Maddy stuck her hand out for a cab, waving it impatiently.
The truth was, she shouldn’t have been going out. She should have been back at the lab, her nose in her notes, making the final touches for her big presentation the next day.
But she’d been working for nearly twelve hours straight and her brain felt like mush, so she was hoping a fun date with the new guy she’d met on the dating app she’d recently installed would give her the second wind she needed.
Finally, a chic black town car pulled up, and Maddy got in, giving the driver quick directions to an upscale local bar. She pulled out a small mirror and checked her reflection one more time. Her hair was swept up in a classic style, the blond strands delicately framing her elfin facial features, and her blue eyes were striking—so much so, that she sent a mental thank you to the makeup company she had purchased her eyeliner from.
What seemed like seconds later, the cab pulled up to the bar, and the fare popped up on a screen behind the driver’s seat. Swiping her credit card, Maddy gave the driver a tip and a thank you before stepping out onto the street and entering the trendy establishment.
Loud music was playing. It was too early for any real partying to begin, and Maddy had convinced herself she would only be going for one drink, anyway. She had work to do.
Glancing around the room, she didn’t see any faces that looked familiar, and for a moment, she thought about turning tail and running. But when she turned back towards the door, she was met with the thick frame of a very masculine body.
Maddy bounced back, catching her own fall. When she looked back up, the man before her looked very out of place—just like herself, actually.
He grinned. “You must be Madeline.”
Maddy tried not to think about the fact that he did nothing to help catch her fall. She had been told she was too picky, and that was why she was single. She was starting to believe there might just be something wrong with her. She gave herself a mental shake—she was a classic overthinker, and she needed to focus on the moment. He looked exactly like his profile picture, so that was something at least.
Maddy flashed him a shy smile. “Guilty,” she said.
“Shall we grab a table?” he asked.
“Sure,” she said, following him as he strode toward an open table and took a seat.
Just because he didn’t pull out your chair doesn’t mean chivalry is dead, Maddy thought. She’d already counted two strikes against him, and she knew that was unfair. She smiled at him as he pulled out a drinks menu propped up on the table.
“So, have you been here before?” she asked.
Her date nodded, scanning the menu. “The martinis are okay, but I’ve had better.”
Not knowing what to say to that, and not having a menu of her own, Maddy stared around the bar, desperately searching for some topic she could generate a conversation from. Fortunately, a server arrived, giving her someone to talk to.
“Can I take your order?” the woman asked. She was tall and dark-haired, like pretty much every other woman in Elbazzar. It was no wonder that Maddy stuck out like she did, being petite and blonde, but it wasn’t something she minded. She was used to being unique. It was something she took pride in, most of the time.
“Yes, we’ll both have the mango martini,” her date said, without even looking at Maddy.
The server nodded and walked off, and Maddy widened her eyes at the man, who finally bothered to look up at her.
“Sorry, is that okay? I think you’ll really like it. It’s really the only good drink here, anyway.”
Maddy counted to ten in her head. At this point he had managed to offend her three times, and she was getting impatient, feeling like leaving work for this disappointing date had been a mistake.
“You are Jonathan Bruckman, right? I’m not sitting across the table from some other random stranger ordering drinks for me?”
Jonathan’s lip twitched. “You’re sassy. I like that. So what brings an American girl like you all the way out to the Middle East? I have to tell you I was pleasantly surprised to find another expat on the app. It helps, of course, that you’re pretty.”
Maddy rolled her eyes inwardly. When men immediately went to complimenting her looks, she was already half checked out.
Ah well, another one bites the dust, she thought to herself.
“Thanks,” she said, her tone bland. “I’m actually a scientist. I got my PhD in clinical laboratory science at Oregon State, but jobs in that arena were scarce when I graduated and this opportunity came up, so I took it. I’m currently researching the possibility of a new fertility drug that could revolutionize the industry. I’m actually presenting my research tomorrow.”
Maddy watched Jonathan’s expression carefully as she spoke. It was the same, every time. Men went out with her, thinking she was attractive, and when she began speaking in a way that revealed her intelligence, their eyes glazed over and the date ended shortly after. She had yet to meet a man who could match her academically, and it was becoming exhausting.
As Jonathan continued to stare at her, their drinks arrived. They were neon orange and frilly—not the kind of thing Maddy would have ordered, had she had the choice.
Jonathan plucked a mango slice from the side of his glass and took a bite. When he spoke next, Maddy could see the fruit wiggling around in his mouth.
“So you’re a doctor? That’s hot.”
Jonathan shrugged. “Well yeah. Do you get to wear a sexy lab coat and everything?”
Maddy sighed. It hadn’t taken him more than five minutes to sexualize her career, and this conversation was clearly going nowhere.
She stood, pushing her chair back behind her, and Jonathan glanced up at her in surprise.
“What are you doing?”
“Leaving. You can have my drink. Have a good night.”
Before Jonathan could get another word in, Maddy was already halfway to the door.
When she stepped out into the street, the air was still warm, the city breeze carrying smells of fresh bread and coffee. She took a moment to compose herself, annoyed with this utter waste of her time.
It had taken her years to rise to the top of the research team at Akhemical, and she had put in literal blood, sweat, and tears every waking day to get there. She poured her heart and soul into her job and her research, and she performed exceptionally well.
But when it came to dating, she was a lost cause. Men saw her hair, her eyes, her small frame, and they completely ignored the fact that her brain was the most interesting and beautiful part of her. It mattered to her that she find a man that appreciated her inside as well as outside, but as thirty approached, she was starting to lose all hope.
Foregoing a taxi and needing to walk off her frustration, Maddy strolled down the metropolitan streets of Elbazzar’s capital city. The truth was, she hadn’t even known the country existed when she’d seen the opportunity. Her parents hadn’t exactly been thrilled about the whole thing, but Maddy had done her research, and had decided that it would be a perfect place for her to begin her career as a scientist.
Elbazzar was a wealthy, modern Middle-Eastern country with a rich and diverse culture—the perfect combination of old and new world. It was filled with bright minds, beautiful people, and the perfect coupling of technological advancements and love for its history. The country was oil-rich, like many in the Middle-East, but innovation helped it stay on top of global trends and needs. This was what finally influenced Maddy to take the chance on an alien country, full of warm, dry desert weather and a foreign language she was still trying t
o master. Fortunately, most people tended to speak both English and Arabic.
Maddy was walking down the street, lost in thought, when she passed a children’s clothing store. Unable to resist, she popped in, heading over to a full rack of tiny dresses. She ran the fabric between her fingers, trying not to look as wishful as she felt. A tall woman with dark hair and dark brown eyes was wrangling with a toddler while precariously balancing a tiny baby on her hip.
“Oren! What did I say? Get back here!”
Maddy tried not to smile at the woman’s tone. She was sure she was stressed, but Maddy couldn’t help but pine for the opportunity to scold a child of her own.
Quite without warning, the woman turned to Maddy, looking frazzled. “Please, I’m sorry, but can you just…?”
Thrusting the baby into Maddy’s arms, the woman dashed after her toddler, who grinned wickedly before running behind some other racks on the other side of the store.
Maddy looked down into the large brown eyes of the baby. The child gazed up at her with an expression that said, did my mother really just do that?
“It’s all right, little guy. I’m sure your mom’s just finding your brother and then she’ll be back for you any moment.”
Maddy tried to ignore her heart melting as the tiny baby sat trustingly in her arms while his mother berated his brother, dragging the kicking and screaming child back to where she had left Maddy.
“I’m sorry,” the woman huffed. “I know I shouldn’t be handing my children to strangers, but I’m at my wit’s end with this little monster!”
The toddler was thrashing now in earnest, and the woman gently pulled the infant from Maddy’s arms as she struggled to remove both of her children from the store.
“Do you want some help?” Maddy asked.
The woman froze and turned. The bags under her eyes were deep and dark, pure exhaustion displayed in every feature of her face. “Please,” she whispered.
Maddy walked over and knelt down next to the toddler, who instantly grew wary and clung to his mother’s leg.
“Hi there,” Maddy said softly.
The boy placed his thumb in his mouth and stared at his shoes.
“What’s your name?”
The boy said nothing. Maddy pulled a lollipop from her purse and dangled it in front of him. His eyes widened—now she had his full attention.
“Here’s what we’re going to do. You’re going to behave all the way home. Then we’re going to get your mother a shower and a nap, and you can enjoy this lollipop while I hang out for a bit. Does that sound good to you?”
The boy—Oren, was it?—continued to watch the lollipop as Maddy twisted and turned it in front of him. Finally, he nodded.
Maddy clapped her hands and stood, looking into his mother’s eyes. “Good. Now let’s get you home and taken care of.”
The gratitude in the woman’s eyes glistened through her tears as they made their way to an apartment not far from the store.
“I’m Abda,” she said as they reached the door.
“Madeline Palmerston. If it will ease your nerves at all, it’s Dr. Madeline Palmerston.”
Abda’s eyebrows rose a fraction of an inch. “Should have known. Are you a pediatrician?”
Maddy chuckled. “If only. I work in the lab. For Akhemical, actually.”
The woman nodded. “Yes, I’ve heard of it. Isn’t the CEO some rich playboy? I wonder how anything gets done there.”