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Bought For One Night:

The Sheikh’s Offer



By Holly Rayner


Copyright 2016 by Holly Rayner


All rights reserved. Except for use in any review, the reproduction or utilization of this work in whole or in part by any means, now known or hereafter invented, including xerography, photocopying and recording, or in any information storage or retrieval system, is forbidden without the explicit written permission of the author.


All characters depicted in this fictional work are consenting adults, of at least eighteen years of age. Any resemblance to persons living or deceased, particular businesses, events, or exact locations are entirely coincidental.












Table Of Contents:



ONE

TWO

THREE

FOUR

FIVE

SIX

SEVEN

EIGHT

NINE

TEN

ELEVEN

TWELVE

THIRTEEN

FOURTEEN

FIFTEEN

SIXTEEN

SEVENTEEN

EIGHTEEN

NINETEEN

TWENTY






ONE



It was a beautiful spring day. The sun was shining, and a cool breeze wafted over the hills and down into LA. Glittering in front of me, my private pool beckoned as I sipped on a frozen margarita, lounging away another afternoon under the California sun.


It should have been a perfect moment—one of those moments every wannabe actress in this godforsaken city dreams about having. It’s a moment that tells you unconditionally that you’ve made it. But there was no trace of that feeling for me; only a growing dread kept me company, eating away at the perfection of the day.


I tried my best to chase it away with a refreshing swim and a good meal, but it was no use. My anxiety was king and all I could do was obey its every command. All that glittered here was not gold and it was getting harder and harder to ignore.


My mansion was modest by some Hollywood standards, yet it was still one of the largest on the street, formerly owned by some Golden Age starlet whose name I could never remember. I always had to look it up before I had a dinner or wrap party so I could regale my guests with its history, and usually they ate it up. It didn’t really matter what her name was. Soon, I might be joining her in the halls of obscurity, a name for the next It-Girl to forget when she bought this place out from under me.


It was true what they said—Hollywood was a bitch goddess who devoured everyone, and now it was my turn. After a glorious ten-year run in my dream career, it seemed the well was drying up. Twenty-seven years old and apparently I was already washed up.


I knew deep down that it wasn’t true—I had so much more art to devote my energy and passion to. But it didn’t seem like the industry wanted it from me anymore. One minute they adored me, with casting directors knocking down my door; the next, all I was offered were B-list horror movies and cliché TV soap romances.


All of it had changed the minute things with Jack fell apart; that fact was impossible to ignore. I was already in trouble the day I had the audacity to turn 27, because Hollywood is nothing if not predictably sexist. Things took a brutal turn when he left me for a younger girl, and the media took the story and ran with it.


Some people were on my side, sure; plenty of women in the industry had similar experiences to share. But it wasn’t enough, and too many people were eager to congratulate Jack on his girlfriend trade-in abilities, as if they were hoping he’d let them in on his secrets. They wanted to be just like him, with a hot blonde actress ten years his junior as arm candy. It wasn’t long before Jack spread stories about me being the ‘crazy ex-girlfriend’ to solidify that he had done the right thing by cheating on me. He had a bad-boy reputation to maintain, and the more notoriety he gained for doing something shocking, the better for his career.


So he had sacrificed us—me—to that end, and it had worked, with me left alone to clean up the carnage. Every day, it felt like there was less and less to salvage. Even back when I was young and squeezing in auditions between waitressing shifts, I hadn’t felt as hopeless as I did now.


Lounging pool-side didn’t last long. After I finished my margarita, my restless legs forced me up from the davenport and back into the air-conditioned silence of the mansion. I didn’t have any kids or pets to bring life to the place; I didn’t even have a boyfriend to be arguing with over something petty. The house was quiet as a tomb, if much more comfortable.


I put on a comfortable jumpsuit and decided to turn on the TV before my brain consumed itself with worry. I spent day after day pacing around this place, waiting for word from my agent about potential new jobs. And every day, the silence seemed to grow, as did the pile of bills. Without a constant flow of top-tier projects, affording the A-list lifestyle was quickly becoming unsustainable. The public liked to imagine that us movie stars were set for life once we had our first blockbuster hit. Most movie stars I knew would gladly accept that reality. But the truth was, we were just like them—without work, it was ramen for dinner and the threat of the lights not turning on. Add a few zeroes to our salaries, of course, but we were as trapped as anyone if we couldn’t get work.


I had just started to sink into the new cable crime drama all the critics were raving about when I my alarm system detected a car in the driveway. Looking out the window, I frowned as I spotted a black town car. I wasn’t expecting anybody today.


My heart froze up when I recognized my agent, Katherine Murray, getting out of the back seat. She paid the driver and he backed out of the driveway as quickly as he’d come. Seconds later, Katherine was on my doorstep, buzzing the intercom.


Even though she was exactly the person I wanted to hear from, seeing her show up in a hire car instead of her own BMW was a disconcerting sign. I turned off the TV and tossed the remote on the couch. “Jesus,” I muttered to myself. “This can’t be good.”


Instead of answering the intercom, I went straight to the front door to let her in. Katherine smiled up at me, but it was a tight, anxious smile. Her left hand clutched the expensive white leather bag she always carried in a white-knuckled grip.


“Julianne! Hi, sugar plum,” said Katherine. “I’m not bothering you, am I?”


I rolled my eyes. “Gimme a break. Bothering me? You know I’ve just been pacing around here waiting for you.” I stepped back from the door to let her in. “Where’s your car?”


“Oh, nowhere. Jonathan and I have been taking turns, that’s all,” she said lightly.


Jonathan was Katherine’s husband, also an agent, and what she didn’t say was that two married agents sharing a car in this city signaled serious trouble for at least one of them.


I didn’t push any further. It wasn’t like I was in any position to lecture Katherine about hiding the truth of her circumstances. My whole life had become an elaborate show, masking what was going on underneath. Refusing to do interviews while I ‘healed’ from the pain of Jack was acceptable in the industry, at least for a short time. Eventually, though, I would have to break my silence—either by getting back to work on a big project, or speaking about what had happened in an attempt to keep my name on everyone’s mind. I desperately wanted the former.


As usual, Katherine tapped on her kitten heels through the foyer, past the living room, and made a beeline for the enormous kitchen. She took a seat on a barstool at the island where she began to pull files from her neatly organized bag and spread them across the marble countertop.


She waved a finger at me. “You mind pouring me a glass of something?”


“What do you want?”


“Vodka and diet tonic? I’m on a cleanse.”


I served us both a glass of the favorite low-cal drink of all Hollywood women and sat on a stool across from her as she sifted through her files. Katherine was very meticulous in her work; it was part of what attracted me to her when I was starting out. She cared about her clients, and I was glad that even now, that hadn’t changed.


Katherine sipped her drink and took a breath. “Okay, so I have a few offers for you.”


“Wonderful,” I exhaled. “That’s exactly what I wanted to hear from you.”


She tsked slightly. “You’re not going to like some of them, but I figured I should bring them anyway, considering…”


“Considering the state of things,” I finished for her, unable to mask the hint of bitterness in my voice. “I know I’m not in any position to be too choosy about the jobs I get. Let’s get on with the freak show, then.”


TWO

Katherine gave me a half-smile and pulled up the first file in its manila folder.


Other Side of the Tracks, it’s a mid-budget horror movie. You’d be the female lead. The director’s got a bit of a cult following, but your romance or drama crowds aren’t going to give a hoot. Saying that, you’d get to watch Tobey Maguire get his head chopped off.”


I tilted my head a few times, weighing up the decision. “Tempting, but pass,” I said. “I’ve already been killed on screen more than I would like.”


Katherine didn’t argue, but dropped the file on the granite countertop. She picked up the next one. “Ink and Paper, a romantic comedy about a New York writer falling for her newspaper editor. Standard will-they-or-won’t-they plotline, no sex scenes, probably some great wardrobe too.”


I perked up. “That doesn’t sound too bad. Who’s doing it? Paramount?”


“Lifetime.”


“Television?” I whined, my excitement dying. “Is this what it’s come to?”

Katherine shrugged. “It should be an easy gig for you, hon. It’s not much money but it’s also not much work—you can do this Never Been Kissed garbage in your sleep by now. And you have a built-in audience for it that would follow you to TV.”


“It’s not about wanting an easy gig,” I replied. “I’d have to do ten of those a year just to make the same money I’d make with one major studio movie. There’s no way I’d be able to do that and stay sane; I’d be constantly working.”


“Working on TV for a while would at least keep you relevant, and maybe get you some real movie offers,” Katherine countered.


“Yeah, or maybe I become the literal face of Lifetime and get trapped there forever.”


Katherine let out a sardonic laugh and swirled the ice in her drink. She nodded and put the yellow folder aside. “All right, fair point. You’re right; we don’t want you getting stuck in the TV cesspool. Are we still opposed to the soap opera avenue?”


I gave her a little glare and raised my glass. “Absolutely.”


Another three folders joined the discard pile. Katherine didn’t even bother reading them to me.


“How would you like to play Zac Efron’s mom in a teen comedy?”


I almost choked on my cocktail. “His mom? He’s my frickin’ age!”


She sighed and gave me an understanding nod. “I know, but it’s the business, pumpkin. They’ll dress you older and probably do something with makeup and hair to make it seem less ridiculous, and it’ll work for the audience. But his name recognition should help with the paycheck.”


Pass,” I hissed with venom.


Katherine only had one folder left—one she hadn’t bothered to color-code with her usual system. It was odd, as was the way she clutched at it with her hands like she didn’t want to open it.


Sensing some tension, I stood and refilled both our glasses. Sitting down, I gestured to the folder. “So? What’s this last one, let’s get it over with.”


Katherine took a drink and let out a big sigh. “I’m not so sure I want to show you this one, to be honest.”


I was confused. This had never happened before, and Katherine had had no problem introducing me to all manner of unappealing roles in our long time together as actor and agent.


I frowned at her. “What is it, Katherine? Geez, you’re acting like you’re opening Pandora’s Box here.”


“I might be,” she muttered, but I pretended not to hear.


“Just tell me, Katherine. I’m dying for some good news, and so far you haven’t brought me any. What could possibly be in that folder to make my options worse? They want me to play Clint Eastwood’s great aunt?”


The joke didn’t land for Katherine. She sighed again and looked down at the folder. Slowly, she opened the front flap and silently read something to herself as I waited.


“How familiar are you with Al-Dali?” she asked finally.


I shrugged, searching my memory. “The country in the Middle East? Passingly, I guess. I know it’s a popular vacation spot for the super-rich. Why?”


“I received this offer from one of their leaders, Sheikh Zane bin Alaman.”


“Sheikh?”


“One of their royal titles. You could compare it to a prince or a king in a western monarchy.”


“A Middle-Eastern prince sent you a pitch for me?” I repeated, convinced I had missed some huge piece of information.


But Katherine nodded. “Yep, exactly. He has an offer for you…” She cleared her throat. “But it’s not a movie. He wants to hire you for a single night of, um, company. And he’s willing to pay you a million dollars for it.”


The silence was crushed by the sound of my glass hitting the granite countertop with a loud thunk. Ice and vodka tonic splashed all over the discard pile of folders. I swore and rushed for a kitchen towel to clean up the mess.


“Are you kidding me?” I asked Katherine as I wiped up my spilled drink. “Is this a joke?”


She shook her head slowly. “Not as far as I can tell. I called him myself when the offer came in because I thought the same thing. I thought one of my rivals was playing a prank, or it was a setup from Jack to humiliate you. But it’s vetted. It’s for real. And he definitely has the money. A million bucks is probably chump change he finds in the cushions of his couch.”


I had to grip the counter to steady myself, as my mind was swimming with confusion. “This is unbelievable.”


“It’s the kind of money you wanted,” Katherine reminded me gently. “And for far less work than any production, TV or otherwise.”


“Now, wait a second there. Far less work, but not my work. I’m not a prostitute, Katherine, and that sounds like… like exactly what this is,” I argued, waving my hand at the folder. “This is some Indecent Proposal B.S.”


Katherine didn’t have a reply. She waited, and then shrugged. “You asked to hear it. It’s just a night, sweetheart, and it’s a lot of money for one night.”


“I’m not a prostitute,” I repeated firmly. “And he might have written ‘company’ in that nice little pitch he drew up, but you and I both know what he’s really asking for. Don’t play dumb with me.”


“I’m not,” Katherine replied with a solemn nod. “And I’m not going to deny that he’s most likely expecting… that.”


Even though a million dollars would go a long way to alleviating the situation that was currently crushing me, I couldn’t convince myself to be okay with the idea. It stuck like a piece of bread in my throat, refusing to be swallowed.


A voice in the back of my head kept repeating Katherine’s words: it’s just a night. But I couldn’t make myself say yes.


I shook my head and loosened my grip on the counter, realizing that my fingers hurt. “No, Katherine. Tell Sheikh whatever-his-name-is that I’m not for sale. He may think I’m rock-bottom enough to accept it, but I’m not. Just tell him no. And keep looking for other jobs.”


Katherine nodded. She seemed both disappointed and relieved, which was exactly how I felt. She dropped the folder on top of the rest of the pile. “All right babes, I will. I’ll find you something better.”


“Please do. And don’t tell anyone about that offer,” I implored her. “The vultures in this town would absolutely eat that up.”



THREE


After Katherine left, I decided to ditch the gala I was supposed to be attending that night and instead sulked by myself in the mansion.


It was a rotten idea for a number of reasons. Being a shut-in wasn’t going to get me any new parts, and networking in Hollywood was one of the keys to success. Attending events and mingling was a sign that you were willing to play the game, and it kept your face on the minds of producers and potential co-stars. Staying home alone waiting for propositions to roll in made me look unapproachable and entitled. I knew it; I knew all the risks. I’d been in the business long enough.


But after Katherine’s visit, I couldn’t find it in my heart to want to play the game. I was tired of being forgotten and discounted simply because I was getting older. I didn’t look a day over 23, and I worked hard to keep it that way. Yet the industry was treating me as if I’d already hit menopause. They wanted to stick me in the ‘mature’ box—in TV movies and in safe, insulting roles as frat boys’ moms—just to keep using me without giving me the compensation my talent and experience deserved.


The offers were just as depressing as the lack of them, and my spirit was too dimmed to hobnob. I put the silver dress I’d picked out to wear back in my walk-in closet, ordered from my favorite Thai restaurant, and cracked open a bottle of wine. The food arrived quickly—probably because not many people in Hollywood were eating in on a Saturday night.


I situated myself on the couch in front of my big-screen TV as night fell across California, eating right out of the take-out containers as I cuddled up in my most comfortable pajamas. My phone was on silent and charging in my bedroom, well out of the way. I didn’t need the distraction.


It’s funny how even a showbiz professional can miss out on things; at my busiest, I never had enough free hours in the week to sit down and catch up on all the movies and shows my friends and rivals were creating. Stuffing my mouth full of food while I sat in front of the TV felt surprisingly and wonderfully normal for a change. I decided I would make the best of the situation by trying some self-care, even if it came with a little bit of self-pitying.


I was halfway through the bottle of wine when the commercial that ruined my night came on. It was a new trailer for an action blockbuster—one of the most anticipated of the year—which was scheduled to premiere in just a few months. I had been trying to keep my mind away from it, but the blaring of dramatic music and flashes of CGI explosions promised that there would be no escaping the painful reminders it brought.


And suddenly there he was: Jack Lister, in vivid color. His face, deadly handsome and glistening with sweat, shoved its way into my home once more, and I watched with growing anger in my heart, unable to make myself change the channel, curiosity getting the best of me. Jack Lister, running from a car-full of faceless bad guys shooting at him; Jack Lister sitting in front of a glowing computer monitor with a gun poised at the back of his head; Jack Lister sweeping up a beautiful young blonde for a dramatic kiss. It took me a moment to place her face, but when I did, I suddenly wanted another glass of wine.


It was Avery Donovan: the new me. The resemblance was glaring enough that I had gotten more than a few comments about it over the last few years as Avery had risen to stardom. She was beautiful and talented, and more importantly, she was young.


It was barely six months ago when my handsome, talented, A-list boyfriend left me for this younger version of me. Now, he and his new lady were starring in a movie together—something he had always promised me, something we had dreamed about as we lay together in bed.


My relationship with Jack had seemed like a perfect fantasy, despite all the warnings I’d received from everyone in the business who had ever dealt with him. He was devastatingly good looking, charismatic, and a good actor when he felt like showing up to do his job. The problem was, he knew looks were enough for him to skate by with, and he was happy to ride that gravy train. He had no problem being rude and abusive to the people he saw as being below him. It took me a long time to see that about him; for a while my choice of ignorance was bliss.


I thought the people scorning him were just jealous, trying to protect what they saw as a sweet and naïve little girl from a big bad monster of a man. I’d been acting since I was a teenager and was well-aware of the dangers of powerful, predatory men who used their position to get more than they deserved. For some reason, I didn’t see that in Jack; he put his hands over my eyes until it was too late—until we were sharing a home, a bed, and a future that he had no intention of seeing through.


When he left me for Avery, many people were thrilled to say “I told you so”. So many smug smiles; so many condescending pats on the shoulder, offering work that they knew was below me, just so they could pretend they were being supportive. Everyone loves watching the popular kids fall. They didn’t care about the full story, or that I was a human being, or that I had truly cared for Jack.


To them, I was just another in a long line of girls who’d fallen for Jack’s bad-boy charisma and wild promises. They didn’t see me as a real woman with a broken heart. They didn’t see how hard I worked to keep our relationship going and keep my career on track. Jack got to keep on going, because the world loved him no matter what. If anything, what he did to me made him more popular. Men wanted to be him because he could jump from actress to actress, always attached to the top A-lister of the minute, no matter how terribly he treated them. Women wanted to be with him because he was handsome, dangerous, and deep down, they believed they could change him. Their dreams were filled with fantasies of being the woman he would love so much that he couldn’t hurt her.


I know because those are exactly the dreams I used to have. From the moment I met him, a feeling of always chasing something I could never catch lived in my heart. Once he did what he did, I understood why.


The truth was that Jack Lister cared about one person—Jack Lister. If you weren’t helping him get richer and more famous, you might as well not exist. And if you were helping him, you shouldn’t fool yourself into thinking he actually valued you; he’d throw you out the window the minute you stopped being useful.


As the movie trailer ended with a shot of the new couple on top of a cliff, I wondered how long it would be before Avery discovered that awful reality for herself. I didn’t wish her harm; if anything, I felt horrible for her. I was living through her inevitable future, and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone.


However, I couldn’t deny the jealous pang I felt at seeing her in the kind of role I had dreamed of, and felt I deserved. It was just one more reminder of what the industry thought of me, and how little control I had over it. The clock was ticking on my career, and I had to figure out what my next steps were going to be.



FOUR


The night suddenly felt darker around me. The crime drama I was watching was excellent, just as everyone promised, but I couldn’t concentrate on it after seeing Jack’s trailer. My mind wandered back to Katherine’s visit, bringing with it doubt about the decisions I had made. I had promised that I wouldn’t be picky, but here I was, another day gone by without a contract to sign or a future to plan for. The feeling that I should have accepted one of them started to scratch at the back of my mind.


A few were absolute no’s. I wasn’t going to insult myself by playing into Hollywood misogyny, so playing the mom of a man my age was out of the question, no matter how famous he was. The Lifetime movie was just a bad career move, my gut told me. There would be time for that descent later. If I jumped willingly into it now, I might never be able to climb back out. Katherine was hopeful for a rebound, but she couldn’t be sure of that any more than I could.


Then there was the offer from the Sheikh of Al-Dali: a single night for a million dollars. It seemed crazy; even now I was half-sure it was a joke someone was playing on me. I had heard rumors that offers like that really existed within super-rich communities, but I had never expected to be handed one—especially during what seemed to be the collapse of my career. There was something uncomfortable about it, yet I couldn’t deny my interest.


The money was calling me like a siren. It could help me through a lot right now and give me some breathing room to get back out into LA and mingle until I sweet-talked my way into some legitimate studio work. Once I got back in the saddle, I knew I could fix this.


But could I actually go through with it? What would I do when he finally tried to lead me to the bedroom—if he put up any kind of pretense at all? Pretending the Sheikh wouldn’t be interested in sex would be more naïve than believing in Jack Lister. He may not have spelled it out in the offer, but if I got on that private plane and headed to Al-Dali, there was almost no chance that I wasn’t going to end up in his bedroom. Either that, or I’d have to reject him and face who knew what kind of legal troubles from being in breach of contract.

If I said yes, things could end up worse for me than they already were. My reputation and credibility would be ruined forever if even a whisper of the arrangement reached the ears of the media.


Part of me was afraid of that reality, but part of me remembered how much more risk I had taken before, when I had moved out to LA by myself to try and make it on the big screen. Everyone thought I was crazy. My parents, bless their hearts, could hardly keep themselves together the day I left, and surviving as a nobody in a soulless city was harder and scarier than I had expected. But I kept my head high, worked hard, and used my passion to keep me going through years of disappointing and occasionally humiliating auditions. One day, it finally paid off, and things had been easier until Jack left me.


I was here now, safe in my Hollywood mansion, because of taking opportunities, even if they seemed stupid or dangerous. The only way I was going to move forward was by taking risks.


All the offers Katherine had brought me were a gamble. So which one was I going to bet my future on? Which one would give me the most satisfaction, even if it didn’t work out?


I’d never been to Al-Dali; I was surprised that a country so far away would even be aware of my existence. Some American movies did very well overseas, but I had never thought about that scene. I just assumed they had their own movie industry that satisfied their audiences, except when the occasional giant fighting robots blockbuster came rolling in from overseas. There was something intriguing about the idea of a mini-vacation in a new, exotic place where I apparently had some unexpected popularity. Plus, as rich as this guy sounded, it would probably include luxurious accommodations, and maybe even some gifts. The thought of a little pampering was pretty tempting.


Plus, I was a confident, seasoned movie star. I wasn’t going to do anything I didn’t want to do, and the Shiekh would quickly realize that. Breaching a contract might make things harder, but I’d never been one to sacrifice my integrity for my work, and I wasn’t about to start. I’d rather take the heat for denying him than live with the decision of saying yes.


Before I knew it, I was fumbling with my phone, a little wine-drunk and blurry-eyed without my contacts in. I pulled up the number for Katherine, and waited patiently while it rang. It was late, but Katherine and most other agents were twenty-four-seven kind of people. They had to be in order to excel in the business.


After three rings, she picked up, her voice a little groggy. “Hey Julianne, what is it? Everything okay?”


“Did I wake you up?”


“What’s up?” The rustling of fabric in the background was answer enough. “I’m getting dressed, I can be over in twenty minutes.”


“No, no,” I interrupted. “No need, it’s not that bad. Everything’s fine. I just made a decision and wanted to get it over with.”


“What’s that?”


I took a deep breath. “I want you to call the Sheikh, the one from Al-Dali. Tell him I’ll accept his offer.”


There was dead silence on the other end of the phone.


“You…you what?”


I had to laugh a little. “Call that Sheikh, the offer you brought today. I’m going to do it. I’ll take his money for one day of ‘company.’”


“O-Okay,” stuttered Katherine. I heard paper and the scribbling of a pen. “I’ll call him right now. You’re sure about this?” Her voice was motherly and just a little wary.


“No, not even a little,” I admitted, putting my head in my hands. “But everything I’ve done to get to where I am has been a risk. I’ve lived on next to nothing and nearly been homeless trying to get noticed out here. I’ve never been sure about anything except following my gut, and so far, things have worked out. So let’s do it. And if he tries to put that card into play, well… I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. I’ve gotten myself out of creepy situations before.”


“Okay, if you’re sure, honey, then you got it,” said Katherine. “I’ll call you as soon as I hear back from him.”


“Thanks, you’re the best.”


***

It was less than an hour after I hung up with Katherine when my phone started vibrating against the glass coffee table. She had called the Sheikh and spoken with him directly about accepting the offer. She said he was delighted that I’d accepted, and would be sending a car the following morning to pick me up.


“So soon?” I asked Katherine, surprised.


“Apparently,” replied Katherine. “This guy has money to burn, I’m sure rushing this kind of thing is no big deal to him. Can you be ready in time?”


“Of course, look who you’re talking to; I’ve gotten ready for the Oscars in less than three hours.”


“Well get on it, girl. He’s coming for you. You let me know if you need anything, okay? If something goes wrong, or if you want to come back, just call me.”


“Katherine, I’m not a child,” I groaned. “I’ll be fine. He’s not going to kidnap me.”


“I just worry about you, sugar plum; you know you’re my favorite.”


“Yeah, I bet you say that to all the girls,” I joked. “Thanks, I’ll call you when I’m on my way.”


I hung up with my agent and stared out at the LA lights glimmering under the fog in the distance. I wondered how the lights of Al-Dali would compare.



FIVE

After snatching a couple of hours of fitful sleep, I woke before my alarm and looked to my walk-in wardrobe. Since the job was a straight twenty-four hours, I figured I had better pack for several eventualities. I pulled out a mid-sized suitcase and rolled up my pajamas, several outfits, a jacket, and an array of shoes and accessories. In a garment bag, I tucked two evening dresses—one more modest than the other, as I had no idea what to expect when it came to customs in Al-Dali. Finally, I packed up my makeup and hair supplies, along with a novel I had been trying to finish for three months. One of the crew from my last film had recommended it, but my concentration had been lacking lately with all the stress. Maybe I’d get time to finish it on the trip.


Since I knew Al-Dali was a desert country, I opted for an outfit of light, flowing red cloth draped over a romper of the same color, with broad straps and shorts that extended down to my knees. The sheer drapery added modesty without adding weight or heat; paired with nude heels, the outfit would be perfect for summer. I leaned into the old-school Hollywood look by painting my lips red and digging out one of my wide-brim wicker hats to protect me from the sun.


Zipping up my suitcases, I was surprised by the buzzer to my front gates ringing. I hurried through the house, my bare feet cold on the hardwood floors, to answer the call. The video display on the security system showed a limo driver waiting patiently in his idling vehicle.


Man, that was fast, I thought as I pressed the speaker button and let him into the grounds, promising I was nearly finished packing. He politely told me to take my time.


After throwing my luggage by the door and pulling on my shoes, I made a quick round to check doors and windows, water my plants, and ensure I hadn't left anything undone. It was only a twenty-four-hour trip, but when the trip was taking me halfway around the world, anything could go wrong and keep me away for longer. More than once, I had come home from a production that ran too long to a house full of dead plants, their poor brown leaves littering the floor. It wasn't the best welcome home.


The limo driver moved to take my bags as soon as he saw the front door opening. He greeted me with a bow and introduced himself as Terry, handing me a card. I recognized the company he worked for, a local rental service that the Sheikh must have called to hire. He was professional and polite, but had that glow in his eyes that betrayed he was a fan that wanted desperately to gush about it all over me. Hollywood protocol tended to frown on that kind of behavior when it came from staff that had access to celebrity homes and lives, but there was no hiding the emotions.


About halfway through the drive to the airport, Terry’s professional composure finally broke. “I loved you in Undertow,” he said without turning his head to face the back.


I smiled and nodded, fiddling with my sunhat in my lap. “I liked that one, too. Thank you, Terry.”


“I haven't seen you in much lately.”


Thanks for the reminder, I thought to myself. “I've been taking a little hiatus,” I replied confidently. “Needed a vacation from the rat race.”


“I can understand that,” replied Terry as he took a right off the freeway. The airport was in the opposite direction.


“Where are we going?” I asked curiously, looking out the window.


“Reynolds Airfield,” Terry said matter-of-factly.


I frowned, only vaguely aware of its existence. “Oh? Not LAX?”


“My instructions were to take you to Reynolds,” shrugged Terry. “It's my understanding a private jet will be waiting for you. This is a bit of an exclusive airfield.”


I had friends with private jets, but none of them had ever used this airfield. I was suddenly more intrigued, and sat back to enjoy the unfamiliar drive until we arrived at the tiny airfield with a hangar only ten planes deep.


We idled for a moment at the gates as we were identified by an intimidating man at an equally-intimidating security booth. He told Terry my transport was ready and waiting, and directed him to our destination. An imposing steel arm lifted, opening the driveway to us, and Terry guided the limo inside and across the open concrete.


We stopped in front of a gorgeous red-and-white jet glistening on the tarmac, stairway lowered. Two staff members were waiting with bright smiles at its base, wind whipping at their hair. Terry immediately hopped out of the car to open my door for me. I slipped on my sunglasses and hat and watched him head for the trunk for my bags.


“Miss Wood?” came a voice. One of the flight attendants, a beautiful young woman with dark hair and olive skin, approached with an outstretched hand. “My name is Nareem. I'll be taking care of you today, along with my associate, Raj.” She gestured to the other attendant, who bowed and smiled. “Was your drive pleasant?”


“It was fine, thank you.” I nodded, shaking her hand. “Nice to meet you both.”


“Wonderful. Please, follow me, and we’ll get you comfortable before take-off.”


Nareem led me up the stairs and into the plushest private jet I had ever been on, and that was saying a lot. I had traveled with movie executives, A-list celebs and even a few tech moguls who liked to feel cool and connected. The Sheikh's plane blew them all away. Every detail was personalized, and the interior was decorated with what I could only assume was the art style of his country, with sweeping calligraphy and patterns interspersed with imagery of people and animals and plants. The upholstery was beautiful white leather. There were four chairs arranged around a polished table for business purposes, several recliner-style chairs near the windows, and even a lounge area against one side of the main cabin with a couch and coffee table.


Nareem led me to the rear of the plane and showed me a cozy cabin complete with a queen-sized bed with plush white bedding that matched the upholstery. A tiny chandelier dangled above the bed, its crystals quivering with the rumbling of the engine.


“Per the instructions of His Highness, you are free to use the cabin as you wish,” said Nareem with a smile. “Make yourself at home. Your luggage will be stored in the main cabin should you need it. We have a menu for you to select your drinks and meals. You need only let me know when and what you would like to eat, and it would be my pleasure to serve you.”


I might have been a movie star for years but even I was struggling not to be blown away by this level of treatment. I had never had the option of comfortably sleeping my way on a flight around the world with gourmet meals at my beck and call.


“Thank you, Nareem... This is all so generous.”


“The Sheikh is a generous man,” she said, her eyes glowing.


Curious, I prodded further. “Do you work for him year-round, or did he hire you solely for this job?”


She nodded gently. “We are the Shekih's full-time flight staff for this jet. He insisted we show you the same treatment as we would him. He wants you to be as comfortable as possible.”


I wanted to be happy and flattered by the news, but I cut my teeth in Hollywood, and I knew that this kind of hospitality rarely came without a quid-pro-quo.


Conscious that that wasn't Nareem's burden to bear, I flashed my best smile. “I don't think he has to worry about that. I might just sell my place and move in here instead, it's so comfortable.”


Nareem laughed, her cheeks flushing a pretty red as she did. “Make yourself comfortable, Miss Wood. I'm going to check that preparations for takeoff are moving smoothly. We should be departing in a matter of minutes.”



SIX


Once Nareem had disappeared into the front section of the plane, I threw myself dramatically onto the plush bed and sank into the clean linens with a sigh. The quiet hum of the engines was comforting as I lay there with my eyes closed, breathing deeply. This deal might have been an odd, sketchy idea, but so far, I was enjoying the perks. Katherine hadn’t been kidding when she called this guy loaded. Who else would bother with the decadence of a chandelier in his plane cabin?


I missed this. The A-list treatment was addictive, and being here made me realize how little of it I had received in the last few months. I had movie star treatment when I went out, sure, but there was richness in the way the A-list lived that was easy to lose. Being on the Sheikh's plane made me realize just how much I had already lost, and how much was slipping away every day. Maybe I was shallow for wanting it, but who wasn’t? And I was talented enough to earn it, even if my industry wished I was younger.


Thoughts of the Sheikh's quid-pro-quo rang in the back of my mind. I would be his companion for twenty-four hours, and he was already treating me to luxuries of great expense. There was certainly value in being seen with someone of my level of fame, but this man was already rich and famous; I doubted he was lacking in esteem from his peers or countrymen. He probably just wanted me around for personal reasons. Sometimes people in power were lacking in human contact because everyone around them just wanted to suck them dry, enjoying the perks and pretending to be friends or lovers in order to stay close. Power and money were isolating.


Maybe he wanted the chance to seduce a movie star, sweep her off her feet, and make it impossible for her to reject him. It was how some of the very wealthy operated. Society pretended to hate gold-diggers, but blindly ignored how a man's drive for riches and success was often just so he could impress women. No matter how unattractive or boring a personality, money would get him a wife. It was just how things operated.


There was every possibility that the Sheikh was no different. He was giving me a taste of what he could offer his romantic partners, probably because that’s what he wanted me to be.


But I reminded myself of my personal promise: I wouldn't be blinded by all this glitter. I would set my boundaries and I wouldn't deviate from them. Sheikh or not, my body was not for sale.


I kicked my heels off and lay there until I heard footsteps approaching on the soft carpet.


Nareem's voice sounded from the doorway. “Miss Wood, we are fully prepared for takeoff. You will need to strap in safely for this portion of the flight.”


“Of course,” I answered cheerfully.


Before I could put them back on, Nareem tucked my shoes into a one of the drawers lining the bottom of the bed, and winked at me. “No need for those if you don't want. It's twelve hours of flight time, plus a short layover to refuel in Germany. Make yourself comfortable.”


I smiled. “I like the way you think.”


I took a seat in one of the recliners. It felt like a marshmallow under my body—supportive and yet impossibly plush, and somehow smelling of jasmine. I strapped on my seatbelt and watched as Nareem and Raj did the same on the other side of the cabin. Together we watched out the windows as the plane began to taxi on the small airstrip before making a smooth takeoff into the bright blue California sky.


Between Nareem and Raj, I didn't want for a single thing during the flight. They served me mimosas, decadent chocolate cake, and silver trays of fresh fruit. After eating much more than I normally would, just for the sake of the mini-vacation, I retired to the plush bedroom cabin. I was going to ask for access to my luggage, but a set of blue silk pajamas had been provided, and I happily slid into them. I curled up under the down comforter, watching the fluffy clouds pass by the windows as I drifted off into a deep sleep.


Nareem woke me up gently about two hours before landing, apologetically telling me that she wanted to ensure I had time to prepare myself for the Sheikh. I took my sweet time rolling around in the bed, watching the sky, which had turned as bright as a jewel. I walked to one of the windows to get a view of Al-Dali, the home of the Sheikh, a place I had never even dreamed of going. The view was spectacular, with the hazy yellows and oranges of desert sands interspersed with glittering cities and lush, irrigated farmland that defied nature herself. A great blue river churned, cutting its way south, lined on both sides with ancient greenery. I had never seen anything like this view, and wondered just what it was like to rule a place with such beauty and history.


It took me only a moment to change back into my summery red outfit, and Nareem was kind enough to bring me my personal bag so I could touch up my makeup and reset a few of the blond curls that had gone flat during my nap. I rejoined the crew in the main cabin after I was finished, and Raj immediately brought me a cold glass of exotic juice with a glowing smile.


The capital city of Al-Dali approached outside the windows, growing closer, its skyscrapers tall and magnificent, gleaming in the desert sun. I knew Al-Dali was one of the richest nations in the world, but I didn’t expect the elegance—and extravagance—of its presentation. Scattered throughout the modern steel were temples and ruins, a testament to the millennia-old history of this region of the world. The Sheikh was only the most recent in a long line of titans; his ancestors had conquered half the world and invented things like algebra and medicine. His city perfectly showcased this ancestral pride alongside the achievements of its modern sons.


The scratching sound of the pilot’s intercom broke through my thoughts.


“We’re beginning our descent to the airfield,” he said. “Will passengers please make sure you are buckled in. We’ll be touching down in ten minutes.”


Suddenly, my nerves skyrocketed as I realized I was minutes away from meeting Sheikh bin Alaman for the first time, still without any idea as to what this job entailed. Was I going to ride in some parade with him, a famous American girl to be a spectacle like some enormous cartoon-character balloon? Would he have some urgent plea for me to help his country? Or was this just a simple case of a lonely, isolated leader with endless resources who decided to live out a fantasy and go on a date with a movie star?


Whatever it was, I didn’t have long to prepare for it.



SEVEN

We touched down smoothly on the tarmac of an airfield just outside the heart of the city. As the engines slowly shut down, I realized there was still a faint roaring sound outside.


“What’s that noise?” I asked the crew, unbuckling my seat belt.


Nareem and Raj exchanged knowing glances and Nareem gestured to the other side of the plane. “See for yourself.”


I got up from my seat and carefully moved over to the opposite bank of windows. Outside on the tarmac, a crowd of people—several dozen rows deep—was waiting behind velvet ropes which protected a gorgeous red carpet. The crowd cheered, some of them holding signs in either English or Arabic.


As if reading my mind, Raj’s voice piped up next to me as he looked out the window. “That one says, ‘We love you Julianne!’ The pink one says, ‘You are my idol, my queen.’”


Shock washed over me and my skin tingled. I felt the familiar rush of adrenaline as it coursed through my veins, making my heart beat faster and my face flush pink. A smile erupted on my face.


“They’re waiting for me?” I asked, even though the answer was right there in front of me. It had been so long since I’d had fans waiting to greet me. Memories of movie premiers, blinding flash bulbs and an endless din of cheers and chatter came nostalgically to the front of my mind.


“The Sheikh could not wait to announce your arrival. He made a speech as soon as you accepted his offer,” said Nareem. “Your fans in Al-Dali are very eager to make your acquaintance.”


“My fans?” I said, genuinely curious. “I honestly had no idea I had any fans this far around the world.”


Nareem and Raj laughed as if I had told the funniest joke they’d ever heard.


“Of course you do!” said Raj, gesturing out the window as if to drive home the point. “We love your work. So does the Sheikh.”


Yeah, but which parts of it, exactly? I wondered, but the sour thought couldn’t ruin the mood of the scene in front of me.


The pilot opened the doors, then, and lowered the staircase. Suddenly the energy of the crowd was in the cabin, carried on the hot desert wind. It felt like home.


“They’re waiting for you, Miss Wood,” said Raj.


I checked myself in the mirror one more time, and carefully put on my sunhat and sunglasses. Another last touch-up of my red lipstick, and I was ready.


As soon as I stepped outside the plane, the crowd lifted in excited cheers, hitting me almost as hard as the sun above my head.


I ate up the moment, waving and blowing kisses as I carefully descended the staircase and made my way down the red carpet. Photographers popped up on the edges of the crowd to take shots, and I obliged them with a few quick poses. Every few feet, adorable little girls and teary-eyed young men held out their hands, some with pen and paper, and I stopped to give autographs and pose for selfies. It felt like old times.


There was never enough time for everyone, though, and it wasn’t easy to hear the disappointed groans of the people I couldn’t get to as I finished the red carpet walk. But the Sheikh was waiting for me, I knew, and it wouldn’t do to be late on our first meeting. I talked to as many fans as I could before I began to worry about the time. With a hearty wave and a few more blown kisses, I yelled out an apology and a thank you to all the fans for coming out to welcome me to their country so sweetly.


At the end of the red carpet waited an entourage of three people—two men and one woman—whom I could only assume were the staff of the Sheikh. Two of them smiled warmly at me as I approached, while one of the men kept a stone expression, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses.


“Miss Wood,” the woman said warmly, her hand outstretched. She was tall and thin, her face angular, her skin tanned and flawless, her long black hair twisted up in a beautiful braided design. “My name is Shara, I’m one of the Sheikh’s assistants. Did you have a pleasant flight?”


“It was a dream,” I replied with a smile. “Thank you.”


“Wonderful. We have a car waiting to get you out of this heat and take you to the palace. The security team will handle your luggage, you needn’t worry.” Shara gestured through the shaded alcove that had been closed off to public traffic by tough-looking men in black suits, earpieces dangling down the side of their necks. At the edge of the walkway, a black Bentley sat shining in the sun, waiting to take us down the curved driveway of the private airstrip.


I stepped inside, immediately grateful for the air conditioning. Shara got in next to me, and one of her men took his place in the passenger seat next to the chauffeur. Tinted windows kept out the worst of the sun’s rays while still offering me a gorgeous first-hand view of the city as we wound through its streets, towards the royal palace.


I had the urge to ask questions during the ride, but somehow felt a nameless urge not to do so. Though Shara was friendly and polite, I didn’t want to seem rude by piling her with questions. Instead, I sat confidently, silently watching the world go by as we left the city and wound up a great hill filled with cypress trees.


At its apex was the royal palace, surrounded by a wall ten feet high. A great gilded gate swung open as the Bentley approached, the driver barely having to slow at all as we entered the grounds. Manicured lawns and hedges, brightly colored flower beds, and palm trees planted in neat rows decorated the palace grounds, along with fountains and stone sculptures that seemed to have been there for centuries. The palace itself was dazzling, made from glittering white stone and carved with intricate details of plants and animals.


The car pulled around the curved driveway and stopped when it reached the end of yet another red carpet. This time, the carpet led up the grand staircase entering the palace. It looked like a scene straight out of Cinderella. A small crowd was waiting here, too, but it seemed like most of them were press and photographers waiting eagerly for a shot instead of an autograph. At the top of the stairs, a tall, dark-skinned man waited with a huge smile on his face. He wore the traditional robes of a Middle-Eastern monarch, the beautiful white cloth floating in the soft desert wind.


To my great surprise and delight, Sheikh Zane bin Alaman was young, and handsome. Gorgeous, even. His jawline was cut like stone, his smile a perfect glistening white. Even though the sun was shining brightly, he didn’t have any sunglasses blocking his eyes. They were deep brown in color and radiated a friendly, welcoming feeling.


“Are you ready?” asked Shara as the chauffeur and front passenger both exited the car.


I looked to her and nodded, flashing my best movie-star smile. “Always.”


Seconds later, the door to the Bentley swung open, and the dry heat welcomed me as I stepped out of the car—alongside the shouts of the photographers as they tried to get my attention. Camera shutters went off like fireworks, and I kept my smile strong and wide, happy for the wind that was blowing my sheer red outfit around. It would make for beautiful pictures.


I took a few more poses while the Sheikh waited patiently, smiling, at the top of the stairs. Then I carefully ascended to meet him, taking every step with caution, not wanting to become gossip rag fodder by falling on my face on the palace steps of a foreign king. Shara and her two men followed behind me, one of them carrying my luggage as promised.


The Sheikh watched me approach with great interest in his dark eyes. His smile widened with every step I took.


Well, at least he’s not some creepy old man wanting to spend time with me. That’s definitely a point in the ‘win’ column, I thought with relief.


Once I reached the top of the stairs, the Sheikh outstretched his hand to me, and I took it. His skin was warm, his hand enveloping mine completely.


He dropped to one knee before me without warning, kissing my hand like he was Prince Charming. The photographers, who had climbed halfway up the steps at this point, began to shoot like crazy. It was a perfectly dramatic moment.


“Miss Wood, I am Sheikh Zane bin Alaman, ruler of Al-Dali,” he said to me. His voice was deep and smooth. “Thank you for accepting my invitation to host you for the next twenty-four hours.”


For a moment, I felt a little out of my depth. I hadn’t met a great many royals in my career and didn’t have a lot of practice with protocol.


I smiled at him and squeezed his hand, still holding mine. “Thank you, Your Highness. It was a generous offer, and I’m excited to be here. I had no idea I had fans this far around the world. I’m thrilled to meet them.”


This seemed to amuse him, just like it had amused Raj and Nareem on the plane. He gave a great belly laugh as he stood up next to me, a whole head taller than me, even in my heels. “Indeed, you do have quite a few fans here, Miss Wood—including myself.”


I flushed at the compliment. Charm flowed off of him like cologne.


“Thank you, Your Highness.”


“Please, call me Zane. Now, shall we get out of this heat?”




EIGHT


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.



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