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Necessity had taught Jemma Copeland to shut out distractions.
She'd learned to ignore the things she didn't want to think about, to enable her to do what needed to be done.
So for the past two hours she'd ignored the scorching heat of the Sahara. The insistent, hollow ache in her stomach. The stigma of being a Copeland, and what it meant back home in the United States.
She'd blocked out heat, hunger, and shame, but she couldn't block out the tall, white-robed man standing just a foot behind the photographer, watching her through dark, unsmiling eyes while a half dozen robed men stood behind him.
She knew who the man was. How could she not? He'd attended her sister's wedding five years ago in Greenwich and every woman with a pulse had noticed Sheikh Mikael Karim. He was tall, he was impossibly, darkly handsome, and he was a billionaire as well as the new king of Saidia.
But Mikael Karim wasn't supposed to be on set today. He was supposed to be in Buenos Aires this week and his sudden appearance, arriving in a parade of glossy black luxury SUVs with tinted windows, had sent ripples of unease throughout the entire crew.
It was obvious he wasn't happy.
Jemma's gut told her something ugly could happen soon. She prayed she was wrong. She just wanted to get through the rest of the shoot and fly out tomorrow morning as planned.
At least he hadn't shown up yesterday. Yesterday had been grueling, a very long day, with multiple shots in multiple locations, and the heat had been intense. But she hadn't complained. She wouldn't. She needed the job too much to be anything but grateful for the chance to still work.
It still boggled her mind how much things had changed. Just a year ago she had been one of America's golden girls, envied for her beauty, her wealth, her status as an It Girl. Her family was powerful, affluent. The Copelands had homes scattered across the world, and she and her gorgeous, privileged sisters were constantly photographed and discussed. But even the powerful can fall, and the Copeland family tumbled off their pedestal with the revelation that Daniel, her father, was the number two man in the biggest Ponzi scheme in America in the past century.
Overnight the Copelands became the most hated family in America.
Now Jemma could barely make ends meet. The fallout from her father's arrest, and the blitz of media interest surrounding the case, had destroyed her career. The fact that she worked, and had supported herself since she was eighteen, meant nothing to the public. She was still Daniel Copeland's daughter. Hated. Loathed. Resented.
Today, she was lucky to get work, and her once brilliant career now barely paid the bills. When her agency came to her with this assignment, a three day shoot with two travel days, meaning she'd be paid for five work days, she'd jumped at the opportunity to come to Saidia, the independent desert kingdom tucked underneath Southern Morocco, and nestled between the Western Sahara and the Atlantic Ocean. She'd continued to fight for the opportunity even when the Saidia consulate denied her visa request.
It wasn't legal, but desperate times called for desperate measures so she'd reapplied for a new visa as her sister, using Morgan's passport bearing Morgan's married name, Xanthos. This time she'd received the needed travel visa.
Yes, she was taking a huge risk, coming here under a false name, but she needed money. Without this paycheck, she wouldn't be able to pay her next month's mortgage.
So here she was, dressed in a long fox fur and thigh high boots, sweltering beneath the blazing sun.
So what if she was naked beneath the coat?
She was working. She was surviving. And one day, she'd thrive again, too.
So let them look.
Let them all lookthe disapproving sheikh and his travel guardbecause she wouldn't be crushed. She refused to be crushed. The clothes were beautiful. Life was exciting. She didn't have a care in the world.
Despite her fierce resolve, perspiration beaded beneath her full breasts and slid down her bare abdomen.
Not uncomfortable, she thought. Sexy.
And with sexy firmly in mind, she drew a breath, jutted her hip, and struck a bold pose.
Keith, the Australian photographer, let out an appreciative whistle. "That's beautiful, baby! More of that, please."
She felt a rush of pleasure, which was quickly dashed by the sight of Mikael Karim moving closer to Keith.
The sheikh was tall, so tall he towered over Keith, and his shoulders were broad, dwarfing the slender Australian.
Jemma had forgotten just how intensely handsome Mikael Karim was. She'd modeled in other countries and had met many different sheikhs, and most had been short, heavyset men with flirty eyes and thickening jowls.
But Sheikh Mikael Karim was young, and lean, and fierce. His white robes only accentuated the width of his shoulders as well as his height, and his angular jaw jutted, black eyebrows flat over those intense, dark eyes.
Now Sheikh Karim looked over Keith's head, his dark gaze piercing her, holding her attention. She couldn't look away. He seemed to be telling her something, warning her of something. She went hot, then cold, shivering despite the heat.
Her stomach rose, fell. An alarm sounded in her head. He was dangerous.
She tugged on the edges of the coat, pulling it closer to her body, suddenly very conscious of the fact that she was naked beneath.
Sighing with frustration, Keith lowered his camera a fraction. "You just lost all your energy. Give me sexy, baby."
Jemma glanced at the sheikh from beneath her lashes. The man oozed tension, a lethal tension that made her legs turn to jelly and the hair prickle on the back of her neck. Something was wrong. Something was very wrong.
But Keith couldn't read Sheikh Karim's expression and his irritation grew. "Come on, focus. We need to wrap this up, baby."
Keith was right. They did need to wrap this shot. And she was here to do a job. She had to deliver, or she'd never work again.
Jemma gulped a breath, squared her shoulders, and lifted her chin to the sun, feeling her long hair spill down her back as she let the heavy fur drop off her shoulder, exposing more skin.
"Nice." Keith lifted his camera, motioned for his assistant to step closer with the white reflective screen, and began snapping away. "I like that. More of that."
Jemma shook her head, letting her thick hair tease the small of her spine even as the fur fell lower on her breasts.
"Perfect," Keith crooned. "That's hot. Love it. Don't stop. You're on fire now."
Yes, she was, she thought, arching her shoulders back, breasts thrust high, the nipples now just exposed to the kiss of the sun. In Sheikh Karim's world she was probably going to burn in the flames of hell, but there was nothing she could do about it. This was her job. She had to deliver. And so she pushed all other thoughts from mind, except for giving the image they wanted.
Her shoulders twisted and the coat slid lower on her arm, the fur tickling the back of her bare thighs.
"Lovely, baby." Keith was snapping away. "So beautiful. Keep doing what you're doing. You're a goddess. Every man's dream."
She wasn't a goddess, or a dream, but she could pretend to be. She could pretend anything for a short period of time. Pretending gave her distance, allowing her to breathe, escape, escaping the reality of what was happening at home. Home. A sinking sensation filled her. What a nightmare.
Battling back the sadness, Jemma shifted, lifting her chin, thrusting her hip out, dropping the coat altogether, exposing her breasts, nipples jutting proudly.
Keith whistled softly. "Give me more."
"No," Sheikh Mikael Karim ground out. It was just one word, but it echoed like a crack of thunder, immediately silencing the murmur of stylists, make-up artist, and lighting assistants.
All heads turned toward the sheikh.
Jemma stared at him, her stomach churning all over again.
The sheikh's expression was beyond fierce. His lips curled, his dark eyes burned as he pushed the camera in Keith's hands down. "That's enough," he gritted. "I've had enough, from all of you." His narrowed gaze swept the tents and crew. "You are done here."
And then his head turned again and he stared straight at Jemma. "And you, Miss Copeland. Cover yourself, and then go inside the tent. I will be in to deal with you shortly."
She covered herself, but didn't move.
The sheikh had called her Miss Copeland, not Mrs. Xan-this, the name she'd used on the visa, but Copeland.
Panic flooded her veins. Her heart surged. Sheikh Karim knew who she was. He'd recognized her after all these years. The realization shocked her. He, who knew so many, remembered her.
Hands shaking, she tugged the coat closer to her body, suddenly icy cold despite the dazzling heat. "What's happening?" she whispered, even though in a dim part of her brain, she knew.
She'd been found out. Her true identity had been discovered. How, she didn't know, but she was in trouble. Grave trouble. She could feel the severity of the situation all the way down to her toes.
"I think you know," Sheikh Karim said flatly. "Now go inside the tent and wait."
Her knees knocked. She wasn't sure her legs could support her. "For what?"
"To be informed of the charges being brought against you."
"I've done nothing wrong."
His dark eyes narrowed. His jaw hardened as his gaze swept over her, from the top of her head to the boots on her feet. "You've done everything wrong, Miss Copeland. You're in serious trouble. So go to the tent, now, and if you have half a brain, you'll obey."
Jemma had more than half a brain. She actually had a very good brain. And a very good imagination, which made the walk to the tent excruciating.
What was going to happen to her? What were the official charges? And what would the punishment be?
She tried to calm herself. She focused on her breathing, and clamped down on her wild thoughts. It wouldn't help her to panic. She knew she'd entered the country illegally. She'd willingly agreed to work on a shoot that hadn't been condoned by the government. And she'd shown her breasts in public, which was also against Saidia's law.
And she'd done it all because she hadn't taken money from her family since she was eighteen and she wasn't about to start now.
She was an adult. A successful, capable woman. And she'd been determined to make it without going to her family begging for a handout.
In hindsight, perhaps begging for a handout would have been wiser.
In the wardrobe tent, Jemma shrugged off the heavy fur coat, and slipped a light pink cotton kimono over her shoulders, tying the sash at her waist. As she sat down at the stool before the make-up mirror, she could hear the sheikh's voice echo in her head.
You've done everything wrong
He was right. She had done everything wrong. She prayed he'd accept her apology, allow her to make amends. She hadn't meant to insult him, or disrespect his country or his culture in any way.
Jemma straightened, hearing voices outside her tent. The voices were pitched low, speaking quickly, urgently. Male voices. A single female voice. Jemma recognized the woman as Mary Leed, Catwalk's editorial director. Mary was usually unflappable but she sounded absolutely panicked now.
Jemma's heart fell all over again. Bad. This was bad.
She swallowed hard, her stomach churning, nerves threatening to get the better of her.
She shouldn't have come.
She shouldn't have taken such risks.
But what was she to do otherwise? Crumble? Shatter? End up on the streets, destitute, homeless, helpless?
She wouldn't be helpless, and she wouldn't be pitied, or mocked, either.
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."