EY: Chapter 06 – 10

Eternally Yours II

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Chapter 6: Knowing Her, Knowing Him
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D – 90 . . . .

“Did you enjoy the food?” a voice cheerfully asked from his left.

Aahil turned to gaze at its owner, his eyes widening when he met his hostess’ laughing eyes.

The older woman was dressed in jeans and a blouse for the family dinner. It hadn’t taken long for Aahil to discover that the younger matriarch of the Khan family had grown up in the United States, which explained her clothing. His eyes moved over her impish features, marveling at how much the daughters looked like their mother . .. down to the matching dimple she was flashing at him right now.

“I saw you had the chicken korma,” Zoya said with a laugh. “I made it. How did you like it?”

Aahil pursed his lips, wondering how he could answer the question truthfully, but without actually hurting any feelings.

“Zoya, stop making fun of the poor boy,” a male voice interceded from the side. It was his host for the night, Mr. Asad Ahmed Khan. In contrast to his wife, Mr. Khan was wearing a traditional shalwar kameez, his manner much more sedate than his wife.

The three were standing in front of the pool area, discussing the evening and the food. Or rather, Zoya was questioning the guests one by one on how they had liked her cooking. He had seen Rehan being questioned moments ago, but had thought nothing of it. But now it was his turn, and he understood the panic he had seen in Rehan’s eyes. Aahil met his host’s understanding gaze, realizing that the man knew just what he was thinking.

“What do you mean, Mr. Khan?” Zoya snapped back at him, her smile disappearing.

“I mean, of course he loved it,” Asad quickly replied. He looked at his guest, before turning back to his now smiling wife. “He’s no fool.”

Zoya turned to glance at Aahil questioningly. Glancing to the right, he saw his host silently urging him to agree. Aahil quickly nodded in agreement. “It was great, Mrs. Khan,” Aahil added, throwing truth to the wind. When had white lies really hurt anyone?

“Call me, Zoya Auntie,” she ordered with a smile. “You really liked it?” she asked eagerly, moving closer.

Aahil nodded again.

“That’s great!” she said, clapping her hands. “The Nawab said the same thing! I’m going to bring over a lot of dishes for you boys,” she promised. “My husband and daughters always tell me to rest and all, but I’m sure you two will appreciate a mother’s cooking,” she chirped before slipping away to join her mother-in-law, who was in conversation with Aahil’s sisters, Nazia and Shazia.

“I promise that I’ll make her forget that promise,” Asad murmured in Aahil’s ear, before walking away to speak with Rehan standing at the bottom of the steps.

Aahil smiled, shaking his head at their interaction. The smile quickly slipped away when other thoughts intruded. What was he doing here? Hadn’t he promised himself that they would avoid their neighbors at all costs?

Hearing the sound of girlish laughter, he turned to look at his sisters. The two were sitting with Dilshad Begum in the living room area, occupying the sofas situated around the coffee table. He smiled automatically when he heard them giggle over something Zoya Ah. . . Auntie had just murmured to them.

Shazia and Nazia had come home from the hostel today. They seemed so happy now, talking to Dilshad Begum and her daughter-in-law. Staring at the two girls sitting on the sofa, one dressed in shalwar kameez, the other in jeans and a tank top, Nazia and Shazia were as different as night and day. Nazia was the softer one . .. the one who needed protecting. She was sweet and wanted the best for everyone. Shazia was the prickly one, the one who tended to lash out when she was scared. She would feel sorry afterwards, even he could see that, but nothing would stop her from voicing her displeasure if she was unhappy. She’d been constantly complaining about having to leave her friends since coming to the house.

Rehan had been unable to handle this 20-year-old woman who still acted like a child, and Aahil had had to step in as the Nawab’s “right hand man”. He wasn’t exactly sure how to feel about his sisters coming back into the same home to live with him. They hadn’t even been in the same country for years. There was a certain discomfort there . . . a worry of how all of this would go. He was responsible for their lives now, too. He leaned a shoulder against the pillar, staring at the water below. His miserable expression was quite apparent in that reflective surface. He felt guilty for not telling the two girls the truth, but he didn’t know if he could trust them with this secret. They hadn’t lived together as siblings for a long, long time. He sighed, turning around to stare morosely at the girls once more. He didn’t know if they would be willing to keep the truth a secret. And he wasn’t ready to come out as the Nawab of Bhopal. Not yet.

“We have tea!” Sanam called out. Aahil looked up, catching sight of her standing at the kitchen’s entrance.

“And sweets!” Seher chimed in, bringing in another tray. “Gather around.” Rehan turned around to glance at the other twin.

This was their first dinner at the Khan mansion, and the two had only agreed after Zoya had personally called and threatened to nag them until they came over to “eat with the family.” This mansion seemed more of a home than theirs did, but he would do his best to make their house into a home like this. Rehan, his sisters and him deserved a home. Of course there was the same random pool in the middle of the home, but the mansion itself had a different layout than theirs. Certain areas, like the kitchen were closed off, but the dining room was just another setting of furniture in the open living room space. The open layout was quite attractive, and the colors made the room come alive. He hoped that his sisters would help make their house into a home.

There was another burst of laughter from the living room area, echoed by Sanam and Seher standing at the kitchen door.

Aahil frowned, unhappy at having been thwarted in his decision to stay away from the Khan family. Since the impromptu tea party they had had with the twins, he hadn’t laid eyes on the woman. Lateef had taken great pleasure in telling him about Sanam peeking at him from behind the pillar while he was swimming that day. And for a horrifying moment, he had even thought to ask Lateef if had done anything embarrassing. He tugged at his collar, feeling a tightness around his throat. That was weird, since the shirt’s first three buttons had been left unbuttoned. It wasn’t the shirt . . . it was the feelings that woman had aroused inside of him. She made him hope, and he didn’t want to hope. They hadn’t spoken three words during the dinner party, besides the general pleasantries. It had been a deliberate choice on his part. Just as it had been a choice not to answer the confusion in her eyes.

He watched her walk across the room, his eyes following her graceful movements. He watched the way her fingers curled around the tray . . . the way a lock of hair fell across her face . . . the way her lips curled in a half-smile. Straightening, he felt his fingers clenching into fists. She looked beautiful in red, the color of passion. She met his eyes and swiftly turned her own back to the tray in her hands, a flush growing on her cheeks.

The sisters moved over to the dining room table and placed their burdens down. He saw Rehan move forward, as if to help, but then consciously stop himself and go back to his conversation with their father.

Aahil nodded in agreement. It was only right that they keep their distance. Aahil allowed himself another moment to enjoy the vision before him. He then deliberately moved to stand next to Rehan at the bottom of the steps, joining in on his conversation with Mr. Khan.

“Aahil baba, please try this sweet! Sawaiyan.” The grand figure of Lateef, bedecked in a medley of orange and purple, barreled towards the two of them, and stopped in front of Aahil and held out a spoonful of the sweet.

Aahil glared at him silently, and then looked over at Rehan.

“Lateef? Do you need glasses?” Rehan asked softly, moving to stand in front of Aahil. “I’m right here.”

“Oh! I really need to have my eyes checked,” Lateef said with a loud laugh. “You’re both so handsome, that I can’t even tell the difference. But . . . how can I wear glasses? It’ll ruin the shape of my eyes and what a travesty that would be. After all, main to hoon chui mui.” She laughed once more.

Rehan smiled at her, shaking his head. Reaching for the spoon, he took a bite of the sawaiyan. “Delicious,” he murmured.

“Sanam Ji made them,” Lateef imparted, nudging Rehan out of the way. Standing in front of Aahil, she offered him another spoonful. “You’ll really like this,” she whispered conspiratorially.

Aahil shook his head at her, and then took a spoonful. Looking up, he caught Sanam’s eyes. He did a thumbs up, and she smiled at him before turning back to pouring the tea. Aahil closed his eyes in dismay. Why had he done that?

There was a commotion at the entrance, and the doors burst open to reveal a woman.

“Haya! What are you doing here?” Seher squealed happily, running over to hug their cousin. “I thought you couldn’t make it to dinner.”

“I didn’t,” Haya said dryly, hugging both Sanam and Seher in greeting. “Dinner’s over, isn’t it?”

Seher lightly smacked her cousin on the arm.

Aahil stared at the trio, and blinked to realize that he was feet away from them, where moments ago he had been yards away. When exactly had he moved?

“I came for dessert. Rahat’s outside parking the car,” she imparted, before picking up a serving spoon and starting to fill the bowls with sawaiyan. “Let’s get these passed out,” she said, “and then I can speak with. . .,” her voice trailed off, as she angled her head towards the Nawab. “How’s the weather?” she asked secretively.

Seher shook her head unhappily. “Extremely cold. We haven’t spoken for two weeks,” she murmured disconsolately. “He stopped responding to my texts.”

He watched Sanam nudge Seher in the ribs, and look at him. The trio hushed up immediately, their attention now on the bowls and filling the cups with tea. He realized with annoyance that he couldn’t have been more obvious about his interest. Turning his head, he moved back towards the conversation between Mr. Khan and Rehan. The two were discussing a project Ibrahim Corporation had begun to work on over the past week.

“Mamu Jaan!” Haya called out, running over to her uncle with bowls of sawaiyan. “I’ve got dessert.” Holding the tray out, she silently urged them to each take a bowl. “Asalaam Alaikum,” she murmured to Aahil and Rehan. “We haven’t met, but I’m Sanam’s and Seher’s cousin. Their older sister, you could say.”

“By a couple of months!” Seher protested, coming to stand next to Haya. Rehan slowly moved over, putting distance between the two of them. Seher’s face fell at that telling action.

“You are . . .?” she asked, turning to glance at Aahil.

“My name is Rehan Imran Qureshi,” he murmured, staring at the woman standing in front of him.

“Hey! That’s my name!’ Haya happily asserted. “I mean, it was my name. My father is Imran Qureshi. So up until a year ago, I was Haya Imran Qureshi.” She smiled at him.

“And will your father be joining us?” Aahil asked.

“He’s currently out of the county on some business matters,” Haya revealed. “He’s grown quite famous in business circles,” she continued, sounding really proud of her father. “He used to live in Bhopal, close by in fact, but we moved to a small town years ago, away from the hubbub of city life.”

Aahil glanced at Rehan, noting the pained expression on his face.

“My mother left me at an orphanage when I was a newborn infant. There was only a note. Something about promising to come back and get me when she was able to. She only left a note, Aahil bhai. She never came back. It took a really . . . really long time for me to realize that she wasn’t ever coming back.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Remember when I told you about my mother?”

Aahil nodded, staring at Rehan’s figure across the coffee table. The two were in the living room of their home, sitting in near darkness. The light of two candles, nowhere near enough to illuminate the room, were the only things keeping complete darkness at bay. Lateef had just left, muttering something about how weird it was to be sitting with the lights off, but Rehan seemed to need the darkness for this conversation. Aahil had just ordered Lateef to go after lighting the candles.

“I guess I should have told you when I offered to be your ‘face’ what you were really getting in the bargain,” Rehan said heavily.

“What do you mean?”Aahil asked, watching Rehan thread his fingers together, his body stiffening.

“I didn’t tell you the entire truth.” Rehan looked away from Aahil, staring at a painting behind him. He paused and took a deep breath, which sounded almost like a sob. “I thought it would be so hard to find her with just a name, but that was because I didn’t know what my mother was.”

“What is there to tell? I know you, Rehan,” Aahil said impatiently. “I trust you. Nothing else matters.”

“It matters, Aahil bhai. It matters,” Rehan said in a frustrated tone, “Especially after what Seher said today. God, you don’t even know!” He closed his eyes in agony.

“What do you mean? Rehan speak up!” he barked at him. “Why are you being so mealy-mouthed?”

“My mother seduced my father in a fit of pique. And the man she chose to seduce was Imran Qureshi,” Rehan finally said.

Aahil shrugged his shoulders, unsure of the significance of that name.

“The Imran Qureshi that Seher mentioned today. Their cousin, Haya’s, father.”

“You mean . . .,” Aahil began uncertainly.

“Haya is my sister,” Rehan murmured. “I met my own sister for the first time, and I didn’t even know it.” He laughed bitterly. “How screwed up is my life? How could I not even know my sister?”

“How do you even know any of this?” Aahil asked, surprised at the bitterness in Rehan’s voice. “You were left at the orphanage, so how did you find out?”

“I told you, I looked for her. When I was old enough, I went searching,” Rehan said morosely. “I wanted to find out everything about her. It was really easy. In fact, my mother’s name was infamous in Bhopal. I found out everything.” He closed his eyes. Swallowed. “How I wish I hadn’t,” he revealed in a stifled tone.

“What could be so wrong about finding out the truth?” Aahil asked softly. “You have a sister. A father. You have a family.”

“I already had a family, Aahil bhai,” Rehan said, emphasizing the words. “I found out about my father. I found out I had a younger sister that I could never call my own. And I found out that my mother was a murderer. And guess who she killed?”

Aahil’s heart filled with dread; he knew that he didn’t want to hear the next part.

“She killed my sister’s mother. That woman was my sister, Aahil bhai, and my mother killed her mother. I never thought that I would see her . . . or ever meet her in my life. What would I tell her? I’m your brother, and the son of the murderer who killed your mother? What are the chances that in all of Bhopal we would move next door to the family who had such a relationship with my sister . . . and such a connection to my mother? That we would move next door to the family that lost the woman who was so much to them at the hands of my mother. Those girls even lost their grandfathers to my mother’s murderous hands!”

He got up and strode over to a window, roughly jerking it open so that he could breathe the cool, night air. Aahil soon followed, standing next to him. The two stood there, a bleak silence between them. What could one say to a revelation like that? Rehan had had to deal with his identity as the son of a murderer. And now. . . . he had to deal with losing something before he’d even had the chance to dream.

Rehan closed his eyes, blinking away the tears. She had seemed like the brightest star. And now . . . she was nowhere.

Aahil silently placed a hand on his shoulder, squeezing it in silent comfort.

“You were right, Aahil bhai,” Rehan said, breaking that frozen silence. “We need to stay far, far away from these people.”

“Aahil, I don’t know if Seher mentioned this,” Haya continued, having been introduced to the Nawab and given permission to use his name, “But I’m a schoolteacher for the hearing impaired. I was deaf when I was a child, and an operation got me my hearing back, but some people aren’t as lucky.”

Rehan stared at her, impressed by the woman his sister had grown up to be.

“You were a great help when you came to LSB’s gala,” Haya noted nervously, twisting her fingers into knots at his continued silence.

Rehan nodded, unsure of where this could be going.

“We’re holding a fundraiser to raise some funds to help increase our tight budget. I was wondering . . .” She stopped, unable to continue. Seher nudged her with an elbow, silently encouraging her.

Rehan understood. He glanced at Aahil, asking for the use of his name with a lift of an eyebrow. Aahil nodded.

“I’d be happy to come to the fundraiser,” he murmured gently. “In fact, we’ll be donating some funds to the school, as well,” he promised, reading Aahil’s next signal correctly.

A smile burst across Haya’s face, and she crowed in glee, clapping her hands together. “Rahat! Come meet the incredibly generous Mr. Aahil Raza Ibrahim. He’s agreed to come to the fundraiser and help our school! See! And you said that he would be too busy!”

Aahil stood back and watched Rehan interact with his sister and brother-in-law. He knew that Rehan had decided to never tell her that truth . . . to never put her in the position of dealing with the problems inherent in such a situation, but he could hope. He hoped that his brother would someday be able to call that woman his sister. Without shame. Without fear.

His eyes moved over to his own sisters, who still sat in the living room area, eating dessert and laughing with the Khan women. He smiled helplessly. He hoped the same for himself.

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Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg.

“Hello?”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Hello?”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Look, if you weren’t going to speak, why did you call?”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“I’m going to hang up.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Aahil stared at the phone and ended the call.

~*~*~*~*~*~

D -70 . . . .

“He’s here again,” Maheen said happily, coming over to stand next to Sanam, as the other woman shelved the last of the books she had been using to write her brief.

“Who’s here?” Sanam asked, turning to Maheen in worry. “Do I need to call the police?”

“No! Not an abuser,” Maheen quickly said. “Don’t be such a worrywart. Our mysterious donor for the shelter,” she explained. “He’s on the grounds, talking to the children after dropping off the food and blankets. Remember, you said you wanted talk to him?”

Sanam smiled in gratitude and ran towards the doors. Over the past few weeks, a man had come to their main office to make donations. The stranger hadn’t made a big deal about it, even though he had clearly spent a lot of money on badly needed items for the multiple shelters that LSB partnered with to serve the community and help their clientele.

Racing out the door, she was soon on the grounds. She saw the stranger kneeling down in front of a group of children. He reached out and patted one skinny shoulder, and then ruffled another child’s hair. She saw his skin almost glowing in the sunlight. And she heard his laughter, recognizing that husky note, even though she’d never heard him laugh before. Not like this. She saw the smiles on the children’s faces, as he began to hand out candy. She noted the watchful eyes of the parents, knowing that they had already assessed this individual and found him trustworthy.

“Now, share this with your sister,” he admonished a little boy, handing him two. “You’re her big brother and you’ll protect her, right?”

The little boy nodded enthusiastically, looking over to his mother, who held a tiny toddler in her arms.

“Now, go. Look at your sister. She’s waving at you and telling you to go to her,” he murmured, ruffling the boy’s hair with a free hand.

She watched him get up and turn around, and her eyes finally saw what her heart had already guessed. “Rehan.”

He nodded his head at her, pulling out his sunglasses and putting them on.

“What are you doing here?” she asked softly. Her heart was beating rapidly in her chest. They hadn’t seen each other in weeks, but her heart still awakened in his presence. Her skin still burned as his eyes traced her features. Her mind frantically wondered what to say . . . how to act . . . how to impress. His affect on her was ever present.

“Nothing much,” he answered, moving towards her.

Her heart fell when he walked past her, continuing on toward the parking lot. She turned to stare at that broad back, encased in unrelieved black. Biting her lip, she wondered whether she should just let him walk away. Besides that one family dinner, she hadn’t had any contact with the man. They’d barely spoken any words to each other at that dinner. And when she’d made that phone call that same night . . . having gotten his number by bribing Lateef with a sari, she hadn’t even had the courage to say a word.

But . . . he made her heart beat. He made her want. And she wasn’t one to give up so easily. “You’ve been donating for the shelters!” she called out to his retreating back. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

He stopped and turned to look at her. “Because I didn’t want anyone to know,” he pointed out, nudging up his sunglasses with an indolent grace.

“Why would you hide this from the world?” she asked. “This is your third trip in three weeks. The first time you just came and slipped away. If those children hadn’t caught you the second time, our staff wouldn’t have even known who to thank.”

“I don’t do this for gratitude,” he said, amazed at her words. “Who would do something like this for thanks? Is that why you’re working here?”

“No!” Sanam protested vehemently. “But you didn’t even tell me that you were doing this,” she concluded with difficulty.

“I never meant for you to know,” he finally uttered in a remote tone, gazing at her. He began to walk backwards, as if seeking to end their brief conversation.

When she only stared at him in hurt silence, he exhaled roughly and turned around, unable to look into her eyes any longer.

“Can I just ask one question before you leave?” she asked in a choked tone.

He stopped, but did not look back. At least he was listening.

“Why?” she threw at that back.

His shoulders stiffened.

“I thought . . . I hoped.” Her words were slipping away from her. She couldn’t find a way to express her emotions, but she had to try. She spoke again. “Why?”

He walked away without answering.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg

“Hello?”

“It was you who called.” There was a lazy sort of satisfaction in that tone.

She froze, unable to say anything. “Why did you save my number?” she demanded after a moment’s pause. “At that point you couldn’t have known.”

“I had a feeling,” he said finally.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Why are you calling me? I thought you didn’t want me knowing things.” A strangled note in that voice. A feeling of uncertainty, especially after what had been left unsaid today.

“I don’t know,” he said uncertainly. “I don’t know why I called you.”

“Should I hang up?” she asked grimly, hurt by that uncertainty. Why wouldn’t he just want to talk to her? Why did it have to be so hard? When there was only silence, she pulled the phone away, ready to end the call.

“Wait!” There was a strangled desperation in that tone.

“What is it?” she asked softly. “What do you need?”

“Nazia and Shazia decided to go back to the hostel,” he blurted out.

She raised her eyebrows at those words. “The Nawab’s sisters?” she asked, unsure of where this conversation was going.

“Yes,” he responded. “He’s hurting right now.”

“I thought they were practically strangers. They haven’t lived together for years,” she answered. “What kind of relationship did they even have that their leaving is hurting him that much?”

“He . . . he hoped that they would be able to live as a family. He wanted to spend time with them, to get to know them . . . to love them and have their love in his life.” He paused for a moment, and she let him find the words he needed to say. He cared so much for his friend.

“He wanted to help them achieve their dreams . . . to get them settled . . . but they said they felt too uncomfortable in this home. That he was a stranger. They didn’t want the bother. And he’s hurting,” he finished in a choked tone. “He’s all alone.”

“He has you,” she reminded him. “You’re with him.”

“He doesn’t feel he can talk to me,” he replied. “I have sibling issues myself, but he probably feels that at least he can call his sisters his own without shame. He can own that relationship and have hope for a better relationship some day. I don’t have that. He doesn’t want to burden me.”

“Do you want me to talk to Seher, maybe have her go over and talk to him?” she asked after a pause.”I don’t know if it’ll help, since he’s stopped responding to her, but they were beginning something.”

“No! I just . . .”

“What?” she prompted.

“I just need to talk to you,” he admitted in a grim voice.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“I’m here.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

D – 55 . . . .

“What are you doing here?” a grumpy voice asked from the direction of the kitchen.

Sanam glanced over at Lateef and shook her head. “What’s wrong with you?” she asked, walking over to her. “Is something wrong? Look, I come bearing sweets. My Badi Ammi made gulab jamuns and wanted to share with you all. She asked me to bring them over immediately,” Sanam said, hiding the fact that her Badi Ammi had actually been asking Kuljeet to do it. God! She was acting like a total juvenile about this. If Seher had been there, would the two of them have fought over this opportunity to sneak over and peek at the men?

After that night and their talk over the phone, she had not spoken to Rehan again. She made a face. Why was it so easy for him to just turn off? Would she ever learn how to be that cool around him?

“Ooh, I love those!” Lateef said, clapping her hands together. But the distraction of sweets was too small to keep her distracted too long. She was back to being cranky, even as she bit into one of the gulab jamuns.

“What’s wrong?” Sanam asked again, going into the kitchen. She gasped at seeing the mess in there. “What happened here?! Did you have some sort of accident?”

“No!” Lateef barked at her, moving to pick up the pots and pans that were scattered on the floor. “It’s just . . .”

“Lateef, you can trust me,” Sanam assured her, helping her to put the dirty dishes in the sink.

Laad saab has been in the worst mood ever!” Lateef said dramatically. “He hasn’t been eating or drinking anything. I swear I can see Aahil baba’s bones poking through his skin! Why did he even come back to this country? He was much happier in America.”

“The Nawab is that unhappy to be back?” Sanam asked, her heart going out to the man who used to be that little boy. Was he never fated to be happy? He had gone through a horrific childhood, and she had thought he’d escaped his past. At least, that was how it seemed when she looked into his eyes, but now it seemed the past was catching up with him.

“Those two dratted girls!” Lateef continued. “If they hadn’t been so adamant on going back to the hostel, he might have been happier. You know, when he called them back home, he was afraid on how they would get along . . . but I think he was hopeful. But they left. And then . . . I don’t know why, but he grew even more unhappy,” she said with a frown on her face. “And I can’t do anything to take his pain away. I can’t even get him to eat! And his friend is no help! He’s just joined him in his depressed state. What is wrong with these two men!”

Sanam listened to the words, but most of her attention was on the food and preparing it. She wanted to help, in some small way, the boy she hadn’t been able to help so many years ago. And she wanted to help that other man, too. She began cooking, her mind intent on feeding them a good breakfast.

Lateef watched open mouthed, and then began to act as her assistant, handing her the proper ingredients in a timely manner. Pretty soon, she was even suggesting dishes for Sanam to make. At the end of the cooking marathon, the table in the kitchen was set with grilled cheese sandwiches, a Spanish omelet, fruit and toast. And to top it off, she had made apple pie.

“By the way, who eats apple pie for breakfast?” Sanam asked, staring down at the dishes.

“He loves it!” Lateef protested. “But you tell me, are you a lawyer or a chef? How could you have cooked everything in such a small amount of time?”

Sanam laughed softly. “I love to cook. Cooking is my passion, but being a lawyer was a calling. I couldn’t turn away from it.” She was silent for a moment, her mind reliving those memories once more. But for a single, brief meeting, she would never have gone down this path.

Did she regret it? Not for a single moment.

The two froze when they heard approaching footsteps. Without volition, Sanam found herself moving back and towards the doors leading out to the kitchen garden. “I’m going to be just leaving,” she murmured. She slipped through the doors, planning on going around the back and to her home, but something held her rooted into place and peeking through those glass doors.

“I don’t want us working with this company,” Rehan ordered someone, striding into the room. He turned to look back through the entry. “They put profits first, not employee satisfaction . . . not the long-term future of the company . . . or giving back to the community.” He paused for a moment to listen to a response. “We can’t work with someone like this. Ibrahim Corporation has enough power and reputation that we can afford to make decisions like these.”

She felt sorry for the hapless minion on the other end of that lecture. Sanam’s eyes widened when she realized the Nawab was following him and quietly nodding his head in agreement.

“Did you look at the business plan?” he continued.

The other man nodded silently. “What about this contract?” the Nawab asked, changing the subject.

“I read it over last night. The terms are fair, but I want to put something in there on employee support. There will be a lot of changes. Anything else?”

“That foundation you wanted t–”

“Enough of this business talk. Breakfast is ready!” Lateef called out.

“Lateef, just give me some coffee!” Rehan barked at her.

“But look! Please, just sit at the table,” Lateef urged, moving forward to push Rehan to the table. “You need to eat. And we have some great dishes today!”

Lateef had been right about the both of them. Rehan was also looking thinner, his features sharper. Something had caused an unhappy look to mar that manly beauty. What could it be? Her fingers curled into fists. “Eat!” she ordered in a whisper.

He reluctantly sat down, gesturing for Aahil to sit, as well.

Lateef pushed the dishes in front of him, urging him to eat the food. “It’s good! Look, I got someone else to cook it since you weren’t enjoying my cooking. I’m sure you’ll like it,” she said slyly.

Rehan stared at the omelet and the sandwiches. Allowing Lateef to spoon some of it over, he put an unenthusiastic bite into his mouth. There was a pause. He closed his eyes slowly, and seemed to be really tasting the food. What if he didn’t like it? But then he took another bite. And then another.

She smiled helplessly to see him clearly enjoying the food. The most important thing of all? He was eating.

And watching him, the Nawab began to eat, as well. The two began to converse once more. The food clearly giving them the energy needed to get overzealous about their projects. Soon, Rehan began to make other orders, and Aahil happily complied with the note taking, being sure to take some hearty bites of food in between.

She turned to go, but she stopped once more. Turning back, she saw Rehan grab the apple pie and place it in front of him. Wrinkling her brow, she turned to gaze at the Nawab but he said nothing. Turning back to Rehan, she saw him take a big bite directly from the serving dish itself. He groaned, closing his eyes, as he savored that bite of pie.

She flushed at how sexy he looked. Biting her lip, she began to walk away, promising herself that she would be back to make some more food. If she could help in this small way . . . she would.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg

“Hello?’

There was only silence, but the sound of heavy breathing could be heard on the other end.

“Are you some sort of pervert? Is this supposed to be some sort of crank call?” he asked in a cranky tone.

“What?! No!” she protested. “What is wrong with you?” her voice broke a little on those last words.

And he realized that the heavy breathing had been someone holding back tears, not what he had actually thought. “What’s wrong?” he asked softly, unable to stop himself.

She said nothing.

“How was your day?” he asked, hoping the change in subject would get her talking and from there they could go to what had caused her hurt. He wanted to take away that hurt at any cost, and in order for him to do that . . . he had to know what bastard had hurt her.

“I got a call from the shelter’s management today,” she finally said, the tears still apparent in her voice. She stopped.

“Did something happen?” he asked gently, his fingers curling around the phone.

“One of the shelter inhabitants is a woman named Naina Kapoor. She has been living with them for the past few months. She has this beautiful 3 year old child, a little boy named Manoj. The two of them were flourishing . . . and so happy to be away from their abuser.”

“What changed?” he asked.

“Today, her husband followed her to the shelter,” Sanam said, beginning to cry. “She’d gone to her office to pick up a final paycheck, saying that she needed the money if she was going to become financially independent. She has no one else, and so has no one to support her. He followed her from there. She was just 50 yards from our doors, from safety, when he caught up with her.” She began to sob, the sound harsh in the silence between them.

“Sanam,” he said huskily. “Don’t. Please don’t.” It hurt his heart to hear her cry

“He was beating her on the street!” she wailed. “The police were called. The shelter was a few feet away and couldn’t even keep her safe. We didn’t even know! Not until the sirens were heard and staff went out to investigate. It was only then that they saw Naina being carted off in an ambulance. Her son was at her side, crying his little eyes out.”

There was only silence. He opened his lips and then closed them. What could he say? How could he make it all better? It hurt him deep inside to hear about these stories . . . to go the shelter and see those hurting eyes, but that was why he did it. He wouldn’t turn away. Never.

“She woke up in the hospital and began to cry. She’s losing hope. She wondered if she should just go back. This is a woman I helped get a restraining order just a month ago, and she had so much hope.” She stopped. “I just want,” she continued softly, “I just want somehow to help her disappear. To set her up in a new life somewhere else. Where she’d be far away from this man and his poison. And I want that man to be punished. I want to make the police take this case seriously!”

“I can help,” he said softly.

“What do you mean?”

“I have the money and the connections,” he offered. “If she wants, I can help her disappear and no one will find her. I can get her a job and a new home. I can do it.”

She was silent, frozen by that incredibly giving offer. “I didn’t call to ask this of you,” she finally uttered. “I just needed to vent. I needed you,” she finished in a small voice.

“I know you didn’t,” he replied, ruthlessly tamping down the affect of those words. “But even if you had, what would be so wrong with it? I have the ability to rescue this woman and her child, and I’ll do it.” His tone was serious, his words making that ultimate commitment.

“You see someone who needs help, and you just give it?” she asked softly. “You care that much?”

“Anything . . . I’d do anything to make sure that a child won’t have to grow up like that,” he said.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“You so easily gave someone their happiness . . . why is it so hard for you to grab onto some of it for yourself?”

“They have a right to be happy.”

“And you don’t?”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“No.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

D – 50 . . . .

Seher sat down next to Sanam, and the two stared out at the night sky. They were in the garden, sitting on the lawn furniture and enjoying the night air and a cup of tea after dinner.

“What is wrong with you?” Seher asked, staring at her twin sister. “You went on that business trip a couple of days ago, and you came back even more depressed. What is going on with you, Sanam? Even the parents are getting worried, and you know that they don’t like to pressure us in any way.”

“I was helping a LSB client set up a new life in a new city,” Sanam explained softly. “Rehan helped to make it happen.”

“That’s great!” Seher said enthusiastically. “Then why are you so unhappy?”

“I was hoping that Rehan would be there,” Sanam admitted in a driven tone. “I know I’m being a total idiot. He has his own work. He was busy. How could I expect him to drop everything and help us navigate this new city with a mother and child in tow? But I did. He made all of this possible. He’s saving them, but he sent someone else instead.” She looked at Seher with tears in her eyes. “If this is what feeling something feels like . . . should I thank Allah miyah for never having suffered through this before?”

Seher leaned over and put an arm around her sister’s shoulder. “Don’t think that way. Just because they’re being a little stubborn, doesn’t mean that we are going to step back.”

“What do you mean? What can I do? I don’t even know how to flirt, Seher!” Sanam blurted out. “I see the guy and become instantly mesmerized. I can’t breathe properly around him. I can’t think properly. And the more I get to know him, the more I fall. But he keeps on changing on me. He’ll ignore me during the day and talk to me during our phone calls.”

“Wait! What’s this? You two are talking?” Seher ask with interest.

Sanam nodded. “I got his number, and we’ve been talking over the phone. Not a lot.”

“That’s your way in!” Seher concluded. “How do you think I got Aahil to see me? Remember I was complaining about him ignoring my calls? But he picked up one day to tell me to stop calling. And I got him to stay on the phone with my brilliant conversation skills!”

Sanam raised an incredulous eyebrow at her.

“Fine,” Seher said, looking away in embarrassment. “I started crying, and he would have had to be a real jerk to hang up on me then.” Her face turned serious. “It hurts when he ignores me. You might think I have all this experience, Sanam, because I’ve had crushes before. But I’ve never fallen in love. I’m learning as I go along, too. At first, it was just phone calls about business and us arguing over plans and budgets.”

Sanam snorted at that.

“I agree, it was fascinating,” Seher said drily. “But now we’re fighting over money spendage.” She began to laugh in delight.

“What are you laughing about, you weirdo?” Sanam asked, staring at her twin.

“I got him to agree to argue with me in person,” Seher revealed, stretching her arms above her head in a well-deserved attempt at relaxing. “We had our first date last night.”

“Why is it so easy for him to open his heart to you, but Rehan won’t?” Sanam cried out, incredibly hurt. “Why won’t he take the risk? Am I not worth it?”

Seher put her arm around Sanam, and gently hugged her close.

“Aahil mentioned that Rehan hasn’t had an easy past,” Seher revealed. “We were discussing nature versus nurture, and began to discuss the capability of orphans and what nurturing means in terms of those raised in orphanages.”

Sanam listened intently as her sister told her about Rehan being left at the orphanage by his mother. Of growing up alone. And working hard to get an education and donating to the orphanage that took care of him while he was a child.

“When Aahil told me this, he just blurted it out. I don’t think he really meant to tell me anything,” Seher said, “but I dragged it out of him. For someone who has never had anyone, not even the most basic of familial relationships that we take for granted, he must find it so hard to ask for anything. Aahil said that Rehan really thinks he doesn’t have the right to demand love.”

Sanam stared at her sister, the revelation whirling inside of her head.

“Aahil was almost insistent on knowing how people like us would deal with a revelation like this,” Seher continued. “Would we be able to accept someone like that? Someone who had not only this in his background, but other, bigger secrets? He really cares for his friend, Sanam.”

She turned to meet her twin’s gaze.

“So, tell me, would you be able to accept that man?”

~*~*~*~*~*~

Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg. Rrrriiiinnggg

“This is Sanam Ahmed Khan. I can’t answer the phone right now. So, please leave a message and I’ll call you back as soon as possible.”

Beep.

Click.

Opening up the phone’s messaging app, he began to type.

You’re not answering your phone. Is everything okay?

Fine.

Why aren’t you answer the phone?

I didn’t want to.

I repeat, is everything okay?

Everything is fine, Mr. Rehan Imran Qureshi.

How did everything go on your trip?

Fine.

Are Naina and Manoj happy?

Yes. They’re very happy.

Then what’s wrong with you?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

?????

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sanam.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Say something!

Seher and Aahil went on a date!

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Hello? Are you there?

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Coward.

~*~*~*~*~*~

D – 45 . . . .

Sanam and Seher sat out in the garden of the Khan mansion, their eyes trained on the two men sitting across from them.

They had just finished another family dinner. It made Sanam so happy to see him with her family. After finding out about his past, she thought it would only benefit him to be around family.

“You loved my food last time, I made two dishes today!” Zoya had urged them, forcing both the Nawab and Rehan to eat the food that she had made. What melted her heart was how happily they had eaten it just to make her mother happy.

Badi Ammi had fed them her hand-made mithai. She had encouraged them to stuff themselves, until they were begging to be let off.

Even Abu approved of them. You could see it in the way he talked to them as equals. But his expression had soured when Ammi dragged him inside, telling him they would have tea by the pool area. Badi Ammi had soon followed, telling the kids it was time for her to go to bed.

Now, it was just the two girls and their . . . neighbors.

“Aahil, let me show you the greenhouse we have way over there!” Seher said, jumping up and reaching out her hand for his. “We have some beautiful flowers there.”

He put his hand in hers, and allowed her to pull him up. And the two quickly left, leaving Sanam and Rehan alone on seats on opposing sides of the table. The lights of the house were behind Rehan, making it difficult for her to see his expression.

She wasn’t going to let him hide anymore. Getting up abruptly, she stomped around the table and sat down next to him on the loveseat.

He stared at her sideways, and moved over on the seat, putting some distance between the two of them.

She followed, her lips firming, and settled next to him.

He moved over some over.

She followed suit, and was soon plastered against him, and he had no room to move any further. When he attempted to get up, she grabbed onto his arm, restraining him. Standing up, she glared down at him. “No!” she protested, placing her fists on her hips. “You are not getting up. Are you a kid? Just sit there! No matter how much I might want to, I’m not going to eat you up! Sheesh!”

Reluctantly, he settled back down, leaning against the back of the loveseat. Nodding her head in satisfaction, she began to sit down. Her foot, suddenly trapped by the table, caused her to trip and she yelped as she began to fall.

He reached out and caught her, and without knowing it, she was in his lap. His arms came around her, grabbing her close. She looked up at him, their faces inches apart. Their lips inches apart, their breaths mingling. His hands were at the small of her back. Her hands on his shoulders, her nails digging into the muscle beneath that navy blue shirt. He shifted slightly, and she realized that she was plastered against him, chest to chest. She could feel his heart beating against hers.

She should get up. A part of her was screaming at her to get up, but another part . . .the winning part, was telling her to sit back and see where this would go. She melted against him.

His grip on her tightened, and one hand moved up her back, leaving a trail of fire.

She shivered lightly at that sensation, closing her eyes for a moment. When she opened them, he was closer. Millimeters away. He gazed into her eyes, moved closer still. She could feel his warmth . . . the pressure of the air against her lips.

“Kuljeet, take this cake out to the guests.” Her mother’s voice could be heard from inside. “Asad and I are going up, so let the girls know.”

The two froze at that intrusion, and then jerked apart. Sanam swiftly got up and sat back down on the loveseat, feet apart from him.

When Kuljeet came out with the cake, there was nothing suspicious to see. The only evidence of their near kiss was her furiously beating heart.

Once Kuljeet left, Sanam sidled over to him, and rested her shoulder against his.

The night air was cool, a gentle breeze playing with the ends of her hair. When his arm crept around her, settling across her shoulders, she allowed herself to relax. Her head fell against his shoulder and rested there. She inhaled, taking in the unique, male scent of him deep inside of her. Her heart felt at home. She wanted to remain like this forever, but she knew that wasn’t possible. At least, not yet.

“There are so many stars up there,” she murmured, her eyes looking up at the night sky. “It’s so beautiful.”

“How did you decide to work in such an ugly field when you appreciate beauty so much?” he asked in a driven tone, his fingers tightening around her shoulder. “How can your heart stand it?”

“Because if I didn’t, then who would?” Sanam asked simply, her eyes on the sky. “I am incredibly lucky that I have the kind of life where I have enough of me to appreciate the beauty in life. Some people don’t have that luck, because they’re too busy just surviving. Why wouldn’t I use my luck to help others? I would never walk away from someone in need. And this job allows me to help them.”

“But what made you even pick this field?”

Settling deeper into his hold, she began to speak. “Remember when I told you about knowing the Nawab?”

He nodded his head.

“I don’t know if I should tell this,” she suddenly said.

“There are no secrets between us,” he responded. “None.”

“When I was young and seeing the night sky alone for the first time ever,” she continued after a moment of thought, “I met the Nawab as a little boy. He was just a young teenager. And for the first time ever, I realized that parents could hurt their children. But even when he was hurting and in so much pain, he lied to protect me.” She shivered slightly, feeling the cold air in her bones now.

He pulled her closer, wrapping his jacket around her.

She snuggled closer, taking in his warmth with a grateful murmur.

“I had his blood on my hand,” she whispered.

Aahil closed his eyes, hearing that remembered pain and shock in her voice.

“I couldn’t stop crying for hours on end. It drove my mother crazy. When I told them what had happened, they called the police. But it was too late. The family had already left the country.”

So that was the reason they had left so hastily, Aahil realized. He closed his eyes, unable to deal with that for a moment.

“He opened my eyes to reality, and I swore that I would never close them again. I do this for that little boy that I couldn’t help.”

He felt a rising pressure in his heart, a lump in his throat. “So you pity him for his past? You feel that you owe him and you are atoning?” he finally asked, forcing the questions past the lump in his throat. Disgust for his past was growing inside of him. This woman knew his deepest darkest secrets, and he was so afraid that she would only see his scars. Could she ever see the man when she knew him as that abused, little boy?

“He doesn’t need my pity,” Sanam asserted softly. “He should be proud that he has grown up to be the man that he is. There is nothing pitiful about him. And what I do now, I do for my soul. He might have given me my purpose, but it’s so much more now. It’s not about him. He doesn’t need anyone to save him. He only needs to open his heart and accept his present and live his life.”

She wrapped her arms around his waist, holding him close. Looking up at the stars once more, she murmured in appreciation. “My soul also needs beauty. And I look at these stars for that. There are so many stars in the sky tonight!”

He rested his cheek against the top of her head. “Stars, huh? My mother used to tell me that if you see a falling star, make a wish on it. Your wish will come true,” he uttered drolly.

“My mother says that, too!” Sanam squealed joyfully. “Do you believe it?”

“Ever since I became aware of myself . . . in all of my memories, I’ve hardly seen any stars, let alone falling stars,” he confessed.

Sanam looked up at him with a perplexed expression.

“But now . . . now I’m seeing more stars in that sky. Who knows? Maybe one day I’ll even see a falling star and all my wishes will come true.”

~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 7: Loving Him, Loving Her
~*~*~*~*~*~

Rrrrriiiinnnnnggg. Rrrrriiiinnnnnggg. Rrrrriiiinnnnnggg.

“What are you doing?” he said huskily into the phone, gazing out of the window from his position on the bed. He was looking in the direction of her home, wondering idly if he could even see a hint of her from this distance.

“Sitting by my bedroom window,” she replied softly, leaning her forehead against the cold pane. She looked outside and towards the windows of his home. It did her heart good to realize that he was so close. One day . . . he would be even closer. Was she being too confident? She shook her head. No. One day it would happen.

“You’re not sleepy?” he asked, settling back in bed, placing one arm behind his head for support.

“No,” she replied. “Why would I be tired? After all . . .”

“After all, you had a nice little nap at the lecture that I took you to just three hours ago?” he finished for her dryly.

“Hey!” she protested, standing up in affront at that remark.

“What? That wasn’t you who fell asleep on my shoulder and drooled all over my favorite jacket?” he asked teasingly.

“What the heck, Rehan?” she sniped at him. “Do you know what kind of day I’ve had? I’ve been up since five! And who takes a girl to a boring lecture on their first date? ”

“What? Date?” he asked, a lazy smile growing on his face.

“What?” she asked, seeming to choke on air.

“You said date,” he pointed out alertly.

“I didn’t say anything!” she lied, twining her fingers in the lace curtains in distraction. “And anyways, you invited me out. We were together. Just the two of us. If that isn’t a date, then what is?” Her voice trailed off uncertainly, a flush growing over her cheeks.

“Was this your first date? Ever?” he asked in an astonished tone, sitting upright in bed. There was shock . . . and a guilty sort of pleasure that she had experienced this first with him.

“We live in Bhopal, Mr. Rehan Imran Qureshi, not America,” she pointed out, incredibly hurt by the levity in his tone. “You may have had a lot of opportunities to date, but I haven’t.” There was complete silence on the other end of the line. She bit her lip, wondering if she had been too harsh. “Rehan?” she asked in a softly apologetic tone, hoping that he hadn’t hung up on her.

“It was my first date, too,” he confessed softly.

Her eyes widened at those words. She cleared her throat, unsure of what to say. Her first thought was to ask why, but not yet. She would hold onto this question until she had the absolute right to ask about his past. “Then, I can plan our second date?” Sanam finally eked out.

“I’m going on a business trip tomorrow,” he revealed regretfully.

“For how long?” she asked, her fingers gripping the phone.

“Two weeks,” he said.

“Two weeks?!” Sanam burst out in disbelief. “And you didn’t even tell me?!”

“I’ll try to come back earlier,” he said with a laugh, touched by her disappointment. No one had cared for the longest time about his absences.

“Fine, I’ll plan our next date. We’ll go somewhere that won’t put either one of us to sleep!” Sanam promised, a big smile growing across her face. She would be seeing him again. He was agreeing to a second date despite the impression she had made on their first time out together.

“I’ll look forward to it,” he said with a smile. “It makes me happy to realize that someone will be eagerly awaiting my return,” he said after a moment of silence.

“But you have Aahil,” she pointed out blankly. “I’m sure Aahil misses you, too, when you’re gone.”

He paused for a moment, unsure of what to say. “But this is you,” he spelled out for her. “I’m happy that you will be waiting for me.”

“Oh,” she said in soft understanding. “Always,” she affirmed helplessly, biting her lip. Clearing her throat, she then asked, “You’ll call me as soon as you get back?”

“Absolutely,” he asserted.

“Good night.”

“Good night, Sanam.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

D – 38 . . . .

Sanam sat down next to Seher, joining her in the garden to catch the last rays of the setting sun. It was Saturday, and the two of them were finally getting a chance to relax after a week of working hard. A slight breeze ruffled their hair. It was a tranquil evening, with the birds singing in the trees and the bees buzzing around their flowers.

Sanam leaned her head against Seher’s shoulder, closing her eyes for a moment. This week had been doubly hard for her, since she hadn’t had any contact with Rehan the entire time. Apparently, he was in some remote location setting up new contacts and didn’t have the time or ability to speak with anyone outside of the immediate area.

Seher sighed heavily, her eyes focused intensely on the bees and the brightly colored flowers.

“What is it?” Sanam asked, seeing the morose expression on her sister’s face when she raised her head.

“Nothing,” Seher replied shortly. “I’m okay.”

“Seher, this is me,” Sanam said. “I am your twin. Half the time I know exactly what you’re thinking and the other half I know what you’re feeling. I know you’re not feeling okay right now.”

Seher turned her head away, blinking rapidly to stop her tears from overflowing.

“Seher? What’s wrong, behna?” Sanam asked softly, putting her arm around her twin’s shoulders.

Seher remained silent, her eyes trained on their house now. Just when Sanam had given up hope on her ever answering, Seher spoke up. “You know, when we were growing up, I always thought we were so lucky to have the parents that we did . . . our grandmother, Haya. Aunts and uncles. We were so lucky to be surrounded by family who loved us and took care of us.” She stopped and sighed. “But I always felt left out. Do you get what I’m saying?”

Sanam shook her head, confused by her sister’s words.

“I was surrounded by love, but I wasn’t a part of it. I wasn’t part of a unit . . . of a partnership made out of love. When I saw mom and dad together, I always wondered whether I would be lucky enough to have that kind of love. And the pessimistic part of my always concluded that it would not happen to me. I never thought that I would have the kind of love both mom and dad have because I know myself.”

“But . . .,” Sanam began, surprised by the words. She’d thought things were going well with Aahil, but Seher’s expression said otherwise.

“I’ve always felt jealous of their relationship,” Seher admitted. “I’ve always felt jealous of the relationship Haya has with Rahat. I feel bad about it, because each couple has been through so much, but that envy is still there. When I met Aahil, I thought . . . here he is. My soulmate. My partner. My love. I thought everything would be great now.”

“And it’s not?” Sanam asked, her heart aching for her sister, who seemed to be in despair over the state of affairs.

“There’s something missing,” she admitted, the tears beginning to fall. She clenched her fingers into fists, her nails biting into the soft skin of her palms. “He’s keeping this distance between us, and I don’t know why!” She stopped speaking for a moment, the lump in her throat making it difficult to go on. “I’m ready to love. I’m ready to put my heart out there, but he’s . . . not. I don’t see why he has issues of trust. He’s a Nawab of Bhopal. What reason does he have to keep himself closed off from me? Am I not enough?” her voice broke on those words, and she shot up, attempting to get away from Sanam.

Sanam grabbed Seher’s wrist, forcing her to stop. She stood up, taking a deep breath and marshaling her thoughts. She knew that her next words could make or break her sister’s relationship. They could possibly break Seher herself.

“I don’t know why he felt comfortable telling me about Rehan’s past, but not his own,” Seher continued in a choked voice. “Why would he tell me about a person who is a stranger to me, but won’t tell me anything about himself?”

“Seher,” Sanam said softly. “Don’t take it personally, please.”

Seher whirled around to look at Sanam. “You know something.” She grabbed Sanam’s shoulders, shaking her. “What do you know?”

Sanam blinked at her, uncertain whether she should even be disclosing Aahil’s past. She was an attorney and the one duty that was of the highest imperative to those in her profession was the duty of confidentiality. But, she reminded herself, he wasn’t her client. The truth would come out some day.

“Tell me, Sanam!” Seher ordered her sister. “I can’t take one more evening out with him stopping at some point during our conversation and then consciously changing the subject. I can’t stand him hiding something from me. It makes me feel this small,” she said, holding her thumb and index finger an inch apart. The tears continued to fall, her heartbreak clear.

“When we were little,” Sanam began, pulling Seher back to the bench, “Around seven years old, I met a teenage boy.”

“What does that . . .?” Seher began petulantly.

“His family had a summer house next to Uncle Imran’s home,” Sanam continued, talking over Seher.

Seher’s eyes widened when she realized this was the home that they had discussed the last and only time they had been at Ibrahim Mansion to have tea.

“It was dark, and we barely spoke,” she continued, “But even I, with my self-involved 7-year-old mind, could see that he was in pain. He was hurt, and the one who had hurt him was his own father.”

Seher gasped at those words, her heart clenching in sympathy.

“He was the reason that I cried all the way home that night. He was the reason you began asking me, ‘What’s wrong with you Sanam Ahmed Khan?'” Sanam said, half-jokingly, remembering Seher’s refrain when she would get frustrated with her twin’s tendency to go into lioness mode at the drop of a hat. “He is the reason why I can’t stand to see a child or anyone, really, in pain. He is the reason for who I am today,” she trailed off.

“Sanam,” Seher uttered, seeing a look in her sister’s eyes that she wasn’t quite able to define. “What . . .?” She stopped, unable to find the words

“His past is something that he has survived, Seher,” Sanam said passionately, turning to look at her sister. “He is a brilliant man, but the most beautiful thing is that he has come out of that toxic environment with the ability to still love.”

Seher opened her mouth to protest.

Sanam held up her hand. “He does love you. You can’t question his love just because he finds it difficult to speak with you about the abuse he suffered as a child. He trusts you . . . maybe not with his deepest darkest secrets, but he does trust you with the most vulnerable part of him. You hold his heart in your hands, sister dear. We can all see that. Don’t punish him for this one small hesitance.”

Seher stared at her sister, shocked by the revelations about Aahil’s past. She had never thought that this could be what he was hiding from her. But to learn it in this way . . . to realize that her sister had known a truth about the man she loved, had known this truth for years, but never shared it with her . . .it didn’t make her feel good. It was petty of her, but she minded that Aahil and Sanam shared a secret that she hadn’t known.

“Don’t,” Sanam said shortly, correctly reading her. “It wasn’t . . . it still isn’t my secret to tell. I only told you now to ensure that you wouldn’t hurt that man. For the longest time, I used to dream that I would find him . . . and I would save him,” Sanam admitted with difficulty. “I wanted to take him from his life and free him from the abuse. When I met him again, I realized that in my mind that little boy never grew up. And to see him now . .. it’s amazing. He saved himself. He became a fully functioning adult with none of the repercussions I see in the children that I encounter on a daily basis.”

Seher stared at her sister, realizing what she had heard earlier in Sanam’s voice had been disappointment because she hadn’t had the chance to rescue that little boy. But there had also been pride in who that little boy had become.

“Don’t hurt him, Seher,” Sanam pleaded, grasping her sister’s hand. “Give him time.”

“Now that I know that he has a reason to hide his past,” Seher said hoarsely, “I’m never going to leave him alone. In fact, you’d have to kill me to keep us apart.”

Her cell phone began to ring, and Seher pulled it out to glance at the screen. “It’s him,” she said softly, quickly wiping away her tears and clearing her throat. “He said it would be difficult for him to call today since he’s been at the office putting out all the fires while Rehan is gone.”

“Are we okay?” Sanam asked insistently.

“We’re definitely okay,” Seher stated with a smile before answering the phone.

~*~*~*~*~*~

D – 25 . . . .

“Your coffee,” Sanam murmured, handing him the cup.

He could feel her watching him as he took an appreciative sip. Nodding at her in thanks, he took another sip from the cup. Despite all efforts to the contrary, he knew he was trapped. He had tried his best to stay away from this woman, but all efforts had failed. And with him, he could see, Rehan had been trapped as well. They were here again . . . for yet another family dinner.

These women had the ability to beguile all of them, Mr. Asad Ahmed Khan included. He gazed around the table, his eyes moving over all of the individuals sitting there.

Dilshad Begum, sitting at the head of the table. She was the matriarch of this clan. A calm and graceful woman, who wanted nothing but the best for her family. And it seemed that she had taken them into her heart, as well. Just yesterday, she had sent over biryani for him to eat because she’d found out that he liked it.

Sitting to her right was Mrs. Zoya Asad Ahmed Khan. A woman full of joy and life. She was still young at heart. Despite the tragedy in her past, she still had the ability to look to the future. She had the courage to dream. And she wasn’t subtle about what dreams she had for her daughters. In fact, she hadn’t been subtle at all when she had badgered him and Rehan to come back for dinner through a series of phone calls which had finally forced them to give in.

Seher was sitting across the table from her mother. From what he knew of her, she was a smart and witty woman. She could become sarcastic at the drop of a hat. But all he needed to know was that she was the woman who had wrought changes in Rehan. She clearly loved him, and she had made Rehan blossom due to her love. He shifted in his seat, the flowery description making him uncomfortable. But it was true. Seher had changed Rehan. While before, Rehan had always been a steady light, he now had a fire burning inside of him. He felt comfortable enough . . . loved enough . . . that he allowed his emotions out. He allowed himself to be angry . . . and petulant. He allowed himself to make demands. It was the kind of behavior people confident in their love felt free to exhibit.

He had even begun doing making demands of Aahil. Where before Rehan used to call him bhai, it was his behavior now that made Aahil feel that they truly were brothers. Aahil finally had a younger brother who would let Aahil spoil him.

And Sanam . . . his Sanam now. He was sitting at the end of the table, and Sanam was sitting to his right. So close. Close enough that he could smell her scent, and he breathed deeply to take that scent deep inside of him. He wanted to take that memory of her wherever he went.

She laughed softly next to him, and he was mesmerized by the musical notes of that laughter, wanting to remember that sound forever.

Deepest down inside of him, in the most secret corner of his heart, he had made his decision from the moment he had met her again. The woman he had been intrigued by at the gala even before knowing that she was that little girl . . . without knowing the impact that she had had on his life without her even realizing . . . . her ability to care and be courageous in her pursuit, she had captured him.

He wasn’t going to let her go. He would dream, too. She made him believe that he had the right. He’d believe that his wish would come true . .. even without a falling star.

He would have a home. And she would make that home with him. He closed his eyes for a moment. He hadn’t had a place called home for such a long time . . . not since his mother had passed away. He craved that more than anything else. When he looked at Sanam, it felt as if he had come home.

But . . . they’d only had a few precious moments all alone. Why was his heart so intent on staking a claim now, rather than waiting to know her better? But he already knew the answer. His heart didn’t need to know anymore. She was his.

“I’ve read the book,” Rehan said to Mr. Khan, “Thank you for the recommendation.”

“And what books do you read, Rehan?” Sanam asked him teasingly, with a smile on her face.

He raised an eyebrow at her, a faint smile playing about his lips. “We’ve already discussed the topic, Ms. Khan,” he reminded her, “I read non-fiction. Mostly biographies and historical non-fiction.”

“What?!” he heard Zoya cry out from the other end of the table. “How can you only read non-fiction?” she demanded.

Aahil took a deep breath, glaring at Sanam for a moment, before turning to his hostess.

“I enjoy reading about reality,” he answered simply.

“But!” Zoya protested. “There’s already enough unhappiness in the world, why would you want to read about such unhappiness when you’re doing something for fun? There are so many genres to read.”

“I like knowing the world I live in. And I though reading someone’s fantasies and dreams were a total waste of time,” he answered. “But it seems,” he continued after a pause, “I think I’m changing my mind about that. There’s nothing wrong with dreaming a little bit.” His eyes were trained on Sanam as he said those words, and she blushed at the look in his eyes.

His eyes flickered when he felt her foot softly kick his under the table.

Raising an eyebrow at her, he turned back to Zoya as she began to recommend certain fiction titles for him to read.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Time for dessert!” Lateef called out, bringing out the dish. She’d come along this time, too, and had offered to help the other servants serve the food. Placing the dessert on the table, she began to happily assist Kuljeet in serving the guests. “And here’s apple pie for you,” she said grandly, placing the dish in front of Aahil.

Aahil smiled softly at the appearance of his favorite dessert and tasted the first bite. His eyes flickered, as memory of an identical dish eaten many weeks ago coming to his mind.

Sanam was staring at him, her expression slightly worried.

His mind quickly made the connection. “You cooked breakfast for us?” he asked softly, leaning his head towards her.

Sanam quietly nodded, her eyes shyly lowering to her plate.

“Why?” he asked, waiting with bated breath for her answer.

“You weren’t eating,” she said softly. “I wanted to take care of you.” She gasped softly as those words left her lips, and he could see the embarrassment coloring her cheeks.

He stared at her once more, amazed by her giving nature. They hadn’t known each other for long enough . . . but why did she feel like she was already his in every way that counted?

“It was amazing,” he whispered finally, his eyes staring at her lovingly. “Thank you.” Thank you for accepting me. Thanking you for caring. Thank you for making me partly yours. Thank you.

She nodded her head, pursing her lips for a moment before sending him a sunny smile.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Rrrrriiiinnnnnggg. Rrrrriiiinnnnnggg.

“Hello?” he asked, pulling a tie over his head and down around his neck to work on the knot. His movements were quick and sure, the end goal of meeting up with Sanam for their date the only thing on his mind.

“I’m going to have to miss our date,” Sanam said, her voice clearly sounding unhappy.

“Why?” he asked, all movement stopping abruptly at those words. He knew that she had been excited about this date. “Are you okay?” he asked, knowing that something had to be wrong.

“I’m fine,” she said, in a voice that clearly belied her words.

“Who isn’t fine?” he prompted. She wouldn’t miss a commitment, unless it was incredibly important. “Tell me what happened,” he commanded.

“One of our clients decided to go back to her abuser,” she revealed in a grim voice. “She said that he had promised to change.”

“That must happen, right?” Aahil asked, sitting down on the bed when he realized that this would be one of those conversations.

“I get that,” Sanam said in frustration. “One thing the more senior attorneys taught me while I was being trained was that abuse has its own cycles, and sometimes you’ll get repeat clients. Rationally, I know that!”

“But?” he prompted.

“But she had her child with her,” Sanam revealed. “A little girl. And when the honeymoon phase ended, and he was back to being an abuser, that little girl got hurt.”

Aahil’s fingers tightened around the phone, his mind turning back to the past and his own dark memories. He flinched at the remembered sound of that whip, his breaths coming in short gasps.

“Is something wrong?” she asked immediately, seeming to sense his distress.

“I’m fine,” he replied swiftly, controlling his breath. “Go on. You were saying?”

“I’m just so mad! She’s an adult, and her decisions are her own.” She took a deep breath, trying to step back from the situation. “If I’ve done my job and presented her with all of her options . . . If I’ve advised her . . . and she still chooses to return, that’s her choice.” Sanam began to speak once more in short, explosive bursts, her anger now coloring every word. “And I’d be here, when she decided to leave for good. But to involve a child . . . to put her child at risk . . .,” her voice trailed off in disbelief. She clenched her fists at her own impotence. “Protecting a child is the first job a parent has! And she totally failed at that today.”

“Sanam,” Aahil admonished gently, his owns fingers curled tightly over his knees as he attempted to control the trembling of his body.

“I know!” Sanam said patiently. “I’m not in her place, but all I can see is that her child has a broken arm. She has a black eye. How am I just supposed to forget that?”

“You’re not,” he said softly. “You won’t forget it. You won’t let her put that child at risk. You’ll call Child Protective Services or its equivalent here in Bhopal and get that child out of that abusive situation. You’ll do that because you care.”

“I will,” she agreed, his calm voice soothing her inner turmoil to a great degree. “But . . . now, I’m not saying this to you in order to get money,” she said with emphasis.

“I know,” he replied. “You don’t talk to me to get money out of me.”

“I don’t,” she said with a nod. “I talk to you because I need for you to listen. I need for you to help me through this.”

“I know,” he repeated, deeply touched by her words.

“But . . . only if I just had enough money! There’s never enough to help everyone. Maybe if she had had more options. Maybe if she had felt like staying at the shelter and then rebuilding her life was achievable. And when I call the agency, will they be able to take care of her daughter? Do they even have the resources? What kind of life would I be turning her over to?” Sanam was clearly frustrated by her limited options.

“What kind of life is that child living now?” Aahil asked bleakly. “To wake up every morning . . . every hour of the day spent . . . just wondering if dad will be in a good mood. Will he be angry? But what kind of question is that? He’s always angry.” His speech became more rapid. “Will he be a little bit angry and just yell at you? Or a lot and hit you? If you do this, will dad be mad? If you do that, will dad be mad? Is it okay to eat your fill? Is it okay to sleep? Is it okay to . . . ” He stopped talking, unable to go any further. Sweat had broken out over his skin. A deep chill was welling up inside of him, causing him to shudder.

“Rehan?” Sanam asked softly, “What’s wrong?” Her heart began to beat rapidly. Rehan had hidden this from her, as well. Otherwise, how could he know?

“It’s nothing,” he said hoarsely, after a long pause.

“Rehan!” she protested.

“It’s nothing,” he said through gritted teeth. “You were saying something about funding?”

“Oh, yeah,” she said blankly, trying to gather her thoughts. She had counseled patience for Seher, and it seemed that it was her turn to be patient. He would tell her someday. “I was saying that if we just had more funds and locations we could do so much. If we had more resources to help people get back on their feet after they have to upend everything to escape. If . . . if . . . if,” she said almost sarcastically. “I know I’m sounding like a broken record.”

“You will have enough funds to do all of that,” Aahil promised.

“But we don’t!” Sanam protested. “Stop comforting me with empty promises.”

“You will,” Aahil repeated.

“What do you mean?” she asked irritably.

“Ibrahim Corporation is going to make a substantial donation to LSB. I want you in charge of that money,” he revealed, deciding now was a good a time as any to make her aware of his plans.

“What?” she fell down in her chair, the strength going out of her knees. Staring out the windows of the hospital room, she mulled over what he had said.

“You know what this population needs,” he said calmly, his calm tone making his words all the more believable. “I want you to use that money to create those resources and those additional shelters and something for the children stuck in all of this.”

“You trust me that much?” she breathed out, her lips trembling.

“I’d trust you with my life,” he responded.

She was silent, biting her lip. Happiness was growing inside of her, and she didn’t know what to say next. “Thank you,” she forced out.

“I’m not doing this fo–” he began.

“For gratitude,” Sanam finished for him. “I know. But I’m going to say it anyways. I promise to put that money to good use.”

“I know you will.”

She cleared her throat at the utmost trust in that voice. “But we will have to plan another date soon. You don’t get off that easily, Mr. Rehan Imran Qureshi,” she teased, switching gears because she knew the two of them needed this moment of levity.

“You’re as bad at planning dates as I am,” he pointed out. “Whose brilliant idea was it to go on a double date with your parents on our second date?”

“My dad!” she snapped at him. “And there was nothing I could do to persuade him. My mom couldn’t do anything either! Not even when she threatened to cook every day of the week. He thought it was our first date and wanted to run interference.”

“And the restaurant being closed due to Food and Health violations on our third date or the movie being sold out on our fourth date?” he asked teasingly.

“Hmph. Everyone has a streak of bad luck sometimes. I’ll look to my romance books for some inspiration. Believe me. You’ll be dazzled.”

“I’m kind of worried about that, since you seem to be channeling your mother in this regard.” He’d heard some funny tales about Mrs. Zoya and her planning disasters.

Sanam gasped in affront. “Don’t let Ammi hear you say that! She’s very sensitive about things like this.”

“I’m sure it’ll be quite fun,” he said softly, pulling off the tie and returning to his closet to hang it up. “I look forward to it.”

“You don’t even know what I have planned,” she protested.

“I’ll be with you,” he said, suddenly serious. “That’s all that matters, isn’t it?”

~*~*~*~*~*~

D – 10 . . . .

Aahil and Sanam sat on the grass, staring up at the night sky, after yet another dinner at the Khan Mansion. Just as last time, the parents were now inside drinking tea by the pool, and Dilshad Begum had gone up to bed.

Dinners with the family had become a weekly ritual. And neither Aahil nor Rehan really minded. It was as if they were finally part of a family. Even Mr. Asad Ahmed Khan was coming to accept them. Aahil blinked once more in disbelief. He had even asked the two of them to call him Uncle today rather than Mr. Khan.

Sanam sighed softly, staring up at the stars. Her eyes were mesmerized by the twinkling lights above.

Aahil was now staring at her, his eyes mesmerized by the beauty in front of him. He wanted to touch her, and moments later he saw that his hand was inches away from that skin. Her warmth . . . her proximity was having an unintended effect on his body. Moving over to put some distance between them two of them, he lay on the grass. He hoped the grass would help him to cool down. It wouldn’t do to make any rash moves at this time.

She glanced at him, and then looked around. Apparently deciding something, she nodded her head. Sidling over, she laid down beside him, settling her head on his shoulder.

He stiffened at that contact. He readied himself to get up, but it was her hold on his arm, and her arm wrapping around his waist that stopped him. He was frozen in place from just a touch. He could’ve easily broken that hold, but he didn’t want to. He wanted to stay here and stare at the stars just for a little while.

“Look! A falling star!” Sanam cried out, pointing up at the sky.

Aahil followed the direction of her finger, and his eyes widened to realize that he was seeing an actual falling star.

“Make a wish!” she urged excitedly, closing her eyes.

Aahil stared at her for a moment, and then closed his eyes to make his only wish. “Please make Sanam my destiny. Don’t take her away from me.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“I’m so happy that Seher and the Nawab have worked things out,” Sanam said from her position on his shoulder.

“What do you mean?” he asked curiously, his arm now wrapped around her shoulders, holding her body close to his. The two lay entwined on the grass, with nary a care of the world outside of themselves.

“No, it’s just that, Seher was unhappy because she felt as if he might be keeping secrets from her,” Sanam revealed. Normally, she would kill herself before sharing her sister’s secrets, but she wanted to use the topic as a way of discussing his secrets. It was obvious that he was keeping something from her. She was in love with him. She had admitted that to herself days ago, but that didn’t mean she had turned her brain off. She wanted to know everything about him.

He stiffened beside her. “Secrets?”

She nodded.

“Whatever they are,” he said after a small pause, “I’m sure he has a good reason. Would you forgive someone for keeping secrets from you?”

Sanam thought about it for a moment.

“What if they had a good reason?” he prompted, hoping that he would get the answer he needed to hear.

“Honesty is very important to me,” she finally uttered.

Aahil sat up, pulling away from her warmth. His shoulders slumped as he realized that his wishing was for nothing. He wouldn’t get what he wanted . . . no needed now. He needed her and the warmth she brought into his life like he needed air.

“But,” Sanam continued, getting up and putting a hand on his shoulder. “I’m not unbending. I’d like to hear the reasons.” Her thoughts wandered to what she had learned from Seher, and what she had begun to guess after their conversations.

She had realized that it was easier for him to talk to her when they weren’t face to face, since he was a lot more open in those conversations. Maybe because it was because couldn’t see her eyes and guess at her emotions, despite the words she was saying? “I’m here. And I will wait patiently,” she whispered. “Just like any woman would. She’ll always hope that her man would one day share all his secrets with her.”

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder once more, holding her close.

“Secrets . . . omissions are fine. I can understand those. But lies, I don’t know why some people lie,” she said, inhaling deeply. “Why would a person lie to someone they loved?”

Aahil bit his lip and trained his eyes on the stars above. “Because the darkness behind the truth is so deep that they become afraid that it will put everything, including the love they feel now, in complete shadows.”

“Where there is love . … there will always be light,” she said softly. Turning her head, she glanced up at him. “Is there . .. love?” She asked hesitantly.

He pulled her closer still, causing her to squeal in surprise. Laughing, she snuggled closer. She looked up at him for a moment, and then gave in to her urges and leaned in to place a soft kiss against the base of his throat.

He looked down at her, heavy-lidded, the impression of her lips a brand against his skin. “You’ve done that to me before,” he pointed out.

“When?” Sanam asked, blinking up at him in confusion.

“When we met at the gala,” he reminded her. “You even helped me to clean up the brand your lipstick had left on my skin.”

She blushed a fiery red, her memory returning of their first meeting.

“The next time you kiss me,” he murmured, placing a kiss at her temple, “I’d like you to travel a bit in the northern direction.”

Sanam smiled at him, and looked away. While she was happy that he felt free enough to joke with her, she couldn’t ignore the fact that he hadn’t answered her question.

Would he ever feel confident enough to do so?

~*~*~*~*~*~

Rrrrriiiinnnnnggg.

“Come to the window.”

Sanam got up immediately and moved over to the window. She saw the moon in the sky, a big globe that seemed to be shining a light on everything in the vicinity . .. especially the man in white standing down below.

Rehan Imran Qureshi stood in the garden below, cool as a cucumber. He smiled up at her, from his position beneath one of the lampposts kept alight all night in the garden.

“What are you doing?” Sanam asked, gaping in shock. “It’s beginning to rain, Rehan! You’ll get sick. Go home.”

“As I was lying down in bed, ready to sleep, I realized that I had forgotten something,” he said softly, gazing into her eyes across the distance separating them.

“If Abu catches you, he’s going to be angry,” Sanam said frantically. “Rehan, whatever it is, we’ll deal with it later.”

“I need to say something,” he uttered.

“We’ll talk later, Rehan! What could be so important?” Sanam protested.

“I’ve gotten the courage to talk about this now,” he revealed. “Do you really want to take this moment away? I don’t think I’ll have the courage again for the longest time if you stop me now.”

“What do you mean?” Sanam asked, her heartbeat thundering in her chest. Her fingers tightened around the phone, the digits turning white from the strain.

“You asked me if there was love,” he reminded her, beginning to pace to and fro below her window. “What about you? Is there love in your heart? For . . . me?”

“I asked you first,” she said obstinately.

“You might have asked first, but that means you wanted the answer. So, first you speak. And then I’ll tell you,” he bargained with her.

“No . . . you,” Sanam insisted. “If I asked you first, then you have to answer first. That’s how things work, Mr. Rehan Imran Qureshi.”

He flinched at that name, having forgotten for a moment all the secrets he was still keeping from her. What good was one truth, when you were hiding a wealth of secrets? Would it be fair when those omissions were taking away her choice?

“Answer me,” she insisted, a pout growing on her lips. She pressed a hand to the cool glass in front of her, staring down at him through the window that was covered with raindrops. Even then, she could see him so clearly, and the expression on his face made her worry. She spoke quickly. “You know it’s the same for both of us. Why are you afraid?”

He took a deep breath, and promised himself that he would never make her unhappy. She might not have all the facts, but she would never be unhappy with the man he had become. “There is love,” he softly admitted. “So much love that it scares me. Do I have this right?” he asked her. “Will you still love me if you find out everything about me. Will you forgive me for my secrets?”

“Yes,” she uttered, without hesitation. Unequivocally.

“Why?” he burst out. He moved closer to the house, as if wanting to reach out and touch her. “Why do you trust me so much? What reason have I given you? There is so much you don’t know about me, ” he reminded her almost angrily. Why was she so intent on endangering herself like this? But . . . she wasn’t in danger. He would protect her with every bit of his strength.

“I don’t need a reason,” she firmly asserted. “I have faith. And I have faith because I love you, too. There is love on my end,” she whispered. “You’re in my heart. You’re all I see now. I will accept everything about you. As long as you’re in my life, whatever comes my way mujhe qubool hai.”

He exhaled heavily, as if he had been holding his breath until she had given him her answer. He smiled up at her, holding up a hand to do a silly wave at her.

She laughed softly and waved back at him.

“Good night, meri Jaan.”

“Good night.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

D – Day . . . .

Sanam sat at her desk, reading up on some cases. She laughed softly, her mind going back to last night and his precious words. She paused once more, remembering how soft his voice had sounded when he made his confession. “Sanam! Stop it,” she scolded herself, pulling her attention back to the files.

She jumped when the door opened, slamming against the wall behind it. A whirlwind came bursting through the door and landed on her bed.

“What the . . . ?” she turned around and stared at her bed. “Seher? What’s wrong?” she ran over to the bed and sat down beside her sister.

Seher continued to cry, unwilling or unable to say anything.

“Seher, tell me what’s wrong? Has something happened? Is someone hurt?” Sanam burst out with the questions, but there was only silence. “Seher, tell me what’s wrong!” Sanam shouted at her twin, incensed beyond belief. It hurt to see her twin like this, and to not even know what was wrong made everything even worse.

Seher sat up, her face red. Sanam saw that while Seher had been crying, they were angry tears. “I am so furious,” she shrieked, her fingers curling around Sanam’s pillow.

“Tell. Me. What. Happened,” Sanam through gritted teeth, spacing out the words so that Seher would actually hear the words.

“Dad said not to go to their house,” Seher responded.

“Who’s house?” Sanam asked, a sick feeling growing inside of her.

“Who’s do you think, Sanam?” Seher asked. “Our neighbors. Dad ordered me to stay away from them,” Seher said, her tone incredulous. She was furious about this.

“But why?” Sanam asked. “Why should we stay away?”

“There are rumors flying around.”

“Why would Abu listen to rumors?” Sanam asked softly. “I’m sure he was just joking.” She hoped that was the truth, because otherwise . . .

“No. He investigated. He got this from a trusted source.”

“Got what from a trusted source?” Sanam snapped, a sick feeling growing inside of her.

Seher took a deep breath. “Part of the reason he was gone all of this time from Bhopal was because he was in jail. Sanam, Nawab Aahil Raza Ibrahim was convicted of murdering someone.”

~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 8: No Light
~*~*~*~*~*~

You are the hole in my head . . .
You are the space in my bed . . .
You are the silence in between . . .
What I thought and what I said.

Gasping softly, she fell against the wall, her arms spreading out to steady her suddenly clumsy body. She knew if she didn’t, she’d be falling at his feet next.

He followed her closely, keeping only inches between their bodies. It was as if he was a lion, stalking his prey.

She shivered slightly, feeling hunted. Looking up into his eyes, she had to admit that she weirdly enjoyed the sensation. Was this a new kinky side of her?

His hand came out to rest over her head, palm flat against the wall, the action pulling her back from her thoughts and bringing her attention back to where he thought it belonged.

He was so close . . . that she could reach out and kiss his tempting lips. And the thought came into her mind . . . she hadn’t had the chance to touch those lips yet. Her heart began to pound rapidly at the thought of touching him so intimately. She breathed in deeply to calm herself, but he was crowding her even more with his proximity.

He stepped even closer, settling his body flush against hers . . . his lower half coming to rest in the V her legs formed.

She gasped at the sensations aroused deep within her. Her eyes moved compulsively over his features. She was mesmerized by the manly beauty in front of her. She admitted it. She had been captivated from the first moment she had touched him. Before seeing him . . . his scent . .. his warmth . . . his hold had left its mark on her. But now he had an indelible hold of her heart. And nothing would remove him from there.

He reached out with a finger and gently caressed her lips. He tilted her chin up, so that her lips moved dangerously closer to his. He leaned in, decreasing the distance by heart-pounding proportions.

She blinked up at him, so tempted to close that distance between the two of them so she could taste him. “Why won’t you admit it?” she demanded in exasperation. “Stop hiding it!”

He pulled back, the mood broken. Grimacing at her stubbornness, he stated in exasperation, “Okay! I’m Aahil. Happy?”

Sanam eyes burst open, her mind disconcerted by that dream. What was that? Why was she dreaming such a thing again? How could she dream of another man’s name when it was Rehan who had so completely taken over her every waking thought?

What is wrong with you?’ she silently scolded herself. Running a distracted hand through her hair, she tugged at the ends of it, hoping that the sensation would awaken her mind. It didn’t work. The dream still lingered. Shaking loose the final dregs of sleep, if not the effects of the dream, she blinked at the clock. It was mere minutes before her alarm would have gone off. Time for morning prayers. Rubbing at her swollen eyes, she carefully got up off the bed and turned the alarm off.

She yawned, stretching her arms above her body and moving towards the bathroom. Staring at her reflection in the mirror, she frowned at the marks yesterday’s events had left on her face. Last night’s conversation with Seher played on in her mind like a broken record.

“Isn’t it enough that we know him? He’s a good man, Sanam. Why should we ask third parties when we can ask Aahil directly?” Seher demanded angrily. “I’m sure it’s a misunderstanding. What gets me is that dad didn’t ask him anything before making his decision. How can he be so . . . ?” she stopped, unable to find the words to express her disappointment in their father.

“But what if it’s not a mistake?”Sanam asked, a sinking feeling growing inside of her. “What if he was in jail? What if he did kill someone? What if Abu is right to say what he is saying?”

“There has to be a reason!” Seher insisted stubbornly.

“Knowing what we know about what happened when we were young,” Sanam said with difficulty, “Because of which the concept of violence is so abhorrent to our entire family, how can you just say that?” Sanam asked. “You have to understand Abu’s side of things. He . . .”

“Don’t you get it?” Seher bit out stiffly. “It doesn’t matter to me. Unless he tells me that he did kill someone, those rumors do not matter.” She paused for a moment, her rapid breaths the only sound in the room. “And maybe not even then,” she admitted shakily.

Frowning again, Sanam began to perform her ablutions. She didn’t want her sister to repudiate her love, but she did want Seher to think about this with a cooler head. Sanam silently admitted to herself that if this had been Rehan they were talking about, she might have reacted in the exact same way. Love had changed her view on a lot of things.

She sighed deeply, beginning to wrap a dupatta over her head. She knew that whatever happened next, it would be an uphill battle for Seher. But Seher wouldn’t be alone. Sanam would be there to support her sister.

Allah miyah, please bestow your mercy upon us,” she silently prayed.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

You are the night time fear
You are the morning when it’s clear
When it’s over, you’re the start
You’re my head, you’re my heart

As Salam Alaikum wa. . .” Head turned to the right shoulder. “As Salam Alaikum wa. . .” And to the left.

Aahil’s hands shook slightly as he raised them before him. “This is the first time I’m praying to You after years of silence . . .,” he finally began. He cleared his throat. “And I am praying with hope in my heart.” His eyes moved to the window, staring unseeing out the window. The sun hadn’t come out yet . . . wouldn’t come out for awhile. All was dark, except for the small light that had been lit near his prayer mat. And in that near darkness, he sat, his hands raised in dua. Just him and his Khuda.

A part of him wondered cynically at himself, wondering what he would achieve. That same part of him ached when he remembered the years he had spent in Bhopal as a child, and the loneliness he’d suffered in America. That part of him balked at this dua.

But there was another part of him. It was that part of him that felt joy, his mind remembering the conversation he had had with Sanam days ago. It was that same part of him that had moved him to ask Rehan about praying, his memory hazy about the actual steps. And it was that same part of him that hoped his prayers would be heard by the Almighty above today because he finally had something he wanted to protect.

“I have always wondered what was the use of talking to a God who had abandoned me to the life that I had to live?” he said, his eyes now raised to the heavens above. “I always felt that I had nothing to be thankful for. But it is only now, I have realized so many things. I see that you gave me Suleiman Chacha in my darkest hours. You gave me Lateef as a friend when I thought I had no playmates. You gave me my sisters . . . a reason to continue living. You gave me Rehan . . . a brother to call my own.”

He smiled slowly. “And now . . . you have given me Sanam.” He dropped his head, unable to go on. His heart swelled with joy, washing away the wounds of the past. Her laughter and loving words drowned out his own cries of pain.

“I bow my head in supplication to You, Allah miyah. I have heard that making dua . . . asking from You . . . is an important part of performing prayers. So I ask you today . . . for the woman who has entered my life. Please give her to me. Allow me to cherish her for the rest of my days.”

His voice shook slightly, and he stopped. He took a deep breath, hoping that it would calm the furious beat of his heart.

“Let me live a life of peace. Let me live my life with her. Let nothing from my past come to stand in our way. If you do . . . if you do, I will be a good man. I will do only good. I will share the wealth that I have been blessed with those who are vulnerable and those who are weak.” He twisted his mouth at that word, a little of his cynicism bleeding through. “I will forget the past and I will forget the pain that I have suffered. I will start anew.”

He buried his face in his trembling hands. The need inside of him to attain her was so strong that it gnawed at him, making a beggar out of the man who was the Nawab of Bhopal. And he wasn’t one bit sorry for it. She was a priceless treasure. Why wouldn’t he give everything up to gain that treasure?

“Please make her my destiny. After You, I only want to be hers. Amin. . .”

He needed her to be the light in his life. Without her . . . all would be lost.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

No light, no light in your bright blue eyes
I never knew daylight could be so violent
A revelation in the light of day
You can’t choose what stays and what fades away

Sanam stared down at her paperwork, the print blurring before her eyes. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t get her mind to focus. Sighing heavily, she put the file away. It was a good thing that she had no trials to prepare for and no pending work. She got up, planning to go outside.

It had been two days since Seher burst into her room with the news. There had been a tense atmosphere at home. Her father had been adamant that what he had heard was true. The Nawab had been in jail, and Asad Ahmed Khan did not want his precious daughters near an ex-convict or anyone who had anything to do with that ex-convict. That included Rehan, who was best friends with the Nawab.

Sanam had never gone against her father in the past, but this blanket prohibition even made her angry. All the women of the household had argued vociferously, pointing out that they knew these men. They urged her father to ask before making any judgments.

Sanam had tried calling Rehan, but there had been no answer. Nothing. And it seemed that the possibility of the Nawab’s innocence was decreasing day by day. Her mind turned back to the newspapers headlines that had appeared like a slap to her face this morning.

The Nawab of Bhopal . . . Tall, Dark and Deadly!

Aahil Raza Ibrahim’s Scandalous Past

The headlines this morning had been numerous and hurtful. It seemed that Abu had only heard days ahead of the news spreading through all of Bhopal’s society. Sanam wiped a hand across her eyes, wondering how she could help Seher deal with this. Wondering how all of them would deal with this.

According to the newspapers, which had been full of the salacious details, the Nawab had been in an American jail for five years. Sanam’s mouth twisted, the turmoil inside of her coming to the surface despite all attempts to control it. He had been convicted of murder.

And the worst thing of all? Sanam flinched at remembering that final headline. It was that headline that had caused Seher to leave them at breakfast and lock herself in her room.

The Nawab of Bhopal . . . the Nawab Killer

Aahil Raza Ibrahim, if the newspapers were to believed, had been found guilty of murdering his own father.

Sanam shuddered slightly as she remembering that bit of news. How could people sink that low? It couldn’t be true, and yet the newspapers were blasting that news on repeat as a fact.

Forcing herself to turn off her thoughts, she marched outside. Her eyes moved over the area. She was at one of LSB’s satellite offices, far away from her own office and home. This office was near one of the shelters, and was used as a last minute staging area before DV victims were moved to the shelter for their stay. The office was in an isolated area, their building the only one in the area for miles around. She was here with one other LSB co-worker, Malik, to take care of some administrative and housekeeping tasks. Part of those tasks were cleaning up the area, watering the grass, and throwing the trash away. Due to the need of keeping this office location confidential, outside cleaning staff would not be hired. Therefore, it fell to trusted office staff to take care of such tasks.

It was nearing the end of the day, and almost all of the work was done. She’d already sorted through the mail, helped her coworker with the grass and cleaning up. She’d inventoried the equipment and did some of her own work. Even knowing this, she was out here trying to look for work because she really, really needed something to keep her mind busy.

With determined steps, she strode to the side of the building. Her steps slowed and then stopped completely when she saw him helping to unload a van along with Malik.

Rehan Imran Qureshi.

She shivered slightly when she saw his beloved figure standing there. It was a hot summer day, but his mere presence caused chills to run down her spine.

He wasn’t as impeccably dressed as usual, wearing only a simple black T-shirt and jeans. A five o’clock shadow covered his jaw, making him seem sexily unkempt. His eyes were covered by those sunglasses that he always seemed to have with him.

She couldn’t read his eyes . . . not even when he was clearly looking her way. But she read his body language. He wasn’t happy to see her here. She could see it in the small frown tugging at his lips. She could see it in the way his arms fell to his sides. She could see it and it made her heart ache. He clearly hadn’t expect to see her here. And why would he have? She certainly hadn’t.

Malik nodded at her cheerfully before going towards the front of the building.

Sanam stared at Rehan in confusion. What was he doing here? They didn’t even trust cleaning staff to this site, but someone had clearly told Rehan where to come with the donations. She smiled tremulously. Up until now he had been making the donations for the shelters at one of the main LSB offices, where they interviewed the individuals and families before bringing them here for some last minute paperwork. It was those children’s hearts that Rehan had stolen on his previous visits. The fact that he now knew of this location spoke of how much the LSB staff had come to trust him.

She began to move towards him, ready to confront him. To ask him where he had been. To ask him why he hadn’t answered her calls. To just . . . talk to him and hear his voice. Her breath came out in an almost sob. She had missed him so much!

“Where is she?! Where are my kids?” an angry male voice suddenly shouted from the other side of the building.

Sanam froze, her eyes going towards the source of the yelling. Malik was there. She looked around, but there was no help. There was no one else on site. Sanam’s eyes flitted over to Rehan, but he wasn’t even looking at her. She turned away, intent on handling this situation on her own.

Sanam raced around the building, her eyes taking in a big bear of a man towering over Malik. His hands were on Malik’s collar, and he was shaking her co-worker back and forth with each spoken word. “Tell me where they are! They are my family. Where is she?”

“Sir,” Malik said, trying to placate the obviously angry man, “I don’t know who you are talking about. We are only a small business. Look,” he said, pointing to the items that had fallen at his feet. “We sell blankets and sheets.”

“You think I don’t know?” the man roared, swinging back one hand, which had already formed into a fist.

Sanam knew that he was going to start hitting Malik. She had to do something. Clenching her hands into fists, she took a deep breath for courage and moved forward. She hoped that her presence would be enough of a distraction, giving Malik precious time to call the police.

“Stop!” she yelled, throwing herself in front of Malik. She shoved the man away, putting some distance between the two of them. “Just what do you think you’re doing? We don’t know what you’re ranting about!”

The man’s face darkened in fury at seeing her standing there, and he swung forward with his fist, unfazed by the fact that he would be hitting her instead.

She raised her hands, ready to protect herself. She had taken self-defense classes. It was another thing that she had never had to use her self-defense skills in a situation like this, but her body was ready. She was ready to defend herself.

There was a grunt and the sound of flesh meeting flesh. She blinked. A strong whoosh of air, and someone lightly brushing by her. It all happened so quickly that she wasn’t sure what had happened. She blinked again. She then heard cries of pain and other assorted thuds from the side. Turning her face, she saw that brute now pinned against the wall.

And Rehan stood there, his hands around the man’s throat. “How dare you try to hit my Sanam?!” He pulled a hand back and began to punch him, his anger white hot. He knew nothing except for the fact that this man had thought to lay violent hands on her. The fire burned inside him . . . he didn’t even notice when the man became limp in his hold. Nothing was getting through the haze of anger except for the need to punish this man.

“Rehan! Rehan! What are you doing? Stop!” Sanam cried, pulling at his arm urgently. She couldn’t bear to see him like this. So crazed . . . so violent. “I’m okay! He didn’t touch me. I’m okay. Please! Let him go,” she urged.

He turned to her, his eyes dazed. Sweat ran down his face. Slowly the anger cleared away so that he could hear that man’s moans. He could see the worry and fear in Sanam’s face.

“What are you doing?” she asked softly, holding his face between her hands. When he tried to turn his face away, she brought it back towards her, making sure that his eyes would only focus on her. “Let him go.”

His hands slowly uncurled, letting the other man fall away.

“Malik, please call the police. They can take care of him,” Sanam ordered. Grabbing hold of Rehan’s hand, she tugged him away from the scene and the man groaning on the floor.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“How can you not have any security here?” he burst out angrily, making her jump. “How can you endanger yourselves like this by being so irresponsible? This is an isolated place with nothing nearby. You two are the only staff on site today!”

Those were the first words he had spoken in the past half hour. The two were sitting in the office, the only light coming in from a single window. The open window had allowed them to hear the police come and go off with the man. LSB’s contacts in the police force had ensured their speedy arrival and hassle-free arrest.

She sighed deeply and then went back to the task of cleaning the scrapes on his knuckles. “This was the first time something like this happened, Rehan,” she softly explained. “People usually don’t know about this location. I’m surprised that someone told you about it.” Her words hinted at a desire to know.

“And so, now what?” he demanded, ignoring her final words. “Trash like him will continue to come here and harass and physically threaten the staff? You don’t think the word will get out? He’ll open his mouth and someone like him will come here every day!”

“No,” Sanam said, looking at him admonishingly before turning to the task of putting bandages on his knuckles. “We’re going to close this location. End our lease. And find somewhere else.”

“It’s that easy?” he asked angrily, aghast at her naiveté.

“It’s not that easy,” she said as she began to pack up the first aid kit. “It’s something that has to be done. Why complain about it? Having people like him come here . . . and maybe one day show up at the shelters, that is not something our staff is willing to risk.”

“So?” he asked.

“We have contingencies in place, Rehan. DV survivors already suffer from having everything taken away from them. Their sense of safety. Their ability to trust others or to even trust their own judgment. They lose their homes. They lose the lives they know. They face this, and, more often than not, they blame themselves and are blamed by some in our society for not bearing with it,” she said solemnly. “They are made to feel as if it is them that did something wrong. And having trash like him show up at the shelters and endanger their safety and the first sense of security they may have felt in some time? It’s not going to happen,” she said with determination. “Like I said. We’ll take care of it.”

Aahil stared at her, captivated by the passion he could see burning inside of her. This woman cared deeply about her clients . . . she cared deeply about their families.

He turned his eyes away, his mind going obsessively back to the newspapers he had seen this morning. He should have expected something like this. Why had he let his guard down? Why had he begun to hope? She must have seen them. She must know . . . not everything . . . but enough. It was enough to make him realize that she would never be his.

He turned his eyes back to her, unable to be in the same room as her and not look at her. He gazed into her eyes, taking the time to soak up this moment. While it hurt to know that her passion . . . her love could never be his, he would have this picture of her in his mind and heart to cherish.

She cleared her throat, feeling the change in the atmosphere. His eyes were telling her something, but she couldn’t read them. All she knew was that he was hiding something from her. “What was that?” she finally asked softly, seeing him stiffen in front of her.

“What was what?” he asked brusquely, getting up and moving towards the open window suddenly needing that air to breathe.

“The violence,” she whispered, getting up to stand next to him. She stared at his face, noticing how his jaw tightened at her words. “You just beat up a man so horribly that he passed out, but you didn’t stop. When you let him go, he fell to your feet. What was that?”

“He was about to hurt you,” he said through gritted teeth, surprised that she couldn’t understand that basic fact.

“But . . . violence like that is not okay,” she said firmly. “It is not the answer. You didn’t have to–”

“I did,” he interrupted her. “Some people only understand that. Did you want me to just stand there and allow him to beat the answer out of you? Did you want him to go after his wife and child and hurt them again?”

She stared at him, surprised by the anger she could hear in this voice. She’d never thought that Rehan would be so defensive. “The rumors . . . about Aahil,” she began delicately, feeling her way around this topic. “Is it because of that? Because of what he might have done? Is that why you’re being so defensive? Rehan, why can’t you understand? Violence is not the answer! At least not like that! You could’ve just incapacitated him, but you . . .”

“Sometimes it is the only answer!” he shot back.

“Is any of it true?” she asked with difficulty, staring down at the clenched hands that gripped the windowsill. “Rehan, you can’t think this way. If what they’re saying is the truth . . . if it is . . .” Her voice trailed off, unable to go any further.

“Then what?” he said through gritted teeth. “Are you asking me if Aahil Raza Ibrahim did kill someone?” He grabbed her by the shoulders, his hold unknowingly tight on those fragile bones. “If he did, then what?”

“It’s not just someone. It’s not just anyone,” she said softly, her hands coming up to grip his wrists. “He might have killed his father,” she said, tears beginning to fall from her eyes. “Murder in any way or shape is a sin. Why am I having to explain this to you?”

“Even if he did kill his father. There has to be a reason. Why aren’t you trying to understand?” he asked desperately. “Do you have any idea what it is to be weak . . . vulnerable? To be afraid and backed into a corner? Where you must act to protect yourself and others. Sanam, you have to see this. Sometimes you don’t have any other option.”

She pulled away, moving across the office to put some distance between them. She reached up, pulling at her hair, unable to think of any way to make this beloved man understand the most basic of things.

“I wish that we could all live in a world where people didn’t have to make these hard choices,” he said from behind her, his voice as broken as crushed glass. “I wish we all lived in a world where parents loved their kids . . . husbands loved their wives.” He stopped and she could hear him swallow, and then clearing his throat. “I wish that we all lived in a world where violence wasn’t necessary, but we don’t. There are a lot of wishes that we make that don’t come true. Sometimes people have to make those hard choices.” He paused and was silent. “It isn’t fair for someone like you . . . living in your ivory tower . . . to judge others.”

She turned around, astonished by those words, but he was gone. He’d left. She stared after him, her heart incredibly hurt by those words. He didn’t really think that, did he?

“Rehan!” she called out after him. There was no answer. He was gone.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Through the crowd, I was crying out
And in your place there were a thousand other faces
I was disappearing in plain sight
Heaven help me, I need to make it right

Sanam moved towards her car, her steps dejected. Her mind was still running through the words that he had thrown at her before leaving. They ate at her, but there was nothing she could do. He had gone before she could defend herself. She had worked through the next hour, and now she was going home. She cringed at the idea that she would be thinking about him and his bitterness all night.

Slipping into the car, she shut the door slowly behind her. She waved goodbye to Malik, watching him ride off on his motorcycle. And then jumped at the sound of thunder.

“It’s raining,” she noted with a sigh, staring at the rain as it began to pour down from a gray sky. This sudden storm . . . and the long drive home. It had been such a long day, and then Rehan coming . . . What must he think of her? Her face twisted with emotions, but she took a deep breath, forcing herself to control herself. She needed to drive home.

She turned the key, but nothing happened. Her eyes narrowed in worry. Turning the key once more, she tried again. But besides a couple of clicks, there was nothing. The car wouldn’t start.

“Seriously?!” she cried out, banging her head against the steering wheel. She winced as her head accidentally honked the horn. “Dam* car,” she muttered to herself. “I knew I should’ve gotten you checked the last time you stopped on me. But Abu said that he’d fixed you! What do I do?” she muttered to herself.

Pulling out her phone, she thought about who to call. She froze as a sudden thought came to mind. What if that man came back? She knew it wasn’t a rational thought . . . she knew that he had been arrested. It would be impossible for him to be here, but she was all alone. There was no one else. What if . . . not him . . . but what if someone else showed up?

Knock. Knock. Knock.

Allah miyah!” Sanam shrieked, reaching for the pepper spray in her purse. Her hands were trembling, but she had the spray in hand and was aiming it at the dark figure standing by her window.

“Unbelievable. What is wrong with you?”

She heard the man muttering as she rolled down the window, her pepper spray still aimed at his face. “I have pepper spray, and I’m not afraid to use it,” she threatened. “Don’t even think about breaking my window to grab me.” Her eyes widened when she saw who it was. “What are you doing here?” she growled, her heart still beating furiously. “You scared the daylights out of me!”

He sighed heavily. “You wouldn’t understand,” he said morosely, ignoring the fact that the rain was now falling heavily on him.

“My car won’t start,” she said, pointing out the obvious.

He nodded, seemingly in deep thought for a moment. ” You won’t get a tow truck all the way out here at this time. Let’s go,” he suddenly ordered.

“Where?” she asked, wrinkling her brow in confusion.

“Home,” he said dryly. “Unless you wanted to go clubbing instead?”

She shook her head at his sarcasm, making a face at him. Grabbing her purse, she stepped out, landing against his wet body when he didn’t step back in time. She stared up at him, the rain falling on her face and making it hard to see. He was wet . . . the rain having soaked through even his T-shirt. Wet tendrils of hair fell across his eyes, and she wanted to reach up and brush them away. She clenched her fingers into fists instead. The T-shirt was plastered to his chest . . . delineating his abs. Her fingers burned, but no. Control. She needed to control herself.

He slowly brought up his hands, placing them above her head as an umbrella. She blinked up at him, his hands protecting her from the raindrops. She smiled at him slowly, beginning to lean in. Maybe it was the right moment to touch.

“Let’s go,” he repeated, stepping back. “Lock up your car. You can come back and get it later.”

She nodded her head at him and locked the car, smiling inwardly when she saw that he’d placed his jacket over their heads to shield her from the rain. It was another thing that she was already soaking wet. It was the thought that counted. They raced over to his car and quickly got inside. She began to shiver lightly.

Glancing over, he quickly turned on the car and then the heater. Turning the vents towards her, he reached back and grabbed a blanket and carefully placed it around her.

“Thank you,” she said through chattering teeth. “I don’t know why I’m feeling so cold,” she muttered apologetically. “It’s not even that cold.”

There was no answer from his side of the car. He started the car and began to drive.

She looked at him out of the corner of her eye, and noticed that his features were still so grim. He was still angry. But . . . he had walked off more than an hour ago. The fact that he was still here . . . “You stayed,” she noted softly, her heart so moved by his actions. “You stayed so that you could make sure I got home safely.”

But he didn’t respond. There was only silence between the two as they got closer to her home. She began to panic, wondering what would happen when they arrived. He wasn’t talking. There had been some sort of disconnect since they’d begun speaking this morning. Or even last night . . . Or since the rumors spread. He hadn’t spoken to her at all since the rumors began. Not on the phone. Not face to face. There had been no communication. She still didn’t know the truth about any of this. He didn’t trust her, and that didn’t make her feel good at all. She was abruptly pulled from her thoughts by the sudden braking of the vehicle.

“Sh**,” he muttered, glaring in front of him.

Sanam turned her head, following his gaze and saw the flooded street 10 meters down the road.

“Should we just drive through it?” he mused aloud. “I’m sure it’ll be fine.”

“No!” Sanam protested, reaching out to clutch at his hand on the steering wheel. “I’ve heard you’re never supposed to cross water where you can’t see the bottom. You have no idea how deep it is.”

“Fine,” he said through gritted teeth and reversed the car and began to drive in another direction. The rain fell hard. The sky darkened into full night. They encountered other flooded streets on other possible routes. Before long the multiple detours they had taken got him hopelessly lost. He stopped suddenly on a broken road in what seemed the middle of the forest.

She looked around, her brow wrinkled. “What’s wrong?” she asked.

“I’m . . . lost,” he admitted reluctantly.

Her eyes widened in surprise.

“Don’t look so surprised,” he ordered sulkily. “It’s just that I haven’t been back for long and haven’t had the chance to familiarize myself with the area,” he admitted with difficulty.

“Go that way,” she instructed, trying to hold back her smile.

He grunted in acknowledgement and started the car up. When he put it into drive, nothing happened. He tried once more. Nothing. The car wasn’t moving. Sighing heavily, with one dark look at Sanam, he got out and looked at the vehicle. Getting back in, he thumped a hand against the steering wheel.

At least his hand didn’t honk the horn the way her big head had, she thought to herself. “What’s wrong?” she asked, surprised at how . . . not worried she was. They were alone in the jungle, it was pouring rain, and it was night time, but she wasn’t worried at all.

“The tire’s flat,” he muttered. “I have no spare. A tow truck definitely wouldn’t come now. But we could maybe call Aahil or someone from your home to come pick us up. I have no cell reception. What about you?”

She blinked at him, taking in what he was saying, but behind the scenes her mind was working feverishly. They were on high ground, so no danger of flooding waters. The area seemed familiar, and she was pretty sure there were homes nearby. They could go to them in the morning, in the light of day. She glanced down at her phone and breathed a sigh of relief. No signal. “Nothing,” she said, trying to control her glee. “We’ll just have to wait it out,” she murmured. “The storm will end soon and we can go to any nearby homes, if there are any, for help. It doesn’t look like this road gets used that much, so there shouldn’t be much danger from any cars driving by. Don’t worry.”

He froze at that, a smile seeming to flicker across his face. “I feel like I should be saying that,” he finally explained.

She flashed a smile at him in return, but that soon fell away when she saw his eyes turn away from her. Their earlier argument came to her mind. How could she convince him to see her side of things? How could she . . . she realized that she had never told him about her own past. She’d never shared the darkest part of her life . . . even before she had discovered what darkness really meant.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Aahil stared at the rain falling against the windshield, but it was mere background noise. The lightening a show and the thunder a mere echo of the rapid beat of his heart. They were safe. They could wait it out. The storm outside could not beat the turmoil inside of his heart. He heard a soft rustling beside him, but he refused to turn his head. Tonight was going to be a test of his fortitude.

“Rehan,” she called softly.

He resolutely kept his eyes turned away from her delectable form.

And then he felt her touch.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Sanam took a deep breath and reached out and grasped his hand in hers, refusing to let go even when he tugged at her hold.

“We have to talk,” she said softly. “Something has changed since the last time we spoke when you . . . when I . . .” But she couldn’t go any further. They had confessed their love to each other, but after that there had only been radio silence. She didn’t know why Rehan had pulled away, but she wouldn’t let that stop her from telling him her reasons. She just hoped that this would encourage him to open up, as well.

“When I was two years old,” she finally began, after he had given in to her hold and allowed his hand to remain in hers. “My life changed completely. A woman . . . a psychotic woman, who thought herself in love with my father escaped from jail and came to our home. She had been in jail for killing my paternal grandfather.”

She could feel Rehan shift in his seat, as if about he was about to say something. She paused for a moment, but he said nothing. She took that as a signal to move on.

“When she came to our home,” Sanam continued with difficulty, “Seher, Haya and I were in the backyard, playing with our grandmother. We weren’t even on her radar, but I’m sure that if she had known about us, she would have come after us, as well.”

She felt Rehan’s hand tighten around hers, his other hand coming to cover it with his warmth. That warmth seemed to spread through her body, calming her down so that she could continue on with her story.

“She killed my maternal grandfather . . . she killed my phuphi, and then she went after my parents. My Abu was able to fight back, but not before she had also hurt them, too. That . . . woman,” she said, biting back the word that had come to her lips instead, “died. But that wasn’t the end of it. How could that just be the end of such horrific acts of violence?”she asked musingly.

His fingers clenched on her hand, but she didn’t notice the pressure, too focused on the telling.

“We had to deal with the deaths. She killed two of ours, and my family suffered, mourned and remembered. We had to deal with the funerals and the media frenzy. She was the murderer, but it felt as if our family had done something wrong.” She took a deep breath. “My parents spent months . . . years recovering from their injuries. She stabbed my mother in the foot, in the back. And due to complications from her injuries, my mother couldn’t have any more children. She walked with a limp for the longest time. They still carry the scars of the attach. And we all carry the psychological scars of that violence. And to top it off, my sister, Seher got loose during all of the hubbub. We didn’t find her for days, and she wa–.”

She stopped, unable to go on. Her eyes were wide open, but they saw nothing of the rain or lightening in front of her. She saw only the past . . . how overprotective her parents had been of the three of them, including Haya. How they kept them close to home and away from everything that might be dangerous. How sickly her mother had been for the longest time. How strict her father had been . . . and how sad her grandmother had always been. She remembered how timid she herself had been due to their overprotective tendencies or had been until Aahil came into her life one memorable night.

She took a shaken breath, awakening herself out of the gloom that had swept over her in the retelling. “You have to see . . . violence cannot be the answer. And murder . . . never. It touches every aspect of a person’s life . . . it taints and corrupts. That one action . . . eats away at the perpetrator . . . the victim . . . and the victim’s family. Do you understand me?” she asked softly.

He turned to gaze at her. “I understand,” he whispered hoarsely.

The two turned to stare out into the rain, watching the raindrops splash against the windshield. Their hands were still clasped together, and she wouldn’t let him free. And she didn’t know how much later it was when she felt a weight fall softly against her shoulder.

Turning her head, she saw that Rehan Imran Qureshi had fallen asleep. She bit back a smile, unable to stop the happiness bubbling up inside of her. Her eyes lovingly moved over his face. He looked so innocent, so young when asleep. She wanted to protect him. She wanted to fill his life with so much love that he would never feel deprived.

She would love him so much that he wouldn’t remember the years he had suffered in the orphanage with no one to love him or to call him theirs.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Would you leave me,
If I told you what I’ve done?
And would you need me,
If I told you what I’ve become?

“No!”

Sanam awakened with a gasp, her eyes looking around frantically. She calmed down when she felt the familiar weight against her shoulder. He was still resting against her. She blinked and looked outside, seeing that the rain had stopped. The sun was peeking over the horizon.

He began to move to anxiously, muttering something, but she couldn’t understand. “Rehan?” she asked softly, reaching up to cup his cheek.

He suddenly grabbed at her, burying his face in her neck, his breath harsh against the soft skin of her throat. His hold was tight and desperate.

“Rehan! It’s okay,” she murmured reassuringly. “Everything is alright.”

“–nt anything. Please. Get me out of here. Please.” He sounded so young. So afraid.

She placed her hand on his thigh, shaking his leg gently. “Rehan!” she called out softly. Something was hurting him, and she couldn’t bear to see him in pain. “Please, wake up.”

He got up, straightening suddenly. His eyes were alert, and it was as if he hadn’t slept at all.

“Rehan? Are you okay?”she asked, her eyes wide in inquiry. “It seemed as if you were having a bad dream.”

He shook his head at her, clearly not wanting to discuss the nightmare. When she opened her lips to protest, he shook his head adamantly at her. “I don’t want to talk about it. Let’s enjoy the sunrise,” he suggested softly, staring out. If things had been different . . . if he had been different, he could have woken up to her every morning like this. They would have watched the sunrise together. They would have built lives together. They would have built a family together.

He would allow himself this moment of selfishness, and enjoy one sunrise with her. As the sun finally appeared over the horizon, he opened the car door.

“Rehan?”

“Let’s go,” he said.

“Where?” she asked automatically.

“Home,” he said dryly. “Unless you wanted to go shopping instead?”

“Don’t you have any other sarcastic words to throw at me?” she retorted, striding after him. She made a face at his departing back. It seemed with those words, they were back to where they had been before this night in the rain.

He kept the conversation determinedly impersonal as they walked to the nearest house for help. He spoke only platitudes while waiting for the mechanic to show up with the spare tire. He was nearly silent as they drove home.

What had happened? Why was there this distance between the two of them she asked herself over and over again. They had spoken of her past together. They had slept next to each other. She had felt so close to him, but now all of that was gone. He was gone. And there was this huge distance again. Her heart ached. Why was it so easy for him to just pull back? Why was it so easy for him, but not for her?

He had said he understood! Just what had he understood?

As they stood outside her doors, she waited for him to say something, but there was only silence. She turned to go, her shoulders drooping.

And he stopped her. Putting out an arm, he grasped her wrist and gently pulled her back.

She turned to look at him, unabashedly showing him the tears in her eyes that he had caused her to shed. Shaking his head at her, he reached up and gently brushed those tears away. “Don’t.”

“Why not?” she whispered to him. “When you find it so easy to pull away.”

“I’m not worthy of those tears,” he said softly. “Never shed them for me.” Pulling away, he began walking backwards. With a final wave, he turned towards home. It had all been a dream. She had been a dream that he had allowed himself to hold onto for a moment. Their love had been like lightening . . it had been quick and just as inevitable. But like all dreams, you had to wake sometimes. It was his time to wake up.

Khuda hafiz, Rehan!”

He turned with an admonishing glance. “Aren’t you afraid your father will hear you?”

She shook her head. “Why would I be afraid? I know my father is wrong this time.”

His eyes moved over her smiling face, his gaze almost like a caress against her skin as she stood in the doorway. She was an angel, her innocence shining brightly in the gray morning light. Her eyes were filled with love for him. But how real could it be when she knew nothing about him?

“Rehan?”

He flinched. Not even his name. It was time for her to wake up, too. And she would . . . soon. He was only sorry that he had pulled her into his world. That he had made her feel for him. That he had made promises that he had had no hope of keeping. “He’s not wrong. I’m sorry,” he said softly.

“Did you say something?” she called out with a questioning smile.

He shook his head in silent denial. Turning away, he began to walk toward his home.

“Rehan!” she called out from behind him. “We’ll see each other soon, right?”

He stopped, but couldn’t let himself turn around because if he did, he would want to stay . . . to hold her, to hug her, to say he loved her over and over and over.

“You’ll call me, right?’ she asked, trying to get a promise. “Rehan?”

Her calling him Rehan only made it easier to walk away. When she found out the truth, she would stop calling him on her own.

Khuda hafiz, meri jaan.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

No light, no light . . . No light

Aahil sat by the pool, his back resting against a pillar. His eyes were trained on the sky light above. He’d set things in motion today that would not be easy to stop. Not that he wanted to stop anything. He couldn’t do that to Rehan. Rehan might have his own reasons to keep away from Seher, but Aahil Raza Ibrahim would not be one of them.

He looked up at the night sky, his eyes careful in their search. There were no stars tonight. None at all in that night sky. He smirked bitterly.

All his life he’d told himself that if he only saw a falling star his wish would come true. His mother had told him so on her deathbed. She’d made that promise.

He’d held that promise close to his heart through all of his childhood days . . . through all the years he had spent in America . . . and after, he’d held onto that promise. When anything had gone wrong, he’d comforted himself with the thought that one day he would make a wish on a falling star and it would come true. Despite his age, and all that had happened, he’d believed. A part of him had believed.

He’d known that all these years the reason his wishes hadn’t come true was because he hadn’t seen a falling star. But then he’d seen one and made a wish. He had prayed and had dared to hope that Allah miyah would hear his dua.

But now . . . he knew the reason why his prayers . . . his wishes wouldn’t come true.

He was the reason.

Aahil Raza Ibrahim didn’t deserve any better than this.

~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 9: Wicked Game
~*~*~*~*~*~

One Week Ago . . .

“Please make her my destiny. After You, I only want to be hers. Amin. . .”

He needed her to be the light in his life. Without her . . . all would be lost. He closed his eyes, his hands covering his face. For a moment, he let all of his fears and anxieties out. The unpleasant part of falling in love was the worry one felt about losing that precious someone. He had never felt this way, but now fear was his constant companion.

Aahil stiffened when the door slammed open behind him, hitting the wall with a bang. The intruder turned on the room’s lights, throwing everything into stark relief. Aahil turned to glare, resenting the disruption. His eyes widened to see the man standing there. “Rehan? What’s wrong?” he asked, his hands falling at his side.

“Aahil bhai,” Rehan said softly, coming to kneel beside him.

“What is it?” Aahil asked, placing a comforting hand on Rehan’s shoulder. He could see how shaken the other man was. He didn’t know what had brought that look into his brother’s eyes. Whatever it was, he knew he wasn’t going to like it.

“I have my phone on alerts for any news about you,” Rehan began. “I was just checking it before going to the gym and saw this.” He offered his phone for Aahil’s viewing.

Aahil stared at the article. And at the many articles in the queue. His lips twisted, a muscle bunching up on the side of his jaw. His features hardened, a darkness growing in his eyes.

“These same articles will be in the print editions today,” Rehan said, his heart hurting at the pain he knew his brother was going through. “Soon, all of Bhopal will know the truth one way or the other.”

Aahil said nothing, his voice mute in the face of this revelation.

“Aahil bhai, it’ll be okay,” Rehan began, fearing the silence.

“No, Rehan,” Aahil said with finality in his voice. “I don’t know why I thought,” he said with a cynical smile, “that the truth could remain hidden. I never,” he said, tightening his hold on Rehan’s shoulder, “intended for you to bear the brunt of this.”

Rehan reached up and clasped Aahil’s hand. “I know that. But don’t give up. Even if everyone in Bhopal is against you, Sanam won’t be.”

Aahil just looked at him, a skeptical expression on his face.

“You can’t just give up without talking to her!” Rehan continued vehemently. “You have to speak to her. I know a part of you might be afraid of her reaction . . . maybe that fear would make you turn a coward for a moment, but you have to force yourself through those feelings,” Rehan encouraged him. “You have to try. I’m sure she’ll understand you. I’m sure she’d be willing to listen. I’m sure she’d believe.”

Aahil shook his head, turning off the small lamp next to the prayer mat and began to methodically fold the mat. He stood and moved a few steps away from Rehan. “Well the rumors must have been flying around before these articles were written,” he said ruefully. “No wonder we got no answer when we asked our neighbors to dinner. That is why Mr. Asad Ahmed Khan was avoiding our calls.”

“None of that matters,” Rehan said softly. “Only she matters.”

“Her family’s clear disapproval doesn’t matter?” Aahil retorted.

“No. Only what Sanam thinks . . . only how she reacts. That’s the only thing that matters.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Today . . .

“Aahil bhai,” Rehan called out from behind him, as the other man stared out the office window. The two were standing in the main offices of Ibrahim Corporation in the center of Bhopal. “I have a list of the companies trying to get out of their contracts. What should be Ibrahim Corporation’s official response to this?”

Aahil turned to stare at him. “Did the invitations go out?”

“Yes,” Rehan responded after a long pause. “Do you really have to do it this way? Can’t you just talk to her?”

“Like you’ve talked to Seher?” Aahil shot back.

Rehan stood frozen, unable to say anything. His unhappiness with the current state of affairs clearly showed on his face.

“This is the only way for me, Rehan,” Aahil said. “Now, let’s look at those companies. They should know better than to let their emotions get in the way of business. They’re not getting free that easily. I’m not going to let the company my grandmother protected above all else to fail because of this,” he concluded bitterly, a fire growing in his eyes.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Today . . .

“What’s this?” Sanam stared down at the envelope in her hand. Her fingers uncertainly felt the rich material, her eyes focusing on her parents’ names written in calligraphy.

“Aahil baba has planned a party,” Lateef said conspiratorially. “Everyone is invited. All of Bhopal is coming. He asked that I personally deliver this to your home.”

Sanam’s hands shook as she quickly opened the envelope. And there it was, the words in black and white. The Nawab of Bhopal cordially invited them to a ball scheduled at their home for the end of the week. “At their home?” Sanam asked, looking up in surprise.

“We have the room,” Lateef said, twirling his braid. “We have a huge ballroom that you didn’t get the chance to see when you came over.”

“But it’s such short notice,” she noted, wrinkling her brow in confusion.

“Yes, but there’s a reason. You won’t want to miss it,” Lateef said. “They’re planning a lot of surprises.” She marched off after a final goodbye wave to Sanam.

Sanam stared down at the card in her hands, and then slowly walked back into the living room. She hadn’t spoken to Rehan all week. He had gone back to avoiding her calls and texts. His continued silence made her feel like a harasser. But to stop meant . . . what? That there would be no contact at all? That she would give up?

“Ammi,” Sanam called out, coming to sit beside her mother, “The Nawab sent this invitation over.”

Zoya looked up with interest. “Let me see!” Grasping the card in her hands, she read it swiftly.

“Ammi, can we go?’ Sanam asked, looking over at her silent father before glancing back at her mother.

“Of course, we’re going,” her grandmother stated. “Those boys invited us over. We can’t say no! Especially since they have been courteous enough to come to our homes for dinner so many times.”

“We are not going!” Asad adamantly said, finally looking up from his newspaper. “I told you all that I wanted no contact between our houses. That man is a murderer!”

“You don’t know that!” Seher yelled at him, incensed beyond belief. “How can you make such statements without any proof? And what is this ‘between our houses’, dad? We are not Romeo and Juliet. I’m warning you, don’t make it something like that,” she finished snidely.

“Stop it, both of you!” Zoya ordered, silencing Asad before his could open his mouth to blast their daughter. “Seher do not speak to your father that way.”

Asad began to smile in satisfaction.

“And Asad do not test your daughters with such unreasonable demands. Notice that I said daughters. They are both clearly unhappy with you, as are both of us,” Zoya continued, sharing a glance with her mother-in-law.

Asad looked around at the unhappy expressions on all of the women’s faces and his face darkened. He scowled unhappily, shifting in his seat. Reluctantly putting down the newspaper in his hand, he waited for Zoya to continue.

“We have to go to this party,” Zoya said softly. “These are our boys. We’ve gotten to know them and think of them as part of our family. We encouraged them to do the same to us. How will it be if family turns their back on them without asking for any explanations? We have to see. Give them a chance. There has to be some explanation. Right? It can’t be true. He can’t be a murderer.”

Asad saw the desperate hope in his wife’s eyes, and did not want to steal that hope away. Zoya had suffered due to a woman’s infatuation with him. She had suffered because someone had hated the fact that Zoya was in his life, and he had always felt guilty about that. If she needed to go to this party, then he would go to the da*n party.

“Besides,” Dilshad said, “We have to be there. What if no one else shows up?”

“Oh, they’ll show up,” Asad said cynically. “Despite what the actual truth is, the Nawab is still the primary mover and shaker in Bhopal. Bhopal’s elite need him to make more money. They won’t abandon ship. They might not like him. They may not trust him. But they like the smell of money.”

“Then don’t you see?” Zoya uttered with a smile, coming over to grasp his hand lovingly. “We have to be there so that those two know there are people in their corner.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~

A few days later, Sanam was standing in his home once more. She looked around the room, her eyes moving over the decorations that had transformed the Nawab’s mansion. The Khan family had been one of the first ones in the mansion. They had been escorted to the ballroom immediately, while Lateef lamented their early arrival and warned that nothing was fully prepared. She could see people moving to and fro, anxiously putting the finishing touches on the room.

Sanam looked at the room once more. The color combination for the room was midnight blue and silver. Curtains . . . streamers . . . flowers, everything was in one of those colors. All of the furniture had been removed from the vicinity, leaving only small, round tables, waist height placed strategically throughout the ballroom with delicacies and glasses of wine for the guests’ consumption. A stage was set up at one end of the room, with a silver arch placed above the stage.

“What is that about?” she muttered, gazing at the arch. She felt someone bump into her, causing her to bump into a table. The glasses shook gently, the wine sloshing to the lip before settling back into place.

“Oops, I’m so sorry,” came a harried, female voice from behind her.

Sanam turned around, ready to smile and say it was fine, but the woman was too preoccupied. It didn’t take her long to realize the woman was one of the event coordinators, which explained the stress she could see in the woman’s eyes.

“No, the caterers need to start with the food now. I’m seeing some empty tables. I think we missed them in the first go around. And guests are beginning to come in,” the woman barked into her headphone. “I do apologize,” she said, turning to Sanam.

“It’s okay,” Sanam responded. “Everything looks wonderful. Rehan . . . and Aahil will love this.”

“Thank you!” the woman replied happily. “Believe me, when Mr. Ibrahim stated through his assistant that he wanted a Starry Night theme, I told him that it might look tacky. But he was very insistent. He wanted lots of stars. He said it was the Nawab’s little joke. I don’t get it, but you gotta do what the client wants, right? Oh excuse me, work calls.”

Sanam watched the other woman hurry away, and then turned her attention to the ballroom once more. The decorations did give the ballroom a feel of a nighttime wonderland. An uncertain smile grew across her face, her heart beginning to beat rapidly. Was this on purpose . . . a reminder of the night that he had confessed his love to her? Could she dare to hope?

Seher was gone. It hadn’t taken long for both Seher and Sanam to realize that neither of the men were in the ballroom yet. Seher had refused to wait, leaving the ballroom to go searching for her Nawab. And Sanam was . . . about to reach that point, as well. Ammi was doing a good job of distracting Abu at the other end of the room, along with Badi Ammi, so Sanam had the chance.

The ballroom had begun to fill up while she’d been entranced by the decorations. Abu had been correct about this. The who’s who of Bhopal’s society had showed up today in all of their glittering glory. The mayor, the city’s top financiers and even certain actresses and actors were in the crowd.

She glanced down at her red sari, feeling a trifle underdressed. The delicate work on the clothes and modest earrings adorning her ears made her feel like a poor relative. The sidelong, derisory glances the other guests were throwing her way definitely weren’t helping her feel any better.

She ruthlessly tamped those thoughts down. Why was she worrying about what these people thought when she didn’t know what Rehan was thinking? Seeing his behavior, she couldn’t help but wonder what had changed since he’d opened his heart to her. Why had he looked so determined that morning when he’d left her at the door? His eyes had seemed so empty.

She sighed deeply. The crazy thing was, she hadn’t even known why she was so worried. She still didn’t know. Even if Aahil had been guilty, why was she dreading the truth so much? What was the Nawab thinking throwing a party in the midst of this scandal? And really, why did it matter what Aahil’s past was in terms of their relationship? What did it have to do with Rehan? She clenched her hands into fists, sweat breaking out on her forehead. What was it that she didn’t see?

“What do you think ARI gets from forcing us here? What does he have planned?” she heard a man murmur from the table behind her.

“My initials are A . . . R . . . I. My name isn’t Air.”

“Then . . . what’s your name? What’s the mystery? Who gives their initials when someone asks for the name?”

“It’s Aahil. Happy?”

That dark night . . . and that little boy’s voice. Why had that moment come to mind now?

“What’s your name? There’s such a thing as tehzeeb.”

“Manners. Well, fine. It’s Qureshi.”

“Is that a first or a last name? Why can’t I get a straight answer to a simple question?”

“My name is Rehan Imran Qureshi.”

That small smile on his face as he teased her like a little boy was etched into her memory. The way he had refused to say his name, making her demand it still slightly irritated her. She shook her head, dispelling those memories. ‘Just what are you thinking?‘ she silently scolded herself. Just because there were some identical beats between those two meetings, that meant nothing. She laughed at her crazy thoughts and began to move around the room. She’d been here for more than thirty minutes, and Rehan had not come into the room. “Da*n it!” she muttered to herself. “Where do you get off making me wait so much?”

“Oh, Ms. Rajeshwari and Mr. Khanna, a photo for the newspaper?” a voice cajoled from nearby. “Come on. It’ll be proof that you were here at this historic event. After all, it’s not every day the Nawab of Bhopal holds a shindig. In fact, I think it’s been years.”

“Fine,” Ms. Suman Rajeshwari, the mayor of Bhopal, grudgingly admitted. “The truth is often in the picture, right? Can’t deny it. I’m sure the public will appreciate pictures of what their mayor is doing to protect their interests. Even if it’s at this person’s home.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

The proof is really in the picture.

Pictures . . .

Of two little girls . . . seemingly twins . . .

Pictures of Rehan at his graduation with the Nawab standing tall next to him. The two had their arms around each other’s shoulders and were smiling happily.

One picture of the Nawab as a younger child, although that picture looked a bit ratty.

And multiple pictures of Rehan . . . always standing with a sullen expression on his face between those two little, twin girls.

She had wondered on seeing the pictures why there were so many of Rehan’s pictures on the wall and barely any of the Nawab himself. It had almost seemed as if those really weren’t meant to be the Nawab’s memories at all. Even Shazia and Nazia had been pictured with Rehan and not Aahil. Where had those pictures gone? She hadn’t noticed them on the wall when they were being brought to the ballroom. Why had he removed them? Hide the pictures . . . hide the proof? Hide the proof . . . change the past?

Sanam took a deep breath. Why was she creating and solving her own mysteries when there was no mystery? They had just moved some pictures, darn it! The sound of raucous laughter behind her brought her out of her increasingly confused thoughts. The sound of two incredibly loud women irritated her, making her want to swing around and tell them to zip it.

She sighed loudly. It was time to leave the ballroom. She was tired of waiting for him to come to her. She would go to him. She slipped out without telling her family. She slowly began to climb up the stairs, hoping that she would find him before anyone else found her. After all, how could she explain sneaking around to some stranger?

“Aahil baba, I’ve got it!” she heard Lateef call out from the far end of the hallway. She turned her head towards the voice, and saw Lateef entering a room.

She raced towards the room, planning on confronting Rehan right now. He would be with the Nawab for sure. Whatever they had planned next, clearly the Nawab would need his friend to be at his side. If she didn’t find Rehan there, she would demand that the Nawab tell her where he was. They would talk, and she would not let him close her out any more. He had given her the right to demand answers when he confessed his love to her.

Sidling to the barely open doorway, she peeked into the room. Her brows scrunched in confusion when she saw only Rehan in there. He was getting dressed, his eyes focused on the mirror. Where was the Naw . . ? Whatever. She shook her head; she didn’t care where the Nawab might be. She put out a hand to open the door. Like it or not, she was going to talk to him now and everything else could wait.

The door slammed open, and a figure came out, barreling into her slighter body. “Allah miyah!” she yelped, falling back against the railing. Glaring at the person standing there, she opened her mouth to blast her.

“Just what are you doing here?” Lateef said, raising her chin. “No one is supposed to be up here. Aahil Baba gave strict instructions not to be disturbed.”

“I just want to talk to Rehan,” Sanam protested, rubbing at her aching side. “Go protect the Nawab from my sister, instead.”

Lateef silently grabbed Sanam’s wrist and began to pull her toward the stairs.

“Look, I promise,” Sanam argued passionately. “I won’t even bother the Nawab. Look! He’s just entering the room right now. I wasn’t even interrupting the two of them! It’ll be really easy to just ask him to leave so he can be alone somewhere else!”

“No!” Lateef retorted, bodily moving Sanam down the stairs. “The two are together now. And I’ll say to you, what I said to your sister minutes ago, don’t make this harder on yourself.”

Sanam opened her mouth to argue once more, but something made her look up. Rehan was standing up there, his eyes focused on her. He wore a tuxedo, expertly tailored for his physique.. He had a beard now, closely shaped to his jaw and encircling his lips. His hair lay softly across his forehead, making her want to brush those strands back. His hands were placed on the banister, and, despite the fact that he could see she was being dragged away, he said nothing.

Lateef cleared her throat to bring Sanam’s attention back to her once they reached the bottom of the stairs. She smiled at Sanam sympathetically when Sanam looked at her. “They’ll be down in a little while. It’ll be better for both of you if you don’t associate yourselves too closely with this household.”

“But,” Sanam began uncertainly, looking back up. He was gone. Had she imagined him standing there? Would she rather have imagined him than to know that he had been standing there and hadn’t come to her?

“No one should see you together,” Lateef murmured. “It’s for your own good.”

“Just what are you saying?” Sanam demanded angrily as they entered the ballroom. “How can you even suggest that I distance myself from someone who is mine?”

“He wants it that way,” Lateef responded solemnly. “Now, you two,” she said, turning to motion at two guards who had appeared at the doorways. “You’re not just there to look mouth-wateringly handsome. Once the guests enter this room, do not let them leave. We can’t have them wondering in the house, now can we? Especially, when we have so many reporters here today. Who knows what they will get into if we allow them free access to the house.”

Lateef stalked off, with Sanam staring after her. She opened her mouth to call out, but then stopped. Wait. Why had the Nawab been entering the room minutes after she had heard Lateef call out for him?

Aahil baba, you have to try it!”

“Lateef, can you please tone it down?”

Rehan had responded instead of the Nawab when Lateef was urging him to taste the food they’d brought over on their first visit to this house.

“It’s nothing, Aa. . .Baba. Here’s your juice. I just freshly made it.”

Sanam’s mind flashed to when she had spied on Rehan swimming. Had Lateef been about to say . . .? She took a deep breath, shaking her head. What was she thinking? Rehan would never . . .

“Aahil baba, please try this sweet! Sawaiyan.”

Lateef taking the sawaiyan and holding them out to Rehan to taste. Sanam placed a hand on her forehead, massaging the confusion away. She shouldn’t be thinking this way.

“He loves it!”

Lateef telling her how much the Nawab loved apple pie, but no peep out of him when Rehan began to eat it from the serving platter itself.

“Sanam!” her Badi Ammi‘s voice called out.

Turning, she saw her family, Seher included, come over to stand next to her.

“Where have you been?” Asad asked grimly.

“I . . . I went to look for Rehan,” Sanam admitted. “I saw him, but I wasn’t able to speak with him.”

“Don’t wander off alone,” Asad ordered her.

“There wouldn’t be any point,” Seher said from the side. “They’ve limited us to just the ballroom now. We couldn’t leave even if we wanted to.”

As she stared at her sister’s face, about to ask her what had happened with the Nawab, the world went dark. There were cries of worry . . . and then of wonder. The nighttime wonderland was truly a thing of beauty in the dark. Stars twinkled on the ceiling, sending out little beacons of light. It truly felt like a night sky. She gasped softly when she saw the purpose of those wires above the stage. They mimicked falling stars in the night sky. For a moment, all her worries fell away and she let a smile free.

When the lights came back on, it was Rehan who stepped up onto the stage and took the podium. The Nawab stood behind him, waiting for Rehan to speak. Sanam’s eyebrows rose at that. Why was it Rehan? Their eyes met for a moment, and he resolutely turned them away to gaze out into the crowd.

“What are you two doing?’ she whispered softly. “No. What have you done?”

The photographers began to take pictures of both the Nawab and Rehan. The reporters from all of the major news outlets had their recorders out for his next words.

“Thank you all for coming to Ibrahim Mansion for this momentous occasion despite the stories you have read in the newspapers this past week. Your presence here certainly shows us your willingness to continue your ties with the Ibrahim Corporation. It does the Nawab’s heart good to realize that the place where his family has lived for generations will still welcome him with open arms,” he smiled cynically when he uttered those words. “He remember every one of his homes fondly, and wants to continue calling this place his home, as well.”

“Mom said your family had the summer house next door to our uncle when we were kids . . .”

“What? I’m not sure . . .”

“That’s not true,” she whispered. The Nawab had not remembered his childhood home.

“You remember that house, Aahil. You told me many stories about it.”

And Rehan had had to prompt him. Sanam swallowed with difficulty.

“The Nawab came here because he had responsibilities. He feels responsible for the well-being of this city,” Rehan said almost facetiously. “If he had to leave . . . if Ibrahim Corporation had to leave this beautiful city, would it have an impact on a significant portion of the workforce? Probably,” he continued. “But the Nawab doesn’t want to leave. He has made a place for himself here. As he’s familiarized himself with the city and its needs, he’s realized one thing. Tell me if you disagree. Bhopal needs him. He doesn’t need you. He pulls out . .. all of you suffer. So, what next? What should he do? That depends on what you do.” His delivery was now completely cold. His words harsh. And his face expressionless.

Sanam stared at the man before her. This was not the man she knew. How could he even say these words. How could he be so cold?

“Anything . . . I’d do anything to make sure that a child won’t have to grow up like that.”

The memories of Rehan coming to make those donations and connecting with those children were still fresh in her mind. He had cared. Why was he acting like this today?

“What kind of life is that child living now? To wake up every morning . . . every hour of the day spent . . . just wondering if dad will be in a good mood. Will he be angry? But what kind of question is that? He’s always angry. Will he be a little bit angry and just yell at you? Or a lot and hit you? If you do this, will dad be mad? If you do that, will dad be mad? Is it okay to eat your fill? Is it okay to sleep? Is it okay to . . . ”

She rubbed at her chest, an ache growing inside of her. She had heard desperation in his voice that day. That pain had seared her heart, as if his words were drops of acid falling on her unprotected skin, boring into the deepest part of her. But today, his words pierced like knives. That man would not have been capable of saying these words. That man had known what abuse was on a personal level. She couldn’t stop the thoughts from battering at her, that man had suffered abuse . . . had been betrayed by a parent . . . had survived. She had known it then, but had ignored her instincts . . . hadn’t asked any questions because he hadn’t wanted her to. How had Rehan known that pain when there was nothing in his past to indicate that? He hadn’t said anything. But really . . . how much had he told her?

“You’ve all heard the rumors, I’m sure,” Rehan continued. “ARI, excuse me, Aahil Raza Ibrahim was in jail. The Nawab was convicted of murder. You’ve all been talking about it. He’s dangerous. He’s evil. How can we work with someone like that? Some of you have even tried to end your contracts with Ibrahim Corporation. I’m here to lay your fears to rest,” he said, a smile playing across his lips. “I’m here to end your wondering of whether those rumors are true.” He leaned forward, and almost every member of the audience leaned forward in return to hear his next words. “I’m here to tell you that those rumors are true.”

There were gasps around the room, and Sanam’s heart fell at that admission. She felt Seher grab hold of her hand, but she could only focus on him. Because . . .

“The Nawab of Bhopal was convicted in the USA. And I’m sure you’re all curious about what the conviction actually was. For the first time, the newspapers did something they rarely do. They got the facts right,” he stated acerbically. “He was convicted of murdering his father. And he spent five, long years in jail.” The look in his eyes was piercing, a darkness flickering there that was hard to witness.

“Even if he did kill his father. There has to be a reason. Why aren’t you trying to understand?. . . I wish that we could all live in a world where people didn’t have to make these hard choices . . . I wish that we all lived in a world where violence wasn’t necessary, but we don’t. There are a lot of wishes that we make that don’t come true. Sometimes people have to make those hard choices.”

He had been so defensive that day. His words had been those of a man who had had to make such a difficult choice. His words were those of a man who had lived through it. As if he had been . . . Aahil Raza Ibrahim himself. That was the missing piece. This is why the truth would matter.

She looked up at him, her heart pounding in her chest. At that same moment, he glanced over, his eyes caught by the disbelief in hers.

“Why won’t you admit it? Stop hiding it!”

The echoes of her dreams ran through her head. She clapped her hands over her ears, trying to stop them. But it was no use. The truth was reverberating in her brain. He was the real Nawab. “How could you hide it from me?” she silently yelled at him. “How could you?”

He gazed silently at her, his eyes sparking as if he had heard her silent yells. He looked at only her when he spoke those next words, as if the next revelation was just for her.

“But as always, the newspapers only got half the story. They brought you the scandal, but failed to discover one final truth. That the man standing over there is not the Nawab,” he said, pointing his thumb behind him to the other man standing on the stage. “They forgot to tell you who you should all be wary of.”

The crowd began to whisper, the shock evident in those whispers. He waited, letting the noise die down. And in that wait, he never looked away from her.

“You’d probably been wondering why the Nawab had remained silent in this conversation. You were also probably wondering why I got to stand up here and reveal all of this. Then wonder no longer. I am Aahil Raza Ibrahim, the Nawab of Bhopal.” He smirked at the crowd, seeming to enjoy their shock. He even smiled for the cameras as they went crazy in their photo-taking frenzy. “And . . . I am the ex-convict.”

The low murmurs that had been spreading throughout the ballroom became a cacophony of noise that beat at her mind. She wanted to close her eyes and make it all go away. But she wouldn’t close her eyes to the truth.

“This man had us fooled for months.”

“He’s hidden his identity and learned our secrets! I mean who pays attention to the assistant?”

“Clever . . . ”

“Scary . . . ”

Seher gently shook her, trying to pull her out of the trance that she had fallen into. She stared at Sanam standing there, pale and silent. Reaching out a hand, Seher gently grasped her hand, holding it close to her heart.

Sanam continued to look up at the stage, gazing into his eyes. Nothing else penetrated the shock of discovery.

He hadn’t looked away. “I needed to know this city and its citizens thoroughly without any of the facades you would have worn if you knew who was the actual Nawab. After all, who pays any attention to the hired help? Since this information came out and ruined the fun, I thought it was imperative that I protect my employee, Rehan Imran Qureshi. Now, since we’ve gotten the great confession out of the way, I trust none of this will impact our business relationships?”

There was only silence to his query.

“I do have to reiterate,” he said after a pause. “that anything that happened before today will be forgotten. Don’t take any of it too seriously. None of it matters.”

“There’s nothing wrong with dreaming a little bit . . .”

“I’d trust you with my life . . .”

“I’ll be with you. That’s all that matters, isn’t it? . . .

He had made promises. He had made her feel that she mattered . . .

“There is love. So much love that it scares me. Do I have this right? Will you still love me if you find out everything about me. Will you forgive me for my secrets?”

And he was trying to take it all back?

“I trust we’re done here then,” he continued. “Nothing further needs to be addressed. And no apologies needed.” He stepped back from the podium, smiling at the crowd once more. “You are welcome to stay and enjoy the food and wine, but I will be bidding you all a goodnight.”

She moved forward, disbelieving of his planned exit. Was that it? He was going to leave. He stepped down from the stage, and Aahil . . . no, Rehan rushed forward with other employees to stop the press from moving in on him and asking more questions. He walked through the space they created, moving along easily despite the questions being thrown at him.

Their eyes met once more as he moved through the crowd. He gazed at her quietly as he strode closer, but his eyes said nothing. They were calm pools, allowing no emotion to shine through. He grew closer and closer, and Sanam stiffened at that proximity. But then he was moving past, her, without saying one word, and striding up the stairs.

“Khuda hafiz, meri Jaan.”

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Sanam raced down the front steps, intent on leaving. Her heart was racing, and her skin clammy. Her fingers were still trembling, and she wanted nothing more than to go home and forget all of this for a while. Tomorrow would be another day, and she would be in a better frame of mind to deal with this. But for now . . . she needed to hide under her covers.

“You’re leaving?”

She froze. Turning slowly, she gazed at the side of the house, her eyes trying to pick out the figure she knew was there. “Aah-no, Rehan, right?” she called out.

He walked towards her, coming to stand by her in the light. “You’re just leaving. Nothing left to say? Nothing left to do?”

“What else is there to say or do? You two decided on what the course would be. You decided on the deception. And you decided on how you would reveal the truth. When was mine or Seher’s input ever required? When were our emotions ever considered?”

“Talk to him,” he urged, ignoring the words she threw at him.

“He chose not to talk to me. He decided to reveal all of this in front of the world. He lied to me every time I called him Rehan!” she shot back angrily. She clenched her fists, trying to still the trembling that had started once more. “He hid everything from me. He hid his identity. His past. His name. I knew nothing. But I still . . . there is nothing left to say.”

“So you’re just going to give up?” he asked angrily.

“What else is there to do? Isn’t that what both of you have done? If . . . if we can even believe in the honesty of your emotions, even then you abandoned us. But from what I saw tonight, I have serious doubts.”

“You have no questions for him?” he pressed, catching her wrist before she could leave to hold her place.

“What else is there to ask?” she threw back at him, refusing to look at him.

“Has anyone . . . have you ever thought to ask why he did any of this? Doesn’t he deserve a chance to tell his side of things?”

~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 10: Kyun . . .
~*~*~*~*~*~

“Has anyone . . . have you ever thought to ask why he did any of this? Doesn’t he deserve a chance to tell his side of things?”

Sanam sat up in bed with a jerk, angry at Aa-Rehan’s words still running through her head. The way they had been running through her head for the past few hours. She groaned looking at the clock. It was 4 AM, and she still couldn’t sleep. She hadn’t been able to sleep all night because of the stunt Re-the Nawab, she emphasized darkly to herself, had pulled.

Aahil Raza Ibrahim. Her heartbeat stuttered when his chocolaty brown eyes flashed into her mind. His face . . . his cold expression as he had passed her by. They were all stuck in her mind. He was Aahil Raza Ibrahim. He was Aahil. She swallowed with difficulty.

Getting up with a sigh, she grabbed a sweater, pulling it over her pajamas for warmth against the cool night air, and walked downstairs. The house was dark, moonlight coming in through a couple of windows to slightly illuminate the space. It was enough for someone who knew the house as well as she did to navigate her way to the doors leading out to the garden. Hearing the soft whisper of a sound, she turned her head to look around, but there was nothing.

Stepping outside, she softly closed the door behind her, hoping that her movements hadn’t awakened the other household members. Stepping outside, she breathed in the night air, her mind turning to the scene earlier this evening when the family had returned from the party. For a long time, there had been silence . . . dark, unrelenting silence. No one had been brave enough to say a word for the longest time.

“I never wanted to say I told you so,” Asad burst out. “This wasn’t about me being right.”

All eyes flew toward him, the lone male standing in the center of the room. He wore a frown on his face, worry clouding those handsome features.

“I just wanted to protect my daughter!” he finally explained, his eyes pained . “You think I was happy saying that you couldn’t be with the man you loved?” He looked at Seher. “You think it doesn’t hurt my heart to realize that my daughter was incredibly hurt tonight, and that boy, who I was beginning to think of as an addition to our family, didn’t even bother to explain to us or to her what had happened before he revealed himself like that to the world?” He looked at Sanam, wincing to see the tears falling from Sanam’s eyes. “I only want my treasures . . . my daughters to be happy. I only want you to be happy,” he repeated, looking at both of them.

Sanam walked over to her father, and silently wrapped him in a hug, her body shaking with the force of her emotions. She felt arms go around the two of them, knowing it was Seher. And then more arms, as their mother and Badi Ammi joined in.

Taking a deep breath in the cool night air, she began to walk, hoping her body would tire itself out and she would finally be able to sleep. But it wasn’t helping at all. Her eyes went to the lawn furniture where they had sat and imbibed many cups of chai. She wandered further out, her steps moving her away from those reminders, but escape from the intimate memories itself was not possible.

She encountered the spot where they had sat on the grass, their eyes trained on the starry sky. It was the spot where they had seen the falling stars and made their wishes. Her eyes filled with tears, which she blinked furiously away. She would not cry. Just because he had made a mockery of their starry night, he could not make her cry.

She moved further way, wandering to the boundary of their land, her intent only to get far away from any hint of him. She screamed softly, realizing that she couldn’t get away from him at all when they shared a da*ned wall!

She groaned in frustration, but tried to quiet her mind. In the darkness, where she had nothing but her own thoughts to deal with, she finally realized one thing. She didn’t feel fear. She wasn’t afraid that he was a cold-blooded murderer. There had to be some sort of explanation. The rational part of her knew that. But what she did feel today, what she felt burning inside of her right now, was the burn of betrayal. And that betrayal hurt so much. Mixed in with that hurt, there were strong hints of anger.

He had lied to her! Every time he let her call him some other man’s name, he lied to her. Every time, he hid any bit of himself from her, he lied to her. Any time . . . he told her he loved her, he lied to her. She sobbed near silently, the tears beginning to fall and fall in earnest. There was nothing that she could do to stop them this time. She ruthlessly wiped them away, bringing herself back under control.

The sounds of birds chirping in the lightening sky brought her out of her increasingly morose thoughts. As she had walked the garden, and then further out onto their property . . . dawn had come. And the sun had appeared over the horizon. She blinked, her eyes feeling so swollen. The weight on her heart had only grown heavier, and she still wasn’t sure what to do. All she knew was that she wasn’t ready to give up, but she wasn’t ready to give in, either.

She walked closer to the gate that connected their properties. A small gate . . . placed there for some old, forgotten purpose. It had always been locked, at least for as long as she remembered. The cold metal of the gate itself had become rusted from lack of use. As a child she had wondered about the families that might have wanted that connection, but those thoughts had fallen by the wayside when she had grown up.

“There you are!” a female voice called out in the chill light of dawn, cutting through the soothing sounds of dawn with cruel harshness.

Sanam whirled around, her brow wrinkling in confusion when she realized there was no one there. It took her a moment to realize that these were voices from the other side of the wall. From the side . . . where the Nawab lived.

“Shazia, what are you doing here at this time of day?” a confused male voice responded, coming from near the gate that was a few feet away from where Sanam stood.

Her heart began to pound. It was his voice. He had been standing such a short distance away, and she hadn’t known. She slowly crept towards the gate, her curiosity winning out over all else.

“Just what were you thinking?” another female voice practically shrieked.

Sanam winced at the high pitch.

“What do you mean, Nazia?” Aahil asked, seeming to have calmed down in the past few seconds.

“Do you have any idea what you’ve done?” Nazia yelled. “Why did you have to let the world know your secrets? If you were going to pretend to be someone else, why couldn’t you do a better job at it? Do you know what it did to our reputation when the truth came out? I mean, my god, we’re known as the sisters of a murderer now!”

“What do you want me to do about that?” His voice was utterly dead, no emotion coming through now.

Sanam heard him ask that question, her heart clenching at his tone. She curled her fingers into fists, nails digging into the tender skin of her palms.

“Why couldn’t you stay away?” Nazia asked, her voice filled with tears. “Why couldn’t you leave us all alone? If you hadn’t come back here, no one would have even bothered searching for the truth. Now . . . because of you, we had to leave school. The truth that you revealed last night, without giving us any warning at all . . . was the final nail in the coffin. The rumors were bad enough, but you confirmed it without one though to all of the other people it would affect. How can you be so selfish?”

“I . ..,” he began.

“I don’t want to hear it! God! You’re not just a murderer, but you killed our father! How did you ever think that we could live together as family?”

Those were her priorities? Sanam softly snorted in the silence that had fallen. That girl was ranting about her humiliation first, and then the fact that he may have murdered their father? And not even may. She took what the reporters had said and what he had said as gospel.

“I can’t stand to live in this household! It would’ve been better if Rehan was our brother! We might have been orphans and grown up in an orphanage, but we wouldn’t have been your sisters! We wouldn’t have been the sisters of a murderer!” Nazia exclaimed with disgust. “You need to make arrangements so that we can go abroad to get away from all of this.”

“Nazia!”

Sanam heard him calling, but there was only the sound of retreating footsteps.

“Is there anything you want to say to me?” he asked.

So, Shazia had stuck around Sanam noted to herself.

“Why did you hide the truth from us?” the other girl asked softly.

Sanam raised her eyebrows at the hurt she could hear in Shazia’s words. Well, this was different from what Nazia had just thrown at her brother.

“I would never have blamed you,” she continued. “I remember what he used to do to you. I. . .” There was a brief silence. “He was getting worse. Nazia has suppressed those memories. She’s just angry that her loser boyfriend dumped her when the truth came out. Honestly, I think he was a conman, and the truth freaked him out.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t blame you. But you didn’t trust us. Do you have any idea how that makes me feel? I . . . I don’t think that I can be around you right now.”

Sanam heard the sounds of quick retreat, leaving behind a fraught silence. She wondered what he was thinking. Whether those words had hurt him . . . or was he as cold as he had been last night when he had walked by her with nary a hint of emotion? What happened last night had been his choice, but she didn’t want him hurting, either.

She jumped when she heard a thump from the other side of the wall. And then a muffled groan. Just what was he doing? She moved closer to the gate, peeking through it. She could only see his legs, encased in old, washed out jeans. A sense of déjà vu hit her. This scene was entirely too familiar. How couldn’t it be? When that one night and that one meeting had been the focus of many of her obsessive thoughts over the years?

One thing was different. She could actually see him this time around in the morning light . . . and a with a much friendlier gate between them. The bars were far apart enough that she could lean in and see so much more. She saw the legs shift and that body slump down onto the grass. Her fingers curled around the metal bars of the gate, as she struggled with seeing him so defeated. Her fingers gripped the metal tighter when she heard his broken sigh of defeat.

“You think that I wanted to be the Nawab?” he asked into the empty morning light. “I asked Rehan to take my place so that I could live in peace. How was I to know that those rabid wolves wouldn’t leave my past alone? If I had had a choice . . . I would’ve lived out my life as the orphan boy who didn’t know his own past.”

She rested her head against the metal, her eyes focused only on him. She saw him turn his head towards his home. Saw his hands clench into fists at his side.

“Do you have any idea what I lost because of my past?”

She saw his head fall into his hands, his fingers clenching around fistfuls of hair.

“Rather than hide from it any longer, I did all of us a favor by revealing it. It won’t be hanging over our heads like the Sword of Damocles, saving us from dreaming too long. What if I had gotten used to the dream?” He thumped his hand on the grass beside him. “If the truth came out too late, I would have never let her go. No matter how much she may have begged me.”

She inhaled sharply at his admission, her fingers clenching so tightly around the metal that they turned white.

His head turned at that noise, his eyes meeting hers through the gate. He frowned, silently wondering if she had heard his words. Of course she had. After all, hadn’t he been just shouting his sentiments to the dawn sky moments ago?

“We’ve got to stop meeting like this,” she joked lightly, seeing him spring up and glare at her.

Her eyes moved over his tired features, wondering if her eyes reflected that same despair that she saw in his. Her heart clenched, realizing that while he had hurt her last night . . . it wasn’t as if he had escaped unscathed either. He took two steps back, away from her.

She saw the worry wrinkling his brows . . . his unkempt hair, proof of his restless fingers running through it hundreds of time. A cute little tuft was sticking out in the back, making her fingers tingle to smooth it down. She saw the stubble covering his jaw, the wrinkled shirt, half unbuttoned.

And she saw how he stiffened . . . raised his jaw at her, beginning to hide all of his emotions from her. The pain disappeared . . . the despair and the melancholy melted away until there was only the arrogant Nawab staring back at her. Until he was the man who had nothing left to say to her. He turned and began to walk away.

“I’m mad at you,” she said, knowing that no matter how softly she spoke he would hear her.

He stopped in his tracks, his back to her.

“I’m mad at you for lying. Not for the . . . murder,” she explained, watching his shoulders hunch in on themselves at her words. “I’m mad that you told me that you loved me, but never told me who you were. You couldn’t’ trust me that much.”

He turned to look at her, his eyes focusing on her fingers gripping the gate.

“The dreams that I had . . . the thoughts that kept revolving in my head, all of that confusion went away when the truth came out. I wasn’t going crazy. You were the one that affected my life . . you are the reason that I am who I am today. You are that boy I met years ago . . . and you couldn’t tell me the tr-truth!” Her voice broke on those last words. “Even now, you would have just walked away. Why couldn’t you tell me that you were that little boy?”

“Because that’s all I would have been!” he shouted at her, striding back towards her. His fingers gripped the metal above her hands, his face so close that she could feel his breath against her lips. “I wasn’t going to be that abused little boy!” He stopped, swallowing with difficulty. “I wasn’t going to be someone to be pitied. Not to you!”

She slipped her fingers down, placing them over his to fiercely grip his hands. His hands were so cold. He had been out here as long as she had, maybe longer. He had been mere yards away the entire time, and she hadn’t known. “You were never just a poor little boy to me,” she said with precision. “I never pitied you. How much do you know me that you would think that me finding out you were Aahil Raza Ibrahim would have changed my view of you?”

The muscle in his jaw twitched, as he stared at her silently. His fingers remained stationary under hers. “That’s easy to say,” he answered abruptly. “You can’t tell me that your father didn’t tell Seher to stay away from the ex-convict. That he didn’t reiterate that last night when the truth came out about who the real convict was. You shouldn’t even be talking to me,” he said scornfully.

“Mr. Aahil Raza Ibrahim,” she said, moving her face closer to his, her lips millimeters away from his, “Don’t assume anything. We’re nowhere near being done. Neither my father nor you get to decide what I should do.”

He jerked away, his fingers slipping from under hers, his body creating distance between the two of them.

She let him go, refusing to hold on or use force in any way. “You’re not going to get away that easily, Aahil Raza Ibrahim.” It was her only warning before she walked away, leaving only a surprised silence behind her.

~*~*~*~*~*~*~*~

Seher sat in the greenhouse, her body scrunched up on a bench, her arms wrapped around her legs. She stared at the orchid blooming in front of her, her mind flitting from thought to thought. Last night the truth had come out about the Nawab. He was an ex-convict. He was a murderer, according to him. He had been found guilty for killing his own father.

But . . . he wasn’t the man that everyone had thought him to be. The man that she had fallen in love with was actually someone else entirely.

Rehan Imran Qureshi. Rehan.

“Rehan,” she said that name out loud, but her mind seemed to have trouble grasping this new reality. For days she had struggled with the truth that he may have some dangerous secret in his past. She had dealt with her father’s anger towards her obstinate insistence on staying with him.

But the truth was something altogether different. Her mind repeated those truths once more. He was Rehan Imran Qureshi. He wasn’t the Nawab. She knew that much, but what else did she know about him? She rested her head on her arms.

Was he the orphan Rehan that he himself had described . . the child who had no one in the world until he had met the Nawab and called him his own? How had he lived his life before they had met? How alone had he been? How much had he suffered?

Or the more practical questions. Where had he lived? Where had he gone to school? Was he really a businessman? Or was he a lawyer? What did he do at the company if he wasn’t the owner? Had he really come back from overseas? How had he met the Nawab? Why would he pretend to be someone else?

Had any of it been the truth? Did he feel anything for her?

She sighted heavily, raising her eyes to look at the orchid once more.

Leaving his emotions and past aside, she began to ponder her own emotions. How was she supposed to feel about this? He wasn’t the Nawab. Which meant he wasn’t the ex-convict. He wasn’t a murderer. That made her happy.

But she knew nothing about him. He’d kept the truth from her. A truth as basic as his name . . . he hadn’t trusted her enough to let her in. That made her sad. And it made her angry. She clenched her fingers into fists across her knees. It made her feel betrayed.

Where she had been falling in love . . . he hadn’t been falling. In fact, he had stood steadfast and kept his secrets. He’d kept her out. The feelings of betrayal far outweighed the feelings of relief that had stolen into her heart when her own sister’s heard had been breaking.

Seher walked away from the group that she had been talking to about the numbers for the gala. She felt confident that they would be able to handle the rest of the work. After all, they did this every year.

Waving to her mother and Badi Ammi, she made her way to the bar, needing cold water more than anything right now. Adjusting the slipping pallu of her red sari, she grabbed a glass of water before walking away from the bar. Drinking down the entire glass in one gulp, she left the glass on a nearby table. She then turned towards the bathroom, planning on touching up her makeup before the pictures were taken. The pallu of her sari slipped once more, and as she looked down to adjust it once more, her foot landed on dirty dishes that someone had left on the floor.

“Fu–,” she shrieked softly, as she began to fall to the floor. It all happened so quickly . . . the slipping . . . the falling . . . and then the landing. But it wasn’t the unforgiving floor this time. She landed in strong arms, the intoxicating scent of the man who had caught her enfolding her in its warmth. She looked up into the most beautiful eyes, her own lips smiling in response to the innocent smile that he sent her way.

“Are you okay?”

The words were softly spoken, the huskiness in that voice burrowing deep inside her heart. It made her want to go on hearing that voice forever. His looks had captivated her from afar, but it was his voice . . . his scent and his warmth that trapped her even more.

“I’m fine,” she forced out on a gasp, clenching her stomach when she realized that his hand had landed there in his bid to catch her.

He set her back up, holding her steady until she found her feet. She gazed up at him mutely, her heart still thundering at the accidental embrace. She watched as he reached down and grabbed something. Her eyes followed his movements, and saw that he had her sari pallu in his hand. She blushed as he placed it over her shoulder, covering her once more.

“If you’re sure you’re okay, then I’ll be on my way,” he said, his hand falling away. He stepped back, putting some distance between them. Nodding his head at her in goodbye, he turned back toward the ballroom.

“Wait!” Seher called out. She wasn’t sure what she would say when he turned back to her, but she knew that she didn’t want him to leave yet.

“Yes?” he asked, turning back to look at her questioningly.

“I’ve lost my phone,” she threw out there in desperate explanation.

He crinkled his brow at her, wondering where she was going with this. “How can I be of help?”

“Could I use your phone to call mine? Maybe it’s nearby and I’m just not finding it,” she asked with a smile. “I promise I’ll give it right back,” she assured him when he seemed to hesitate.

She dialed her number on his phone, and then winced when her cell went off in her clutch. “Da**it! I thought that I had left you with mom!” She silently yelled at the cell in her purse. She raised her eyes up to his and bit her lip, wondering how she would explain this to him.

His shoulders shook, his hand covering his mouth. She could see the laughter in his eyes.

“I swear that . . .” Her shoulders slumped. She couldn’t lie anymore. “At least you have my number now,” she murmured defiantly. “I’ll definitely save your number,” she confessed bravely. But that seemed to be one admission too many. “I’m going to just go now,” she muttered, making a break for it.

His fingers shot out and grabbed her wrist, arresting her escape.

She turned back to look at him questioningly, blushing scarlet at the laughter in his eyes.

“Don’t you think that it would be better for us to talk a little more?” he asked softly. “Maybe a dance if you have nothing better to do?”

She smiled, eagerly nodding her head. From the first moment she had seen him, she had felt an attraction. From the first moment that he had held her in his arms, she had felt a fire between them.

Reaching out a hand, she grasped his hand. She fully intended to explore that fire. She intended to fully enjoy him. She flashed him what she hoped was a flirty grin.

Aahil Raza Ibrahim would be hers. The Nawab of Bhopal, she trembled slightly at those words, would be hers one day.

Rehan Imran Qureshi. Not the Nawab of Bhopal.

Her attraction to him had made a dummy out of her at the most inopportune of times. Where she had wanted to look the sophisticate, her own schemes had made her the fool. And she had happily been a fool in love.

Just like Sanam. Seher bit her lip, wondering how Sanam was feeling right now. The two hadn’t had a chance to talk. In fact, she doubted either of them wanted to say anything right now. But she’d seen her sister leave the house this morning and go out back, just as she herself had been coming in. She’d kept an eye on her while Sanam had paced, but when her steps had taken her further from the house, Seher had gone back to her room.

Her nails dug into the soft skin of her arms, as she dealt with another reality. Sanam was her twin, and the two of them had shared all the happiness and tragedies in their lives together. Today, when she knew her sister was feeling the same things she had felt for the past week, she couldn’t be there to share Sanam’s grief. There was something she had that Sanam didn’t; the knowledge that the man she loved wasn’t a murderer. And despite how confused she felt right now, she was relieved that that particular truth wasn’t one she had to worry about.

“What do you mean why would we go to dinner and a movie? I want to date you! That was supposed to be our first date!” she burst out, surprised at the blank expression on his face. “Why do you think I’ve been chasing you around? Why did I come to your home uninvited? Why did I peek at you from behind pillars while you read a book?! God forbid that you do something exciting like swim around naked in the pool you have in the middle of your living room!”

“I never hinted in the smallest way that I thought of you like that,” he answered with reserve.

She stared into his eyes, unable to see beyond the wall he had erected between them so suddenly. Without wanting to . . . without meaning to, she began to cry. She silently cursed her weakness and the tears that had begun to fall. She hadn’t wanted to be so pathetic in front of this man.

She wasn’t this woman. She really wasn’t, but being around him confused her and made her feel too fragile. It was all because he felt like the one, but he felt nothing. Turning, she began to run, intent only on escape. But the tears blinded her and she tripped over a forgotten hose, falling to the floor. Her knees hit hard against the concrete, causing her to cry out in pain.

She felt strong hands helping her up. She felt his callused fingers brushing at her knees, cleaning the blades of grass and dirt off. Wincing at the pain his touch caused, she looked down to see blood on her knees through the rip in her slacks. She pulled away, intent on getting away and licking her wounds in solitude. She couldn’t look at him. She struggled fiercely to get free, but his hold on her was too strong.

“Come with me,” he urged her gently. “Let me take care of those scratches. If we don’t treat them now they could get infected.”

She stared up at him, shaking her head at how calm he seemed. “You’re right,” she said softly. “If I don’t take care of these wounds, they’ll only get infected. The way I feel for you is like an injury,” she muttered balefully, driving home the point just in case he didn’t get it. “The more I’m around you, the more I’ll be infected,” she uttered grimly, wiping her tears away. “You don’t want to date me, that’s fine. But don’t pretend to care.” She practically spat those words at him. Yanking her arm free, she began to walk away. The sudden pain in her knee caused her to cry out and stumble, and she began to fall again.

His arms caught her once more, picking her up easily.

She stiffened in his arms, ordering him to let her go.

“Just be quiet!” he barked at her. “You are not getting away until I take care of you! You’re going to hurt yourself even more if you remain this stubborn!”

“You’re hurting me even more by being like this. Stop pretending you care!” she shouted back at him. “What right do you have to tend to me? To touch me?”

“I have the right because you’ve given me the right!” he retorted. “I’m not giving it up. And if giving it up means that you will hurt yourself even more, then I’m not giving you up, either!”

“What the hell does that mean?” she angrily demanded, confusion appearing across her face.

“It means that we’re going on that damned first date,” he growled at her. “And then we’ll go on a second date. And then a third. We’ll date so much that you’ll grow tired of dating me!”

“Well, what if I don’t want to now?” Seher demanded on an outraged gasp.

“You don’t get to change your mind!” he shot back at her. “We’ll da*n well date now! Someone has to take care of you!”

“Fine then!” she said, a small smile playing across her lips.

“Fine!” he responded, striding back into his home with her in his arms.

Seher’s eyes landed on the orchid once more, her fingers reaching out to touch the soft petals. But before she could touch it, she pulled back, afraid that her touch would harm the flower itself. Sighing, she laid her head against the back of the bench. Her thoughts turned back to those happy moments.

When they’d gone on their first date, she’d been so happy. She’d been so excited that the adrenaline had flowed all night in her bloodstream. She’d trembled when he’d gotten close and then when he’d gotten closer. She’d wanted to touch his face, and trace his smiling lips. Her only desire had been to grab him in a hug and never let him go. She’d been completely giddy, like a young girl with her very first crush.

“Where are we going today?”

“To an orphanage I found out about from Rehan. He grew up at that orphanage. He likes to go there and spend time with the children, but he can’t do it as much due to the business. He asked me to take over some donations.”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Are you ready to head out, Aahil?”

“Just a minute. I promised the boys that I would play some soccer with them. And the girls wanted to talk with you. They said that they had some questions about fashion.”

“Oh, well, I’ll try my best,” Seher said with a smile.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“The orphanage administrator asked us to stay for dinner. The kids requested it. You don’t mind?”

“I don’t mind,” she answered softly, seeing the peace that had come over his face the longer they had stayed at the orphanage. It was reason enough, even if she hadn’t had the kids’ beseeching faces to back their request up.

She’d been aggressive in chasing him, because she knew he was something precious. And she hadn’t been ashamed because he’d caught her . . . with his words . . . his sweetness . . . the good that was clearly inside of him. She’d known from near the beginning that she would never feel this deeply again. His every touch . . . his every look made her tremble. But had any of it been real for him?

It was only now she realized that when he had spoken about Rehan’s past and taken her to the orphanage, that had been him sharing his own past with her. He had been telling her some truths in his own way. He had been one of those little boys, so desperate for love. So desperate for someone to just care a little bit. He wasn’t who he had said he was, but there had been moments of sincerity.

“And this is my favorite flower,” Seher said, touching the petals of the orchid. “Mom has a lot of these in the greenhouse, but there’s one particular color I love so much. It’s so hard to find though.” She stared at Aahil smiling at her, his eyes focused so intensely on her. “I once thought that it was the most beautiful thing in the world,” she said softly. “That is, until I saw your smile.”

His eyes widened at her compliment, and he raised a silent brow at her effusiveness.

“Now, are you going to tell me what you’ve been hiding since before dinner? Believe me, you’ve gotten all the women in this household extremely curious. Mom was extremely unhappy that she wouldn’t get to see what was in the package before she dragged off dad for tea and mithai inside.”

He carefully took out the present and handed it over.

Her eyes widened when she unwrapped it, surprised at the contents. “How did you know?” she squeaked. “I just told you this orchid was my favorite flower! I didn’t even mention the color.”

“Mental telepathy?” he quipped.

She shook her head at him, pursing her lips.

“You mentioned it once when we walked past a gallery,” he explained. “There was a painting in the window.”

“I said it once and you remembered?” Her heart was melting right in front of him, and she couldn’t do anything about it. He made her feel so precious . . . so treasured by acts like this. This . . . this was what she loved about him.

“I remember everything you say,” he whispered, stepping closer.

Her heart melted a little bit more. She reached up, circling his neck with her arms and pulled him closer. Their lips were so close that she could feel the heat of his lips brushing against her lips. Closing that distance, she touched her lips to the side of his mouth. Pulling back, she grabbed the orchid and placed it in her favorite place in the greenhouse. “Now I’ll see it whenever I come in here,” she declared. Turning back, she flashed him a smile.

Reaching out a hand, he grabbed her wrist and slowly pulled her close. His hold on her hand was loose enough that she could easily escape. He pulled her so slowly that she could easily deflect his advances, but she did nothing of the kind.

Pulling her into his arms, he placed one of her hands over his heart. “Do you feel that?”

She stared up at him, and silently nodded her head. She said nothing, knowing that words wouldn’t get past the lump in her throat.

“It beats only for you. I love you so much. It’s the kind of love that makes me afraid. What if I lose you one day because of something I did? What if I lose you because of my loyalty to another? Would you forgive me?”

“I’d forgive you anything,” she said softly. “You just have to trust me enough to tell me the truth.” Pulling his head down, she placed her lips against his, seeking to tell him the secrets of her heart with the passion of her kiss.

His only response was to pull her closer, his lips answering her fervent demands.

Aa-Rehan had understood her in a way that no one besides Sanam had. He understood her crazy schemes. He encouraged her dreams. He had been understanding every time she came running just so she could be with him.

At least he had until he’d stopped.

She stared at the orchid. It was dying now. Raising an orchid was difficult. Just like protecting love was difficult. It seemed that she just didn’t have that ability. He’d been hiding so much, and she’d never even suspected. How sad was that?

When dad had told her the rumors, she hadn’t believed them. How could a man who smiled so sweetly be capable of murder? She didn’t believe that he was capable of killing anyone. But before she could ask him anything, he shut the door between them. There had been no contact. She’d never had the chance to demand any answers.

“Stop right there!” she called out, striding down the hallway. “You’re not going to get away from me that easily, Aahil!” she barked at him, racing towards him. She’d spent the last half hour looking for him, searching carefully, hoping that she wouldn’t get caught before finding him. She’d finally found him in an unassuming corner of the home, a surprising place to find the Nawab of Bhopal.

He stood in the doorway, in a navy blue suit. He was frozen, his eyes wide at her sudden appearance. Shaking his head, he stepped back into the room he had been about to exit and then slammed the door shut.

She stared at the closed door in disbelief, her face crumpling for a moment. Stiffening, she raced to the door and banged on it in anger. “Aahil, open the door. Please!” There was no response from the other side. She knew he was there. She could feel his presence. Heck, she could see his silhouette through the frosted glass.

“Why won’t you talk to me?” she asked, the pain evident in her voice. “I know that something is going on! You’re hiding something. The rumors have started to spread, but I don’t believe them. I won’t believe anything until you tell me the truth. You don’t have to hide anything from me, Aahil,” she said brokenly. “There should be no secrets between us.”

The door creaked, as if he was leaning against it. She rested her forehead against that same door, almost convincing herself that she could feel his heat through the pane of glass.

“I have to admit that I haven’t shared everything with you,” she said softly. “And I’m sure there are things that you haven’t told me.”

There was no answer.

“Okay, I’ll begin. Did I tell you what happened on my birthday one time? When Sanam and I were getting ready for our second birthday, playing our little hearts outside while our parents set up the party decorations inside . . . a psycho killer got inside our home and attacked our parents. She killed my aunt, Haya’s mother.”

She paused, but there was no response from the other side. Talking about it, even when she had no memories, was really difficult. Hearing no response from him, made it even harder. She bit her lip, and forced herself to go on. If she couldn’t talk to him about his, how could she expect him to share his secrets with her?

“Well, my Badi Ammi went inside to investigate . . . something must have tipped her off. She left us there with strict instructions to stay. I don’t know if you know this, but there’s a gate between our houses . . . in the backyard. Khan Mansion is surrounded by fences, to protect us, but there is one gate. And me, being the inquisitive gal that I am, I must have decided that I was going to go towards that mysterious gate. I must have, since that was the only way I could have escaped. From there, I must have wandered out onto the street.” She stopped, taking deep breaths to push those dark emotions down. “They didn’t find me for two days. My parents found me in a brothel. I had been found by some scum and sold, but I don’t remember any of that. I don’t remember anything, so I don’t know what happened in those days. I don’t remember anything.” She wiped her tears, trying to ignore the choking sensation that was overriding all other thought. She would not let her past get to her like this. “Those are my secrets,” she said softly, raising a hand and placing it against the shadow of his silhouette.

“Please leave,” he ordered softly.

Her hand fell away, the hurt burning deep inside of her as she struggled with his response. “Do you like someone else?”

There was only silence from behind the door.

“Do you like Haya?” she asked with difficulty, pushing the words out. Saying those words allowed her to take some of that ugliness that had been churning inside of her heart and throw it out there for him to witness. “She’s a special person, so I could understand . . .”

“What?” he burst out, opening the door and staring at her in disbelief.

“At the school fundraiser,” she said with difficulty. “You were staring at her the entire time. You were so careful of her needs. You went there to support her, which any one would do,” she said, seeing him open his mouth. “But you ordered tea for her. You helped her with the children. You . . . well, okay there was nothing untoward in your behavior,” she said, holding up a hand. “But I saw the look in your eyes!” she wailed, the hurt now choking her. “You like her better than me! And if you do, that’s fine! But just tell me so I know what the hell is going on,” she yelled at him.

He stood there, staring at her incredulously.

“Say something!” she continued, reaching out to grab his collar. Her fingers crumpled it, and a distant part of her wondered what he would do now that he wasn’t all impeccable.

“It is nothing like that! You don’t understand,” he finally got out. He looked away, as if unable to meet her questioning gaze.

“Then explain yourself,” she entreated. “I’m giving you the chance.” When there was only silence between them, she uttered the one word that expressed her feelings. “Coward.”

He pulled her hands down, gripping them in his.

Her eyes went from his eyes down to those hands, holding her wrists. His hands were warm, his grip was gentle. But the look in his eyes was so . . . blank. He had turned off, and she couldn’t reach him.

“Re-Aah, baba! What’s going on here?” Lateef’s voice called out from behind her.

Seher felt hands gripping her around the waist, and pulling her away. She struggled silently, refusing to look away from his eyes. She would not make this easy for him.

“Don’t make this harder on yourself!” Lateef urged, keeping a gentle hold on her waist.

She could only watch in frustration when he stepped back into the room and shut the door.

“Here, I’m going to take you to this room,” Lateef said, pulling her down the hallway. The room that Lateef brought her to was nearer to the ballroom. She sat her down and gave her a mirror. “You have mascara running down your face. Clean it.”

Seher just shook her head at Lateef. “Why would I care about my makeup?”

“Woman, have some pride,” Lateef barked at her, her hands gentle as she wiped away the runny mascara on Seher’s cheeks.

“What do I care about pride?” Seher muttered angrily, snatching the napkin away and wiping at the mascara quickly. “I practically begged him to tell me anything.”

“And that didn’t get you much, did it?” Lateef said, with a pat to her shoulder. “These men . . . they’re hiding too much. You can’t even imagine.”

“What do you know?” Seher asked, her eyes going wide.

“Nothing!” Lateef said. “Just leave me alone, I have to go help Aahil baba.” She strode out, adjusting her braid. “Now, you two. Don’t let her go anywhere except for the ballroom. She’s wily, so keep an eye on her!”

She needed to forget this! Raising her arms up, she violently waved them around her head, hoping to brush away her thoughts. The loud crash of something hitting the floor brought her back to her senses. Her eyes fell to the floor, widening when she saw what she had done in her distraction. The orchid pot was broken, the flower crushed.

Tears began to fall from her eyes, wetting her cheeks. She angrily wiped them away. What was she doing? Why did she care so much? Why did she care so much when he found it so easy to walk away?

Why had she sat up all last night, sitting in the dark, mourning the betrayal of a man who seemingly had given her no thought at all? His lies had shaken her belief in herself.

“Da*n you, Rehan Imran Qureshi,” she muttered angrily. “You’re not going to get away that easily.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

Sanam entered the greenhouse and came in to sit down beside Seher. She stared at the remnants of the orchid and the pot on the floor.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Seher admitted, resting her head against Sanam’s shoulder. “There are these conflicting feelings inside of me, and I don’t know which one should win out.”

“You have the right to your feelings,” Sanam said, patting her sister’s head. She began to run her fingers through Seher’s hair, her fingers gently tugging at the ends of it before stopping. “You were so strong when the rumors spread,” Sanam murmured. “You fought Abu and your own fears; you were ready to fight the world for him.”

“I was ready to fight everyone for him. I was ready to give everything up for him,” Seher agreed. “But he didn’t want any of that. He pulled back before I could do anything. He decided he didn’t want me.”

“I know that you feel betrayed,” Sanam said, “But I’m sure that a part of you must be incredibly happy that he wasn’t the ex-convict Nawab. So, let that part of you be happy. And I’m going to do what you were going to do. I’m going to ask him.”

“What I don’t get,” Seher said, raising her head to look at her twin, “Is why is Rehan now hiding from me? A part of me,” she said grimacing, “just wants to give up. But giving up means never seeing him again. And he sure as hell is not going to follow me. He plans to let me go.”

“You’re telling me,” Sanam muttered. “He won’t even talk to me. He won’t give me a chance. I’m so angry,” she muttered. “But if I gave up, I’d give up on us. I’m not ready to do that yet.”

“Then why don’t we go over there and confront those idiots?” Seher asked, smiling at Sanam with some of that old sparkle.

“Let’s go,” Sanam said agreeably. “But we can’t go through the front.”

“Yep, Lateef will be there,” Seher agreed.

“He was too good a guard last night. It really makes me wonder about those men,” Sanam noted.

“And their need to hide behind Lateef,” Seher finished that thought.

The two looked at each other and began to laugh.

“Is there something wrong with us that we’re laughing at a time like this?” Seher asked, ruffling Sanam’s hair.

“If we don’t laugh, we’d be crying instead,” Sanam said, straightening out her hair after pushing Seher’s hand away. “Let’s go, sister,” Sanam said, standing up and holding her hand out to Seher.

Seher put her hand in hers, and allowed Sanam to pull her up. “And, I take it that we’ll be using . . .,”

“The gate at the end of the lawn,” Sanam said. “Do you have the key?”

“We’ll find it,” Seher said.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

And an hour later, the two were in the back lawn of the Ibrahim Mansion. They’d snuck in and were near the house now. Seher giggled, the rush of sneaking in having gone to her head.

“Shh,” Sanam admonished her, placing a finger over her lips.

Seher shook her head at her, but quieted down. They were so close now that defeat at this point would be a real shame.

“I have no hope, but you do.”

Sanam’s eyes widened on hearing Aahil’s voice.

“You can be with the woman you love. You don’t have to give her up out of some misguided sense of honor. You won’t have to tell them the truth. No one will know, Rehan,” he urged.

The two men were standing on the back verandah, too focused on each other to see Sanam and Seher standing mere feet away.

“How can you say that, Aahil bhai?” Rehan asked brusquely. “Someday the truth will come out. You can’t just hide it and hope that it never sees the light of day. And then imagine the pain she’d feel. I thought for a while that it would be okay. I convinced myself that I could be with her and no one would be hurt.”

“Then keep on thinking that way,” Aahil urged. “No one will ever know.”

“That was before all of Bhopal found out about you, Aahil bhai. Weren’t you hoping for the same thing?” he asked sadly. “It won’t be long before my truth come out.”

“What truth? What are you worried about? There is nothing linking you to her!” Aahil argued.

“My mother killed their family, Aahil bhai!” Rehan yelled in frustration. “She killed Asad Ahmed Khan’s father. She killed Zoya Farooqui’s father. She killed Asad Ahmed Khan’s sister. She tried to kill their mother and father. How can I hide that?” His voice broke. Rehan stopped, his throat working fiercely. He angrily swiped at his eyes before continuing. “Do you know what Seher told me last night?” He stopped once more. “My mother did all of that. I am her son! I come from her. I share her blood. How could it not matter? I could never love or live with her, knowing the truth that I was hiding from her.”

Sanam gasped loudly, her heart furiously beating in her chest. She raised a hand to cover her mouth, her mind unable to comprehend the words that she had just heard.

The two men turned to stare at them, their eyes wide with horror.

“Seher . . . ”

. . . . . . . . . . . . . .

“Are you kidding me?!!”

9 thoughts on “EY: Chapter 06 – 10

  1. this is going sooo good! 🙂 loving it al. please keep writing. it. and let’s see some sehan interactions, moments, scenes in detail too. both romances are unique. and the dynamics between the characters, one-on-one and in different groups and settings. it’ll probably end up longer that way, but your writings are worth it! and the talent and imagination are obviously there. 🙂 thanks again.

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