His Defiant Desert Queen(4)

By: Jane Porter

She’d suffered enough at the hands of her father. He’d betrayed them all; his clients, his business partners, his friends, even his family. He might be selfish and ruthless and destructive, but the rest of the Copelands weren’t. Copelands were good people.

Good people, she silently insisted, stretching out one leg to unzip the thigh-high boot. Her hand was trembling so badly that it made it difficult to get the zipper down. The boots were outrageous to start with. They were the stuff of fantasy, a very high heel projecting a kinky twist, just like the fashion layout itself.

They would have been smarter doing this feature in Palm Springs instead of Saidia with Saidia’s strict laws of moral conduct. Saidia might be stable and tolerant, but it wasn’t a democracy, nor did it cater to the wealthy Westerners like some other nations. It remained conservative and up until two generations ago, marriages weren’t just arranged, they were forced.

The tribal leaders kidnapped their brides from neighboring tribes.

Unthinkable to the modern Western mind, but acceptable here.

* * *

Jemma was tugging the zipper down on the second boot when the tent flap parted and Mary entered with Sheikh Karim. Two members of the sheikh’s guard stood at the entrance.

Jemma slowly sat up, and looked from Mary to the sheikh and back.

Mary’s face was pale, her lips pressed thin. “We’ve a problem,” she said.

Silence followed. Jemma curled her fingers into her lap.

Mary wouldn’t meet Jemma’s gaze, looking past her shoulder instead. “We’re wrapping up the shoot and returning to the capitol immediately. We are facing some legal charges and fines, which we are hoping to take care of quickly so the crew and company can return to England tomorrow, or the next day.” She hesitated for a long moment, before adding even more quietly, “At least most of us should be able to return to England tomorrow or the next day. Jemma, I’m afraid you won’t be going with us.”

Jemma started to rise, but remembered her boot and sat back down. “Why not?”

“The charges against you are different,” Mary said, still avoiding Jemma’s gaze. “We are in trouble for using you, but you, you’re in trouble for...” Her voice faded away. She didn’t finish the sentence.

She didn’t have to.

Jemma knew why she was in trouble. What she didn’t know was what she’d be charged with. “I’m sorry.” She drew a quick, shallow breath and looked from Mary to Sheikh Karim. “I am sorry. Truly—”

“Not interested,” he said curtly.

Jemma’s stomach flipped. “I made a mistake—”

“A mistake is pairing a black shoe and a blue shoe. A mistake is forgetting to charge one’s phone. A mistake is not entering the country illegally, under false pretenses, with a false identity. You had no work permit. No visa. Nothing.” Sheikh Karim’s voice crackled with contempt and fury. “What you did was deliberate, and a felony, Miss Copeland.”

Jemma put a hand to her belly, praying she wouldn’t throw up here, now. She hadn’t eaten much today. She never did on days she worked, knowing she photographed better with a very flat stomach. “What can I do to make this right?”

Mary shot Sheikh Karim a stricken glance.

He shook his head, once. “There is nothing. The magazine staff must appear in court, and pay their fines. You will face a different judge, and be sentenced accordingly.”

Jemma sat very still. “So I’m to be separated from everyone?”

“Yes.” The sheikh gestured to Mary. “You and the rest of the crew, are to leave immediately. My men will accompany you to ensure your safety.” He glanced at Jemma. “And you will come with me.”

Mary nodded and left. Heart thudding, Jemma watched Mary’s silent, abrupt departure then looked to Sheikh Karim.

He was angry. Very, very angry.

Three years ago she might have crumbled. Two years ago she might have cried. But that was the old Jemma, the girl who’d grown up pampered, protected by a big brother and three opinionated, but loving, sisters.

She wasn’t that girl anymore. In fact, she wasn’t a girl at all anymore. She’d been put to the fire and she’d come out fierce. Strong.