianne Wood. It’s urgent that I speak with him.”
A few moments went by, and I was worried I’d been blown off, but then a different voice returned, speaking English. “Who is this? State your business. This is government property and our agents are authorized to use force if necessary.”
Judging by his calm reaction, I guessed the taxi driver didn’t speak much English, or he would have turned and sped out of there. As it was, he just stared at me like he was watching a movie, chin perched on his door.
“This is Julianne Wood, the actress. I was a guest of the Sheikh a few days ago. I need to speak with him, and I didn’t have any other way to contact him.”
“Yes, Miss Wood, I remember you. This is highly unusual.”
“I know, I know. I’m sorry. But this is really important. Please, let me in. I need to speak with him.”
The line went dead again, and I waited with my nerves on fire. Even though his presence was annoying, I found myself grateful the taxi driver hadn’t run off yet. His services could be useful if things didn’t go my way.
But the voice came back on with a huff. “You may enter. The driver can bring you up to the entrance.”
With that, the gilded gate creaked and began to swing open. The taxi driver’s eyes widened, his jaw dropping; this was probably the most exciting day of his career.
“Take me up there,” I said to him.
He laughed and clapped his hands, gesturing for me to get back into the car. This must have been his first visit to the palace, because he stared at the landscape exactly as I had a few days earlier. Maybe it would become some great story he could tell his driver buddies, one of those fares they would never believe. He probably thought I was a crazy American who was going to embarrass myself in front of his Sheikh. He hadn't expected the gate to open.
Secretly, I had feared the same thing.
He slowly took the winding driveway, paved along the path of an ancient road, until we arrived at the front stairs. The guards let me out of the car and spoke to the driver in his tongue, offering him even more money than I had as soon as he had unloaded my luggage. The driver said something and gave a polite wave before climbing in his car and driving off.
I looked up the stairs. From the ornate wooden double doors, Zane appeared wearing a beautiful white suit with a vibrant orange flower tucked in his breast pocket. I braced myself to deal with his anger, or worse, disappointment, before I looked at his face.
There was no trace of negativity on his gorgeous face when I looked at him. Instead, he only smiled, thoroughly happy to see me.
“Julianne!” he said warmly. “What an unexpected surprise. I thought for sure the security boys were pulling my leg when they told me you were out front with your suitcase.”
Nervous, I had to laugh at how silly I must have looked. I ascended the steps and faced him with a confused expression. “I’m sorry for the unexpected drop-in, Zane. I’m glad to be back, too. Frankly, I was worried you wouldn’t want to see me.”
“Not want to see you? Nonsense.” He wrapped me in his strong arms and held me tightly. He smelled amazing, like jasmine and the soft heat of a desert night. Instantly my fear and dread melted out of my muscles, replaced by the warmth of his loving embrace.
I threw my arms around his body and got lost in the sensation of his muscled body against me. I felt like he was the only thing in the world holding me together.
“Might your showing up here have something to do with a certain video I received this morning?” he said gently.
“Oh my God, you won’t believe what happened,” I said, my face still pressed against his chest. “I didn’t plan on showing up on your doorstep like this, but I got tricked into heading to a set in Canada and it’s all tied up with why you were sent that stupid video. I knew I had to come here and fix this. I didn’t want you to believe his lies,” I babbled.
“Who did this?” he asked, his voice suddenly stern.
“Jack Lister,” I growled. “He was waiting for me at my house when I got back from my trip here, and tried to offer me some huge part if I was willing to fake a reconciliation with him to promote the movie. I refused, and apparently he didn’t like that very much.”
“What do you mean?” Zane brushed a piece of hair from my face as he listened, staring at me intently.
“He texted me from a foreign number and tricked me into thinking he was you, inviting me to take another private plane ride over. I thought I would be going back to Al-Dali to meet with you, but it turned out I was being taken to Canada for my first day working on a movie I had refused to be involved in. And then…”
Here was the painful part, and I took a deep breath before I could proceed. “Then he told me he knew all about you, and about us… He sent you that video to make you think that we were back together. He’s trying to chase you off so that I won’t have anyone or anything but him to lean on. I had to come here and set things straight.”
Zane listened carefully, his dark eyes full of emotion. “Jack Lister is playing a dangerous game,” he replied darkly. “Impersonating a foreign dignitary is a crime your country takes very seriously.”
“It’s par for the course for him; he thinks he’s untouchable. I need you to know the truth about that tape, Zane,” I said. “It’s not real, I would never reconcile with Jack. I haven’t gone near him since we broke up. Being around him makes me sick.”
“I know you wouldn’t, Julianne,” Zane assured me with a smile. “As I said, Lister is playing a dangerous game, and like most fools who play games they don’t understand, he has underestimated his enemy.”
“How do you mean?” I asked, unable to quite believe that Zane wasn’t even a little bothered by the footage he had been sent. “You mean you knew it was fake all along?”
“Jack assumes that everyone thinks like him. He doesn’t value you or your work, and he thinks I don’t, either. He didn’t for a moment consider that I might have seen every one of your films—including all the deleted scenes, like the one he sent me.”
A sly smile appeared on the corners of his full lips as he continued. “He’s a very foolish man. I recognized the scene the moment I saw it. My security staff and I had a good laugh over it. Is this how the higher tiers of Hollywood really do their business, through terrible blackmail attempts?”
I laughed in abject relief, my hand over my heart. “Oh my God, you don’t know how glad I am to hear you say that. I’ve spent the last fourteen hours convinced you would never want to see me again.” I paused for a moment before continuing. “Okay, admittedly I also spent some of that time planning my elaborate revenge scheme.”
Zane chuckled and put his hand under my chin. “Don’t worry, my dear. I may have inherited my position as ruler, but my country would never accept a stupid leader. I wouldn’t be here if I wasn’t a little smarter than self-interested cowards like Jack Lister. I don’t blame you for what has happened, and I’m sorry that his childish behavior has upset you so much. What can I do to make you feel better? Anything—just name it, and it’s yours.”
“Anything?” I said in a teasing voice. “What if I want to eat an entire chocolate cake while we watch movies all night?”
“I would say let’s give the palace chef a call and get him started on the richest, most decadent chocolate cake that’s ever been created by man.”
I giggled and nuzzled against Zane. He lowered his face to mine, then, and gave me a deep kiss, his tongue dancing with mine. We stayed that way for long enough that some of the security guards started to shift uncomfortably, trying not to watch.
“I think a restful evening is in order,” Zane whispered, rubbing his nose against mine. “You’ve been through a lot these last few days.”
“I agree, but that won’t be enough,” I told him.
“What do you mean?”
“I was only half-kidding when I said I want revenge on Jack. I’m tired of him having power over my life. I was a stupid kid when I got with him, I admit that, and I’ve suffered for it—more than I think I deserved. I want to do something to make sure he never tries to mess with me or anyone else again.”
Zane listened to my admission and didn’t admonish me for my feelings. He seemed to understand implicitly what I was saying.
“Your instincts are not wrong, Julianne. A man like Jack doesn’t understand or care about boundaries, and he will keep taking until you stop him. I’ve seen men like him working in the halls of politics all too often, and they must be approached like wild animals.”
“So help me,” I begged. “If you know how to deal with guys like him, help me think of some way to get back at him.”
“Well, I do have access to a few royal assassins…”
My eyes went wide. “Are you serious?”
Zane laughed out loud. “No, of course not, I was just kidding.” He chuckled and kissed the top of my head. “Besides, we can take out the teeth and claws of a wild animal without killing it. We can make it so he has no choice but to stop hurting people if he wants to survive.”
“How would we do that?”
He put his arm around my shoulder and led me into the cool air of the palace as he hummed in thought. “Well, what do we know about Jack right now? Is he taking on the Canada project for certain?”
“Yeah, there’s no way he would resist,” I replied. “It sounds like he may have called in a few favors to land it, too. He won’t leave unless he’s fired.”
“So we know where he’s working,” said Zane. “Which is insider information, since the movie hasn’t been announced yet. That means the production might still be in its initial stages and accepting investors.”
“Sure,” I agreed. “That’s likely.”
“What if we called the studio heads and offered to finance the movie?” suggested Zane.
I frowned, confused. “Finance his movie? But wouldn’t that be helping Jack? You know, like the opposite of what we’re trying to do?”
“Not if we attach conditions that end up being not so helpful to him,” Zane finished in a mischievous voice. “I’m no expert, but I understand the movie industry to be like most other industries—the more zeroes you offer to finance something, the more control you get to have over it. And I just so happen to have a lot of zeroes available for such a worthy cause.”
I liked the sound of that. I wrapped my arms around his waist and smiled up at him. “Ooh, tell me more, Your Highness.”
He bent down and gave my nose a delicate little kiss. “I think I will—over chocolate cake in the cinema room. Would you care to join me?”
“Revenge and cake? How could I resist?”