Akim’s kitchen was vast to say that they were in a hotel. There was a large, granite-topped island with a gas stovetop on it, and granite counters surrounding the space in general. A large, stainless steel refrigerator stood along one wall, while a pair of ovens lined another.
“You really do like to cook,” Maddy breathed.
Akim grinned. He may not have been proud of the entryway, with all its frivolity, but he clearly loved his kitchen. At the far end of the room there was a homey-looking wooden table, and on it a small banquet of food had been set.
On golden platters, stacked in tiers, were pastries and chocolate-drizzled fruits, swathed in candlelight. Maddy pressed her fingers to her lips, releasing Akim’s hand, feeling a stark emptiness after doing so.
She glanced over at him. “I bet you do this for all the girls,” she said, with a playful eye roll.
She was joking, of course. Their situation was far from normal, and the fact that he had even gone this far in his efforts was a lovely compliment.
Akim looked at her, his expression crestfallen. “I suppose you believe what all those tabloids say about me then? That I’m just some playboy?”
Maddy tried to hide her guilt, but she was never very good as masking her emotions.
Akim nodded, resigned. “I suppose it’s only to be expected. Why would someone like me want anything made of substance? After all, like you said, I have it all, don’t I?”
Maddy stared at him for a moment. His eyes were guarded, yet vulnerable, and she realized in that moment that she had to be one of very few people who had ever seen his face look as open as it did then.
Reaching for his hand again, she pulled him toward the table, admiring how the golden plates shone in the candlelight, how carefully and artfully crafted each morsel of food was.
“Well then,” she said. “Why don’t you tell me who you really are?”
Akim gazed into her eyes. The dancing flames gleamed across the chocolate brown of his stare, so much so that Maddy found herself quite mesmerized.
In that moment, she hoped against hope that she would come out of their agreement unscathed, though she already very much doubted it—Akim’s charm was irresistible, and she was more excited and happy than she should have been about their non-date.
To say that Akim was an accomplished baker was a gross understatement.
As Maddy sampled the variety of pastries set out before them, she tried not to overindulge, but even after her third bite of light, flaky baklava she found it impossible not to grab another piece.
“Where did you learn to cook like this?” she asked, taking care to gently dab at the corner of her lips, lest some rogue crumbs decided to stick to her lipstick.
Akim shrugged. “My mother was a master baker. It was her passion, and when she met my father and married into the status that all this…” he gestured unceremoniously again around the apartment, “…entails, it was something she refused to give up.”
“Cooking isn’t encouraged for the wives of sheikhs?” Maddy asked, curious.
“Not really. There are servants to do that, so not many see the point, or the beauty in creating a meal—putting love into a something for people to enjoy. My mother tried to get friends to join her, but they were all too concerned about ruining their manicures or whatever. Since no one would cook with her, I donned an apron and became her apprentice. Seeing the joy it gave her is something I will always be proud of, more than a lot of other accomplishments in my life.”
There was a sadness in his tone that gave Maddy pause, and she hesitated before asking her next question.
“Where is she now?”
Akim’s eyes darkened, and Maddy instantly regretted her decision. Someone needed to invent a way to pull words back, making them untraceable and forgotten.
After a moment, Akim sighed. “She passed away a few years back. Breast cancer. It happened very suddenly—one moment she was here, laughing and joyful, and the next she was gone. I almost drove myself crazy trying to find a solution. It’s a big reason why I started our company, to further science to help people.”
“I’m so sorry,” Maddy said, but Akim shrugged off her sympathy.
“Time has passed, and I’ve come to terms with the fact that even the best science can’t fix everything yet.”
“That doesn’t matter. She was important to you and now she isn’t here to share in your success. That must be very difficult.”
Akim took a deep drink of his wine. He had poured them both glasses from his very best stock, and the crimson liquid paired perfectly with the pastries.
“It’s not the greatest, but she never wanted me to dwell on the negative. My mother was a beacon of light in an often dark world, and I work to preserve her memory in the work we do at Akhemical each and every day.”
“I’m sure she is very proud of you, wherever she is.”
Akim had been staring blankly at his wine glass until that moment, when he glanced up at her and placed a warm hand over hers. “Thank you, Maddy. That means a lot.”
“What about your dad?”
She shouldn’t have asked, she knew. If there was another tragic story, she would have been responsible for opening two major wounds within the first thirty minutes of getting to know Akim, and what kind of track record was that?
Finishing his glass, the Sheikh held up the bottle to her as though to pour her another. When she glanced down, Maddy realized that her own cup had been emptied, though she hardly remembered drinking from it.
She nodded, and he poured another healthy glass. It was so smooth, which was probably why she hadn’t thought twice about drinking it down so fast. Her head began to buzz pleasantly as she let her guard down bit by bit, and began to enjoy his company more. She loved listening to his voice.
“He moved to a small palace up north, away from everyone and everything. Without my mother there to breathe life into his world, my father dwells in darkness, and I fear there is not much I can do for him—short of finding a cure for heartbreak. Unfortunately, I don’t think that day will ever come.”
“Never say never,” Maddy said in a poor attempt to lighten the mood.
She had started with topics she thought were general, and instead had learned things about Akim she assumed not many people knew.
Akim stood, grabbing another bottle of wine and deftly popping the cork. “I’d like to show you something, if you are up for it?”
Maddy stood, eager to break the tension with something—anything. She followed behind him back out to the main room, and Akim led her to a door that opened up to a veranda overlooking the entire city.
“Wow,” Maddy breathed.
Akim stared out into the distance, the lights of the city flickering in the reflection of his eyes. “This is the biggest reason I bought this place. You can’t beat the view.”
Maddy felt that was an understatement, but decided not to say so. The truth was it was the most stunning view she’d seen in her entire life, and she had traveled to some amazing places in her twenty-eight years. The glittering city lights twinkled, surrounded by desert, as the world began to go dark. A crescent moon hovered protectively over the city, casting the only natural light.
Maddy shivered, and Akim acted immediately.
“You’re cold. Please, use this blanket.”
He reached over to a plush armchair and pulled a throw off of it. The material was some of the softest Maddy had ever felt, but that was nothing compared to the heat in Akim’s hands as he wrapped it around her shoulders. It made her acutely aware of why she had come to his apartment in the first place—at some point, she was going to make love with this man if she wanted to test her experimental drug. The thought made her hyperaware of his presence, simultaneously nervous and attracted to him.
“Please, have a seat,” he said, gesturing to a small seating area, where a loveseat sat facing the city, while a small chair stood cattycornered, facing the ocean.
There really wasn?
??t a bad view in the house, but Maddy chose the loveseat, secretly hoping Akim would sit next to her. To her surprise and happiness, he did, sitting close enough for her to breathe in his light cologne and feel the warmth radiating off his body. Being that high in the air in the desert at night, she was nearly shivering, and subconsciously scooted a little closer to him.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked.
Akim gazed down at her with a confused expression. “Doing what? Having drinks with a lovely, intelligent woman?”
Maddy tried not to flush with pleasure at that comment. He was alarmingly charming, and she found that the longer she stayed, the more she found the idea of making love to him seem not at all crazy.
The wine was talking very loudly.
Uncaring, Maddy took another sip before she answered his question.
“Having a child through scientific testing. This isn’t a decision to make lightly, and yet you made it in a day. So, why are you doing it?”
She had asked him this before, and had found his answer somewhat cold. She was hoping that this time he would have something better for her, but the Sheikh simply shrugged.
“I’m not terribly young, Maddy. I’m not old, either, but the truth is I’ve had a hard time meeting the right person, too. You are smart, good-hearted, and if you don’t mind me saying, beautiful. Why wouldn’t I want you to have my children?”
Maddy scoffed. “You have not had a hard time finding women. Let’s at least be honest with each other about that.”
“That is true. What I meant was the right women; if you followed the tabloids you’d notice that my relationships don’t tend to last very long.”
“And why is that?”
Akim tore his gaze from hers, choosing to look out at the city instead. “I’m sure there are many reasons, really. No one is easy to get along with all of the time. Relationships are hard even in the best of times, but there is a part of me that believes they shouldn’t have to be. I have tended to date women who are used to a certain lifestyle and way of life, and once I try to get through to them beyond that realm, they usually find ways to depart—often on the arm of a man equally rich if not richer than I.”
“Is there anyone in the country richer than you?”
Akim laughed, and Maddy smiled. “Perhaps not,” he said. “But as you can see, there are men who hold much more power. Money alone isn’t enough to maintain a strong hold on one’s ambitions—it’s all about connections, and who you know.”
“Do you think the women you dated left because they didn’t see you as powerful enough?”
“My, you are inquisitive this evening.”
Maddy blushed, and turned away. “I’m sorry. It’s just that, we have intentions to become intimate with one another in the future, and before we do, there is a lot that I would like to know about you. About your character. About who the father of my child really is.”
She felt the Sheikh’s eyes burning along the side of her face, and she turned to meet his gaze. There were questions there, mingled with fire, though what kind of fire she couldn’t say. Was it anger? Passion? Both?
“You question my character?”
“I didn’t say that. I’m merely curious to see what kind of man you are. All I know of you is what I hear and the little I’ve seen of you at work. I know that you are a compelling leader who is willing to provide his workers with a good life in exchange for hard work. I know that you are intelligent, and I know that you donate to many global charities—all of which is a testament to your good character. What I don’t know…” Maddy stumbled, afraid to go on.