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 fo
r 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?”