EY: Chapter 01 – 05

Eternally Yours II

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Chapter 1: Air
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“Has the caterer come with the food? We have two hours to set up! You know the event begins at 6:30, Rajiv. Why aren’t they here yet? Did we get a call from them?” She sighed heavily. “What am I supposed to do? Go into the kitchen and cook the food myself? Rajiv! Please, check it out,” she urged and hung up the cell phone.

Staring down at the checklist in her hand, she put an angry star next to the caterers. Quickly dialing the next number, she began to speak rapidly, “Hello, Maheen, have the decorators finished with the ballroom? And the other room, as well? Great! Could you please help Rajiv figure out what’s going on the with da*n caterers? They haven’t shown up, yet. I know!”

She hung up the cell and checked off the next item in her list. “Where are those damn caterers? How unprofessional. They were supposed to be here by now and already setting up. What am I going to tell Mrs. Malhotra when she comes for the final checkup an hour from now? Especially when I told her that I could handle the setup?” she crossly muttered to herself, an unhappy frown on her face.

Rrriinnngg. Quickly swiping her thumb over the screen, she answered the call. “Hello? They’re here? That’s great! I’ll be working in the other ballroom, making sure the silent auction arrangements are finished. We were able to get some last minute items that I think will get us a lot of donations,” she murmured distractedly. “Call me if you have any questions.”

Ending the call, she gazed around the main ballroom. There were two ballrooms being used at the venue for today’s event. The VIPs, the highest of high society, would be welcomed in front of the main ballroom. She gazed around the room once more. The main event would be held here. The speeches, the dinner, the awards would all take place here. The stage had already been decorated, and the plaques were ready to hand out to last year’s big donors.

She sighed in satisfaction, her eyes moving over the flowers, the tables, dinnerware, and the banners. Everything was all set up. The color scheme, a rich mauve and gold mix, helped to turn the room into a warm and inviting space. The tablecloths, the napkins . . . the skirts on the chairs all reflected the color scheme chosen for this day. The hope was that the tasteful decorations would induce the city’s VIPs into opening their wallets and their hearts to this cause.

Nodding her head in satisfaction, she left, sure in the knowledge that nothing further needed to be done in this room. Now that the caterers were here, the food would be set up in the kitchen, ready to be served on time.

Taking out a handkerchief, she wiped the sweat from her forehead. This was not the time to relax, she silently chided herself and strode into the second, smaller ballroom. Her eyes quickly took note of the lighting, the decorations and the long tables set up for the bid lists, which were the most important part of this affair. This room was covered in cool colors of silver and navy blue. The temperature was just right. And the room’s insulation ensured that no noise would come in from the adjoining ballroom to disturb the people ready to make the bids on the items they had so carefully procured.

Nodding to some of her colleagues at the other end of the room, she moved toward the stage and began to set up the pictures they had brought expressly for this event. She sighed softly in satisfaction, as she placed those pictures carefully on their stands. Tonight would see the completion of her very first big project at the non-profit organization she had begun to work at a few months ago. She was working with a great team of people, but it truly did feel like her project since they were holding this fundraiser in her hometown of Bhopal.

The nonprofit organization, Legal Services of Bhopal, not only helped low-income individuals fight their cases, be it in the family law or the employment law arena, but they specialized in assisting victims of domestic violence escape their abusive situations. The non-profit worked closely with shelters all over India to help those suffering from domestic abuse to safely escape the violence and begin new lives.

LSB helped those that may have been turned away before. LSB helped those that were the least empowered of all. And that was Sanam’s passion. It was what had driven her to become a lawyer . . . to work with a non-profit organization, and work with those that had suffered the most . . . to help them escape . . . survive . . . and succeed. Her lips tightened in remembered fury, her mind flitting over the clients she had encountered over the past few months. Only one thought was circling in her head . . . no one had the right to hurt another. She believed that from the bottom of her heart. No one had that right and there was no excuse for such behavior. And this fundraiser would allow LSB to help so many more people.

The pictures she was setting up right now were pictures taken by their clients of things most important to them. The nature of their work meant that most of their clients couldn’t be pictured. Pictures of faces and identities could mean those photos being utilized to hunt their clients down. But these pictures . . . of mundane things like schools, offices, nothing too specific of course, of food and books . . . would show the world how the nonprofit’s help had resulted in their clients surviving . . . living . . . and flourishing. These people had escaped their lives of pain and suffering, and were now out in the world and living happy lives.

Stepping down from the stage, Sanam gazed up at the pictures once more with a soft smile playing on her lips. The stuffed bear that Preity carried everywhere she went . . . her very first toy. The office copier in the office where Sonali had gotten her first job. The new suit that Vivek had bought with his first paycheck, so that he could go to other interviews. These were the heart and soul of those people that LSB had helped, and she wanted to make sure that that sincerity came through to their donors. She wanted all of Bhopal to see the good they could do, just by donating some of their money.

Sanam sat down in one of the nearby chairs, taking a long drink from her water bottle. She needed a moment to relax before going on to the next task. Closing her eyes, she pondered on the fact that this was her first job after finishing law school. She had passed the All India Bar Exam after a period of intense study and support from her family. Upon receiving the results, she had quickly enrolled with the Bhopal Bar Council, and had gone out to search for a job. Within months of getting her Bar results, she had found a job. Sanam knew that she was extremely lucky to have found a job in her field, and she had been lucky to find this job. While the job might have come easily, but that didn’t mean she hadn’t poured her heart and soul into helping to make this project a success. She tightened her fingers into a fist . . . just as she would do with every task she was assigned while on the job.

Sanam felt that everything was finally going as planned, and she was ready for this night to happen. Honestly, she was ready for this night to be over. She wanted all of the worry behind her. She was ready to see the success of her first project. ‘Okay . . . not really your project,’ she reminded herself, but she had been a part of it. And she was ready to see the successful results.

Pulling out her phone, she called the person closest to her in the entire world. “Hello,” she murmured into the phone. “Are you ready? What do you mean you’re not ready yet, Seher ki bachi?” Sanam fairly growled into the phone. “You’re supposed to be on your way here already!” She paused for a minute and heard the conciliatory voice on the other end.

“Okay, I guess you couldn’t leave the meeting early. It wouldn’t be professional, even if it is dad’s company. We wouldn’t want anyone talking about nepotism. Especially, since dad is practically forcing you to work there,” she said. “But you know that I need you to bring my clothes for the fundraiser. I’m in my jeans and a sweatshirt right now. And I stink!” Her voice fairly squeaked with frustration, as she said the words. Another pause to hear whatever her sister had to say.

“Seher!” she whined into the phone. “You know the fundraiser is at the Kohinoor hotel! I know you’re weak in geography, so I’ll explain it to you. This location is an hour away from home. Even if you leave now, you’ll be cutting it really close. I need time to get ready, too, you know. It’s not easy to prettify myself!”

She heard her sister’s promises on the other end, and breathed a sigh of relief. “I know I should’ve brought the clothes, but it’s too late to think about it now, Seher. Okay, I expect you to be here in an hour. Right?” Smiling, she hung up the phone. Her sister had promised to be here in an hour, and she could trust Seher to keep that promise.

Who would’ve thought that her adventure-loving sister would become an accountant? Seher had gotten her B.Com and had passed the certifying exam. She was now working in the accounting department of their father’s architecture firm, Dilshad Constructions, to gain experience before going out on her own.

Sanam smiled softly, thinking about Seher. Her sister, who used to love running off to explore new things, had settled for the dry world of numbers. But, as Seher had said, she loved counting money. All the fun was really in counting other people’s money, she would say with a sly smirk, and in making some of that money her own . . . legally, of course.

“Sanam, we need you!”

Staring down at her watch, she blew her bangs off her forehead, and then called out, “Coming!” to a frantic coworker. Racing through the door, she muttered a final prayer, “Allah Miyah, please make this event a humongous success.”

She hoped Allah Miyah would listen.

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

“Sanam beta,” her mother’s voice called out from behind her.

Sanam turned and smiled at her mother, who was looking gorgeous in a black and silver sari.

Before walking over to her mother, she glanced one final time around the ballroom. The food had been eaten. The speeches made. There had been one hitch in the program, but her co-workers were on duty and had taken care of it. She smiled softly, her heart expanding to see the full crowd in the second, smaller ballroom. The object of the auction was to have Bhopal’s elite bid on the items LSB had received from sponsors and private supporters of LSB. Items like trips to Switzerland, Paris and Japan, a yacht, and a jewelry certificate from Tiffany’s in the USA. The winning bids, in the shape of huge quantities of money, would then be used as a private fund to help the organization’s domestic violence clients.

The band was now playing in one corner, and some of the guests had begun to dance on the dance floor. The quiet murmurs of the guests were all happy ones. No one seemed unhappy. No one was complaining.

“You did a wonderful job,” her mother murmured, leaning in to place a soft kiss on her daughter’s forehead. “I can’t believe that my daughter is all grown up and putting on parties like this,” she murmured tearfully, wiping away a stray tear that had fallen from her eye. “Pretty soon you’ll be off marrying someone and leaving us to go to your own home.”

“Aw, mom,” Sanam murmured, blushing a deep red. “I just turned 23,” she reminded her mother. “I just graduated from school, and just began my career. You know how passionate I am about this career, mom,” she said, looking meaningfully into her mother’s eyes. “Love isn’t even on the charts yet, let alone marriage. You’ll have me for many more years. I’d say keep your eye on Seher. She’s raring to go.”

There was a shocked gasp from behind her. “Traitor!” Seher whisper-yelled. “After I drove all this way to get you your clothes, and helped you get ready.”

Sanam turned around to see her twin standing a few feet away. She was closely followed by their father, Asad Ahmed Khan, who shook his head silently at the noise his family was making.

Seher walked over to her sister, and glared at her before breaking into a smile. Sanam wore a white, floor-length dress, the perfect dress for this event. Her hair was pulled back from her face, and she wore light makeup. Everything about her appearance was geared towards presenting a professional image for their donors. She smiled softly at her sister, who looked gorgeous in a red, ornate sari. She was dressed to the nines, and clearly having lots of fun . . . even at this boring work event that she had attended for her sister. Sanam threw a smile in her father’s direction, before beginning to tease her sister.

Asad stood to the side, his eyes on his family. He watched his younger daughter, younger by a few minutes, arguing with her sister. Their mother, his Ms. Farooqui, stood to the side, smiling with pride at her two daughters. To be honest, he was just like her . .. his heart couldn’t help but swell with pride when he saw his two young girls. After what had happened on the twins’ second birthday, he had realized that there was nothing more precious than love. And that it was so … so important to shower that love over his loved ones. Consciously loosening the tight hold that he had on his emotions and leaving behind his close attachment to what he thought was tehzeeb, Asad Ahmed Khan had become expressive. He had become a man that his wife and his girls could come to and share all their worries with.

Stepping forward, he slipped an arm around his wife and met the guilty looks his daughters threw his way. “Even if Seher is ready to go to her new home, why would she hide it?” he asked equably.

“Mr. Khan!” Zoya protested, turning to glare at her husband.

“Our daughters will have to get married one day, Ms Farooqui,” he whispered softly into her ear. “Don’t you want them to find someone to love, the way we found each other?”

She blushed at the love she saw in his eyes.

“Sooner or later, they’ll leave,” he murmured into her ear. “But you’ll always have me.”

“Eww, dad! Stop it,” Seher said good-naturedly. “We’re in public.”

“You gals can fight over who betrayed who,” he ordered them, still gazing into his wife’s eyes. “Your mom and I are going to have some fun.”

Sanam watched her parents, who were still very much in love, walk over to the dance floor. They began to slow dance to the music, quickly losing themselves in their own private world. She smiled, seeing her mother giggling as her father whispered into her ear.

Asad Ahmed Khan was the premier architect in Bhopal, and his firm did big business in the city. But he had never let his business get in the way of being there for his family. He had attended every school event, their graduations, and had always encouraged them with their dreams. When he had found out that she was helping out with this event, he had happily bought tickets to the event, and had even bid on some of the items. In addition to that, he had also made a big donation to LSB.

Her parents were her ideal. After years together, the two were so in love. But it wasn’t the kind of love she saw on TV or some of the selfish love abusers professed before beating their partner or their child. Her parents’ love was deep and abiding. Their love was patient and deep. Their love . . . was beautiful. Their love was rare. While she had told her mother that her career was important now, she really didn’t think that it was possible to find their kind of love that easily. And she wouldn’t settle.

“And what are you dreaming about, my dear sister?” Seher asked in her ear, wrapping her arm around the other woman.

“Hmm?” Sanam murmured, turning to stare into a face identical to her own. A face that was so beloved to her. She smiled. “Just looking at mom and dad,” she replied. “How can they be so in love even after decades together?”

“Magic,” Seher quipped. Putting her arm through Sanam’s, she dragged her sister to the corner of the room. “Wasn’t Haya supposed to come?” she asked, looking around for their cousin. “She told me that she’d be here,” Seher whined. “She’s so busy with her job, that we hardly get to see her except for on school breaks. I tell you, teachers hardly get paid anything, but they make them work hours of overtime.”

“But she’s happy,” Sanam reminded her. “Wasn’t it her dream to work with children with physical impairments ever since she was a child? It was her teachers that made school bearable for her until she got her operation. She can hear now, but she will never forget how those adults made her life easier.”

“Yes, fine. But it’s a break now. She can’t be busy with school. So, where is she?” Seher demanded grumpily.

“Rahat was called on duty for the next two weeks in some remote area,” Sanam said. “She decided to go be with her husband.”

“I can’t believe that she’s already married,” Seher said, the envy clear in her voice.

“We’ve known Rahat since we were kids,” Sanam pointed out. “They’ve known each other almost all their lives. There was a bond there from the beginning. Remember, how he used to take care of her? And when his brother, Faiz, died in that horrible accident, she was there to comfort him. They’ve already been through so much, and are more mature than either one of us. And as she said, why wait when you already know? Especially, when you don’t know what tomorrow will bring.”

“I know,” Seher said, “But . . .”

“You want that, too,” Sanam finished for her.

Seher smiled. “Don’t you? Sometimes I have nightmares . . . about a life without our parents. What if they hadn’t survived, and we had to live on our own? What would we have become?”

Sanam squeezed her sister’s hand lovingly. “I’m here for you,” she murmured. “Nothing can separate us.”

“Yeah, until you find your love,” Seher pointed out balefully. “It’s only right that your husband will take first place in your heart, but I have admit that when you find that special someone, I will be really jealous.”

“And what about you, miss ‘I’m ready to get married’? You’ll find your special someone, too. And I won’t be first in your heart anymore, either.”

The girls were pulled from their private conversation by a dull uproar, which was picking up in volume.

“What’s going on?” Sanam asked, her worried eyes moving across the room. But the noise was not an unhappy noise. It sounded like excitement.

Soon, the two were surrounded by the whispers of those around them. ‘What would strike awe in the hearts of Bhopal’s elite?‘ Sanam wondered, her eyes moving around once more. The smile on her supervisor’s face calmed her fears. Whatever it was, it was a good thing, she thought to herself, or Mrs. Malhotra would not be smiling so happily. She watched the woman talk into her cell phone with an intent expression, and then the face relaxed into a relieved smile.

Seher suddenly squealed in excitement.

“What?” Sanam asked with a gasp, turning to look at her smiling twin.

“The Nawab of Bhopal!” Seher replied. “Your fundraiser has been graced by Bhopal’s own royalty. Think of how much more money you’re going to get, when people realize the Nawab is here. They’ll be eager to show off their own wealth by bidding crazily on the items in the other room. That man has been missing in action for so long. You know how every other week the entertainment programs have episodes on where the Nawab disappeared to, so the fact that he’s here is a huge thing, Sanam! He’s come back,” she squealed, almost rubbing her hands together.

“Can you be more obvious?” Sanam asked chidingly. “What do you plan on doing? Jumping him as soon as he walks through the door? You don’t even know what he looks like,” she pointed out. “What if he’s old? What if he turns to be a total gargoyle?”

“He’s a man of mystery, Sanam,” Seher protested. “He wouldn’t dare be ugly. And anyways, he has to be young. Why do you have to be so prosaic about things like this? Let me have some fun!”

The girls focused on the knot of people at the other end of the room, which seemed to be stuck in the doorway of the second ballroom. The knot was moving around some central focal point, and their eyes followed the commotion as the knot slowly began to move into the main ballroom.

Sanam’s eyes flicked over to the stage, eyes widening in surprise when she saw Mrs. Malhotra up there. “Ladies and Gentlemen, we have amongst us tonight the Nawab of Bhopal, Mr. Aahil Raza Ibrahim! Nawab Ibrahim has just donated 1 million US dollars to the Legal Services of Bhopal. A big hand for his generosity.”

The applause was loud. Sanam stared at her sister, eyes wide at the news. This man really cared about their cause. A smile grew on her face, as she realized that they had surpassed their goal with just that one donation. Everything else they got tonight would just be icing on the cake.

Seher suddenly gasped in surprise.

Sanam turned her head to look at her sister, and then followed her sister’s wide-eyed gaze. She saw that the knot had finally loosened, and they could see the man standing in the center. “He’s . . .”

“Hot,” Seher uttered a husky tone. “I . . . I wouldn’t mind getting to know that Nawab better,” she murmured.

Sanam looked at the entranced look on her sister’s face, and then back at the man standing in the sea of people. He was handsome, with the sweetest smile. It was so shy, as he nodded his head at the applause he was getting from the crowd. Murmuring something to the man at his shoulder, he moved across the floor to meet Mrs. Malhotra, who was waving at them from the foot of the stage.

Sanam’s eyes were caught for a moment by that interaction, but she forced her attention away. The important thing was that they had received the donation. The important thing was that they would be able to help so many people with that money. She didn’t have time to get distracted.

“Where’s the rest of the family?” Zoya asked, coming to stand next to their daughters.

Sanam turned to look at her mother. “What do you mean? How do you know about their family?” she asked curiously.

“We’ll they’re pretty well-known,” her mother remarked. “There were two daughters, right? They should be about five years younger than you two. If he’s the new Nawab, then the father must have passed away. I wonder what happened to him?” she asked musingly.

“They used to have a farmhouse next to your Imran Uncle’s house, before he sold up and went overseas,” Asad remarked. “You must remember. We used to take Haya over there all the time when she lived with us as a young child. You know, before she moved back in with her dad. You might have even seen him or the daughters. Our vacations overlapped quiet often.”

“Aahil Raza Ibrahim,” Seher mused. “How did I miss seeing you as a kid? ARI. Sexy, don’t you think?” she asked, turning to look at her sister.

Sanam eyes widened. “ARI . . . ?” she murmured.

Her head whipped around to stare at the man currently talking to her supervisor.

‘Air?’

~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 2: Qureshi. Rehan Imran Qureshi.
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Sanam walked out of the ballroom, finding it hard to catch her breath. She needed air, and it was too crowded and loud in that ballroom to make that possible. The sound was muted out here, and she was alone in the hallway. Everyone else, including the LSB staff, had entered the room to catch a glimpse of the fabled Nawab of Bhopal.

In the carpeted hallway, under the bright lighting, she let out a gasp. She was away from any prying eyes, even the loving ones of her family, and she could finally allow her body to relax. She placed a hand against her chest, willing her rapid heartbeats to slow. Btu despite all efforts, her thoughts were still in turmoil. Turning back to look at the closed doors of the ballroom, her lips began to tremble. “ARI. Air,” she murmured softly to herself. It was him. The memory of a young boy continued to tug at her psyche, refusing to let go.

“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?”

She had been so happy to get the answer she needed from an older man. And at the time, he had seemed older. Even though . . . thinking back now, he must have been a young teenager at the time. She smiled ruefully at that remembered triumph, but the smile quickly faded away. She leaned against a cream-colored wall for support, having moved a few feet down from the ballroom doors.

“How can there be love . . . if parents hurt their children? . . . How can a kid trust his parents, or even love them, if they beat him up . . . lock him up . . . starve him?”

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

“Don’t worry your little head about it, kid . . . I was just joking.”

The wealth of pain . . . the immeasurable darkness . . . the heart-clenching cynicism in that voice . . . and despite all of that, the attempt to take her worry away. That was what had remained with her long after he had left. That man in the ballroom had partly shaped the person she was today.

She took a deep breath, trying to calm the heavy beat of her heart. In one fell swoop, she had gone from fearing the darkness of the night to appreciating its beauty. And then he had taught her that sometimes darkness could be ugly. That sometimes, even if you had the light in front of you, you couldn’t see it. She took a deep breath again, but a sob escaped nonetheless. And now he was here. Her heartbeat stuttered at the thought. The only thing was . . .

Sanam jumped when she felt a hand on her shoulder, distracting her from her thoughts. Looking up with tear-stricken eyes, she met her mother’s comforting gaze. “Ammi,” she murmured, reaching up to grab hold of her mother’s hand. “He’s back.”

“She’s finally asleep,” Zoya murmured, coming to sit beside Asad on their bed. “She still wouldn’t tell me why she was crying. Not in any detail. Asad,” she said plaintively, “Our daughter is hurting and there is nothing I can do about it.” It was late at night, and the kids were finally asleep. Seher and Haya had both been affected by Sanam’s depressed mood, but Zoya had finally managed to put the girls to bed, assuring them that Sanam was just tired.

Coming to bed herself, she was ready to rest. But she knew that the worries in her mind would not allow her to actually sleep. Asad reached out and pulled her close, hugging her in comfort.

“My heart hurts for our daughter,” Zoya said, burying her face in his chest. The sounds of his heartbeats were soothing, but the memory of her daughter’s tears was too strong for her to allow herself to be soothed.

“Ammi?” a young voice called out.

Zoya turned her head and saw Sanam standing in the doorway.

“Abu?” Sanam stood at the threshold, afraid to come in and disturb them.

“Sanam, why are you still up?” Asad asked sternly, holding out an arm, nonetheless, to silently welcome their young daughter.

Sanam walked over and climbed into his lap, forgetting that just days ago she had loudly proclaimed that she was too old for her father to carry. Nestling close to her father, she reached out and grabbed her mother’s hand. It was only then that she allowed herself to relax, her heart soothed by the love she could feel coming from her parents.

“What is it, beta?” Zoya asked, brushing back the hair that had fallen across her daughter’s face with her free hand. She looked into her daughter’s eyes questioningly.

“Do some adults hurt kids, even when they’re supposed to be taking care of them?” Sanam asked in a small voice.

“Sanam, what happened?” Asad asked grimly. “Who hurt you?” The anger was clear in his voice, as if he was ready to punish anyone who had dared to harm his little girl.

Sanam quickly shook her head. “I met someone today. He was hurt. He said . . .,” she stopped, her voice breaking off.

“Said what?” Zoya prompted gently.

“I think his parents hurt him.”

Her parents had listened to her. They had then talked to the authorities. By the time they had cut through all the red tape and someone had actually gone out to check on the children, the family had left the country. And no one in a position of authority had cared to pursue the matter any further.

Sanam was grateful from the bottom of her heart that her parents had listened to her that day. They had taken action to try to help a child, even if those actions had been unsuccessful. But the memory of a child who hadn’t been helped had remained with her over the years.

“Sanam, I know how much that one incident shaped you,” Zoya murmured, pulling her daughter into her arms for a quick hug. “You began to work harder in school. I don’t even know when you decided to become an attorney, but I know it was because of your desire to change the system so that no children would fall through the cracks.”

Pulling back, Zoya looked at her daughter closely, her heart aching at the confusion and pain she saw in her daughter’s eyes. Her Sanam was a lioness, protecting those around her with all the life that she had in her body. And now, to have that boy come back into her daughter’s life . . . as a man . . . and to see how he still had an effect on her vulnerable daughter. She wasn’t sure how she felt about that.

“You can’t just do that, Sanam!” Asad yelled at his recalcitrant daughter. “You can’t just jump in front of someone like that! What if you had been hurt?” Asad asked. His arms were crossed across his chest, as he glared down at her angrily.

“But he was hurting her, Abu!” Sanam argued back, her arms crossed across her skinny chest, unconsciously mimicking her father’s stance.

Zoya stared between her husband and their 12-year-old daughter, standing nose to nose and arguing about their daughter’s foolish actions today. Seeing the vegetable vendor slapping his daughter, Sanam had stepped in the way to prevent another hit, almost getting hit herself.

It was only Asad’s quick intervention that had saved their daughter from a slap herself.

“I couldn’t just stand there and watch, Abu! She needed help! Anyways, Ammi would agree with me. Didn’t she help one of your cousins? Badi Ammi told me how brave mom was!”

Asad and Zoya exchanged a look, remembering the consequence of those actions. Taking a deep breath, Asad attempted to control his temper. “You can’t put yourself in danger,” he said carefully. “You can’t just fight abuse with your own violence or emotions. Get the tools you need to be able to fight it in a way that will do the most good, without causing harm to yourself or to others.”

“What do you mean?” Sanam asked, calming down once she saw that her father had let go of his anger.

“Use the law. Call me,” he pointed to himself in emphasis. “Call the police. There are so many tools. What could you have done?” he demanded, “If the man turned on you instead, you would have ended up getting hurt, too. Don’t just react to abuse like this, be smart. A lioness is brave, but also intelligent. And you’re my lioness, aren’t you?” he asked, hugging his daughter close.

Their Sanam had listened to her father. Today, she was an attorney who was ready to fight for her clients. It did her heart good to see her daughter with a career, to see her with a mission and a passion.

But it also hurt her to realize that her daughter had stopped being a child a long time ago. Any other child would have forgotten that one incident, and that child could have been forgiven for forgetting. After all, how fleeting had that initial meeting been? But not her daughter. Not her lioness.

Zoya stepped back and brushed Sanam’s hair back from her face. Pulling out a tissue, she carefully wiped away the glow that had appeared on her daughter’s face. Sanam closed her eyes, allowing her mother to take care of her. Zoya mused silently on the differences between her twin daughters. Seher was like her. The two of them felt deeply and often. The two of them could be angry one moment, but could also easily move on.

But Sanam was like Asad; the two of them could hold a grudge like no other. She remembered a 9-year-old Sanam telling her that she was only forgiving her for some minor infraction because Zoya was her mother and she loved her. Sanam was too much like her dad. She felt too deeply and held on too long, and that was a problem. Zoya knew. Sanam had held onto that boy’s pain and made it her motivation. In the process, she’d made him her own. And now, Zoya worried, how would the reality compare?

“Sanam . . .,” Zoya began, throwing the tissue away. She was uncertain what else to say. How could she demand that her daughter not take things too seriously? How could she say that Sanam needed to ignore that man for her own peace of mind? Especially when she could already see that he was having an effect on her daughter.

“Zoya?” It was Asad. He had stepped through the doors, and had been looking over at the two. Zoya and Sanam jumped at the influx of noise coming out of the ballroom. Shaking his head at how deeply they were into their conversation, he waited for his wife to notice him.

Zoya turned to look at him questioningly, stepping back from Sanam.

“Could you please come inside? Mrs. Khanna was just saying she hadn’t had a chance to say hello.”

Zoya grimaced at Sanam, “Duty calls.” She left her daughter with a final comforting squeeze of the hand.

Sanam followed her parents back into the ballroom, and gazed up at the stage. Preparations were underway for the final presentations of the night. The speeches would now be of gratitude and thankful applause for those who had opened their pockets and their hearts to LSB clients. They would also be about those who had won the bids.

Peeking into the other room, she saw the furious calculations going on. Those calculations would result in an initial estimate of the amounts that LSB would share with their guests in the interest of transparency. She smiled on seeing Seher in the bid room, intently reading the sheets and speaking with LSB’s financial officer. Seher would be a huge help with the number crunches.

Moving back into the other room, her eyes were drawn once more to the figure of Aahil Raza Ibrahim. The Nawab of Bhopal was now surrounded by a bevy of beauties, and he was all shy smiles and twinkling eyes. Sanam pursed her lips at the sight and resolutely turned away to leave the ballroom. That wasn’t a sight that she cared to see.

As she left the room, allowing the doors to close behind her, she landed with a thump against a warm, male body. The breath left her body at the impact. Squeezing her eyes shut in disbelief at her own clumsiness, she quickly stepped back and tripped on the hem of her dress. With a squawk she fell, knowing that she was going to hit the floor hard.

But it wasn’t to be. Her hands were suddenly gripping at material that had magically appeared below her fingers. She found herself surrounded by muscular arms, that seemed to cradle her close.

“Easy. Easy.”

Her face landed against his chest, and she gasped at the shock of naked skin against naked skin. Her cheek and lips were touching the base of another’s throat. She squeaked in protest, feeling utterly surrounded by this man’s arms . . . body . . . scent. There was a touch of sandalwood, and a musky scent that she had never smelled before. She inhaled deeply, reveling in the moment, and then froze.

“What the hell are you doing?” she asked, shocked at herself.

“Excuse me?” a male voice asked incredulously. His hold tightened on her, and he shook her gently. “I just saved you from falling . . . was I not supposed to do that?” he asked.

“I wasn’t talking to you,” Sanam muttered crossly, unbelieving that she had said the words out loud.

“There’s no one else here,” he helpfully pointed out. “And . . . ”

She tilted her head back, and froze on meeting his eyes.

“Just because we’re alone,” he murmured, gazing back into her eyes, “That doesn’t mean that I should still be holding your delectable form in my arms, don’t you think?”

Sanam blinked at the question, her mouth falling open when she realized that she was still in his arms. Briefly struggling, she pushed herself out of those arms and straightened her dress. A blush covered her cheeks, as she fought her embarrassment. She’d been sniffing the guy! What was wrong with her?

“I’m sorry,” she muttered, looking at his right ear because she was too embarrassed to meet his gaze directly. “And thank you.”

“Don’t mention it,” he murmured, gazing at the color on her cheeks. It was because of his perusal that he caught her peeking at him from the corner of her eye, and saw her eyes widen for a moment.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.

She shook her head, silently denying anything was wrong.

“Are you ever going to look at me?” he asked teasingly.

He moved slightly, and Sanam was hit by his scent once more. It was . . . surprisingly intoxicating.

She shook her head, and forced herself to look at him directly. “Nothing’s wrong,” she said abruptly. Her eyes moved over his body unconsciously, seeing for the first time the well-cut, black suit . .. the royal blue shirt . . . a colorful handkerchief in the pocket. His hair was slicked back, and there was a sexy five o’clock shadow on that firm jaw.

And those eyes . . . they captured her every time she looked into them.

They fell to his throat, and she blinked rapidly once more.

“You reacted for a moment there,” he pointed out. “Something must be wrong?”

Sanam’s shoulders slumped in defeat, and she gazed at him balefully. “You have my lipstick on your throat.”

“What?” he asked, clearly surprised by her words.

“I might have . . . my lips must have . .. they landed against your throat when I bumped into you,” she said with extreme difficulty. She flushed red when her gaze landed on his throat once more. ‘Oh god,’ she silently screamed to herself.

He firmed his lips, as if trying to stop a smile from appearing. He quickly pulled out his handkerchief to dab at his throat.

“No, a little bit to the left,” Sanam instructed, staring at that throat carefully.

He complied, but still missed some of the color.

“A little bit up,” she instructed.

His hand went higher, irritation now growing in his face.

“No, you’re not getting it,” she said in frustration, “Can’t you follow instructions correctly?” Moving closer, she grabbed the handkerchief and began to clean away the lipstick. Looking up with another sharp retort ready, she saw him gazing down at her . . . or at her lips more specifically.

And all of a sudden, it was as if there was hardly any air in that hallway. She gasped softly, her lips parting at his proximity . . . at his attention . . . and the heat that came from standing so close to him, which was just too hot. She felt like she was surrounded by him. She quickly turned her attention back to cleaning the lipstick away. Finishing her task, she stepped back with alacrity. “There, it’s done,” she murmured, thrusting the handkerchief back at him.

“Thanks,” he murmured, putting the piece of cloth back in his pocket. He stared at her silently, his eyes moving over her downcast face once more.

“You . . .,” she began.

He looked at her with interest.

“You were with the Nawab,” she finally pushed out, unable to remain silent anymore.

“I was,” he replied, giving nothing away.

Sanam’s lips firmed in disbelief at his curt reply. “What were you doing with him?” she asked, pushing the words out. She didn’t know why she was being so pushy, but she couldn’t stop herself. Something inside of her was pushing her to know everything about this mysterious man.

“I’m his right hand man,” he offered, seeing the frown on her face.

“What is he like?” she burst out.

“I didn’t take you for a groupie,” he noted, leaning against the door of the ballroom.

“What the…?” Sanam said incredulously. “I am not a groupie! And I wouldn’t lean against that door. If someone opened it, you’d be splat on your back.”

He quickly straightened.

“Anyways, not a groupie,” she asserted. “I just . . . met him once. When he was a young boy.”

“Oh, really,” he murmured, a small smile playing on his lips. “And what is your name? Maybe he mentioned you.”

Sanam shook her head quickly, flushing once more. “He wouldn’t remember me!”

“Try me,” he instructed.

“My name is Sanam Ahmed Khan,” she said softly, peeking up at him from under her lashes. More than finding out if the Nawab had mentioned her, it was this stranger that she wanted to share her name with.

The smile fell away from his lips, and he abruptly straightened.

She looked at him with hope.

“I’m sorry,” he murmured with an artificial smile. “I have to go. Duty calls. My boss just commanded my presence.”

“Oh,” Sanam murmured, strangely disappointed. “I didn’t hear anything.”

“I have to go,” he repeated. Pulling out a pair of sunglasses, he put them on.

Sanam made a face at the action. “You’re inside,” she pointed out to him acerbically. “There’s really no need to put those on.”

He smirked at her. “There are other things a person could use sunglasses for,” he replied. Turning, he pulled open the doors of the ballroom.

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

“And everyone at LSB and our clients would like to thank Nawab Aahil Raza Ibrahim for being our biggest donor of the night. We’d like to ask him to come to the stage and say a few words. Mr. Ibrahim?”

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

“Wait!” Sanam called out.

He turned back to glance at her. Or . . . she was almost sure he was looking at her through those ridiculous sunglasses. For some reason it seemed that he was actually looking towards the right, but why would he do that?

“You never told me who you were,” she reminded him. “I told you my name.”

There was nothing but silence from him.

She crossed her arms over her chest. “So?”

“So?” he replied with a shrug.

“What’s your name?” she demanded, almost stamping her foot in irritation. “There’s such a thing as tehzeeb.”

He smiled slowly at her. “Manners. Well, fine. It’s Qureshi.”

“Is that a first or a last name?” she asked, frowning at him. “Why can’t I get a straight answer to a simple question?”

“My name is Rehan Imran Qureshi,” he said, reaching out to tap at her nose. “And this temper that you carry around with you . .. you do want to be a bit more careful with it, right?” With one final teasing smile, he turned and entered the ballroom.

Sanam slowly followed behind, the anger leaving her body completely. All that was left behind was a strange wistfulness. She hadn’t wanted him to leave. And for a moment, talking to him had made her forget everything else.

“Hye, Sanam ki bacchi,” Seher cried out, bounding over to grab Sanam in a hug. “Where have you been? I can’t believe you missed it!”

“Missed what?” Sanam asked distractedly.

“I met the Nawab!” she shrieked in Sanam’s ear. “We even got to talk. God, he’s so cute! I got his number,” she confided in her sister. “Who would’ve thought that I would find someone like that here?” There was a pause as Seher looked at her sister. “Sanam?”

“Hmm?” Sanam asked softly, her eyes on the stage.

“Why are you blushing?

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

It had been a lot harder than he thought it would be. Being in public . . . the noise . . . the people, being stared at and whispered about . . . nothing had been like he had thought it would be.

When he had agreed to do this, he had never thought people would care so much about the Nawab of Bhopal, but they hadn’t let up. Since entering the ballroom, he hadn’t been alone for a moment. Slumping down into his seat, he allowed himself a moment to relax. He was so tired.

He heard the door open and then close behind him. Looking around the back of the chair, he watched the man in blue walk over to the side table, his hand reaching out for a water bottle.

His own weariness was reflected in the other’s face. But there was also a resoluteness about the other man’s features that discouraged any commentary.

He sighed, unable to remain silent.

“How long do we have to do this, Aahil bhai? How long do I pretend to be you?”

~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 3: The Boy Next Door
~*~*~*~*~*~

Gasping softly, she fell against the wall, her arms spreading out to steady her suddenly clumsy body.

He followed her closely, keeping only inches between their bodies. It was as if he was a lion, stalking his prey, and she felt hunted. His hand came out to rest over her head, palm flat against the wall.

She breathed deeply to calm herself, when he crowded her even more with his proximity. As he stepped even closer, she gasped, her eyes moving 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.

He reached out with a finger and gently closed her open mouth. Continuing the movement, he tilted her chin up, so that her lips moved dangerously closer to his. Leaning in, decreasing that distance by heart pounding proportions, he breathed against her lips, “My name is Aahil. Happy?”

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

Sanam blinked awake, sitting up in bed. Her heart was pounding, and she had to take deep breaths to calm herself. Why had she dreamed about him? And then to add that name to that face? What was her mind thinking?! She shook her head, trying to shake loose those thoughts. She’d already spent too much time thinking about the man.

Wiping the sleep from her eyes, she forced herself to get up. She yawned, reaching her arms above her head for a full-body stretch. She was usually a morning person, but the late night and the countless dreams about Mr. Rehan Imran Qureshi had made it hard to get a good night’s sleep. For a moment, she wanted nothing more than to get back into bed. She sighed. Even though she didn’t have to be anywhere today, she knew she wouldn’t be able to go back to sleep.

She moved towards the bathroom she shared with Seher, entering it and turning on the light. As she brushed her teeth and washed her face, her eyes were caught by her appearance in the mirror. She stared at the bags under her eyes, wincing at how red her eyes were. She poked at her puffy cheeks, the unfortunate result of not getting enough sleep. It was a good thing that she wasn’t going anywhere today she silently thought to herself. In fact, she was off now for the next week, having been promised the time off after the fundraiser.

Pulling her hair back into a bun, she went back into her room and opened the curtains. Sunlight quickly streamed in, bringing light into every corner of the room. There was a murmur from the bed, and Sanam turned to stare at the figure on the bed before turning back to open the window. Closing her eyes, she breathed in the cool morning air for a moment, reveling in the quiet of the morning. Okay. Enough air. Turning around, she went across to one of the inner windows and looked out at the dining room below. Smiling in satisfaction, she went back to the bed and yanked on the blanket. “Seher?

“Hmm?” Seher murmured sleepily from under the covers.

“Get up,” she ordered, nudging at the sleeping figure with a knee.

Seher’s only response was to move across the queen-sized bed to get out of Sanam’s reach. Once she was at some distance from Sanam’s knee, she quickly burrowed her head under another pillow

“Arre!” Sanam walked around the bed and got in on the other side, nudging at her sister with her knee once more.

“What the heck, Sanam?” Seher growled grumpily. “Just because you like to get up at dawn, doesn’t mean everyone else does. Keep your bony knee away from me if you want to protect it!”

“If you wanted to sleep late, you should’ve slept in your own room,” Sanam retorted, getting off the bed and starting to straighten out the blanket around her sister. “Your bedroom is just next door. Three steps if you go through the bathroom, you lazy bum! Now, get up!”

There was no answer but for a light snore.

“Look, I peeked downstairs. Badi Ammi, mom and dad are at breakfast right now and expecting us to join them. And Haya even said that she would be coming over to spend the day, don’t you remember? She called at midnight last night to let us know they were back, and that she would still be here bright and early. She’s down there, too. You don’t want her to feel unwelcome, do you?”

“Just because she came back from a nice, relaxing vacation with her hubby, doesn’t mean that everyone has had a nice and relaxing week,” Seher shot back in a muffled tone, her head still buried under the pillow. “Some of us have had really busy weeks. Besides she’s family and will be fine with me sleeping late. Now, go away!”

Sanam shook her head at Seher in exasperation. The family had gotten home at 11 last night, after Sanam had finished helping out with the clean up at the event. And it wasn’t like they had slept immediately afterwards. Walking across to the wardrobe for clothes, she allowed herself a secret smile as her mind turned to the secrets they had shared last night.

“He was so sweet,” Seher murmured happily, lying next to Sanam on her bed. “After I helped Suman calculate the numbers, I was heading towards the bathroom and tripped over dishes some idiot had left on the floor. And the Nawab caught me in his strong arms instead.” She sighed happily. “You know all those girls were clamoring for his attention . . . for a first dance . . . for his number, but he danced with me. He asked for my number.”

“Really?” Sanam asked skeptically. “I thought he looked the shy type. I can’t imagine him asking for your number.”

“Well, okay,” Seher admitted impishly. “I borrowed his phone and dialed my number,” she revealed, making air quotes around borrowed. “He was too much of a gentleman to say anything, but I don’t think he minded. He stayed with me until they made him go up on the stage for the speech at the end.” She paused for a while, before continuing, “I did a little bit of research on the net on our way home. I couldn’t find out much about the man, but I did find out that the Ibrahims have a lot of property, here in Bhopal and all over India. Apparently the Nawab has some business having to do with construction and they also buy up other businesses and bring them into the black, I think.” Seher shrugged. “All I know is they buy land and get to travel. We had more important things to talk about than his business,” Seher continued. “But he did say he recently returned from overseas to take charge of everything because his grandmother passed away.”

“Did he say anything else?” Sanam asked. Had Rehan come back with him? Had he been overseas, as well?

“What do you mean? His favorite food or whether he likes long walks on the beach?” Seher asked in confusion. “That would matter to me since I’d have to take those long walks with him, but why do you care?”

“No, I mean,” Sanam began, “About the people around him?”

“Hmm, not particularly. He did mention that he had a right hand man who came back with him. Rahim . . .Rehan or something. Apparently, he’s an attorney like you, but in business law. He’s in-house, and helps the Nawab with pretty much everything. The Nawab said he was the one actually in charge.”

Sanam smiled quietly at that wealth of information.

“When he came in and was telling the Nawab to go up to the stage, it was just too much. He was almost ordering him around.” Seher’s tone was disapproving.

Sanam blinked at that, but realized it would fit what she had felt around the man. He was the take-charge kind of guy. “I thought so, too,” she murmured sleepily.

“What? You met him?” Seher yelped, turning to stare at her sister in the dark. “Wait. Who did you meet?”

“Rehan,” Sanam admitted. “Outside the ballroom. It was the first time, Seher.”

“What?” Seher asked, turning over on the bed, so she could look at her sister closely in the dark.

“The first time my heart felt something.”

“Good morning everyone,” Sanam called out, bounding to the head of the dining room table to greet her Badi Ammi with a kiss.

“Good morning, beta,” Badi Ammi answered with a smile, returning the kiss with one of her own to her granddaughter’s cheek. “I heard the event went well last night.”

“It did,” Sanam answered. “We really missed you there,” she said, reaching down to hug her grandmother exuberantly. “You missed my first big event.”

“I know, I’m sorry, Sanam,” Dilshad replied. “I’ve said that many times, haven’t I? But once you say yes to someone else, you can’t go back on it. Not even for my beloved granddaughter.”

“You know that she’s just playing with you, Badi Ammi,” Haya said from across the table.

Squealing with happiness, Sanam ran around the table to hug her cousin, “Haya! You’re here! How was the trip?”

“We had loads of fun,” Haya replied, returning the hug. “Rahat wanted to camp out, so we had the whole tent and campfire experience.”

“Poor you,” Sanam said teasingly to Haya, coming around the table to sit beside her dad and pouring herself a cup of chai. She nodded a quick thanks to her dad when he placed buttered toast in front of her.

“It wasn’t too bad,” Haya protested. “I enjoyed most of it.”

“I don’t know how you do it, Haya,” Zoya murmured. The other woman was sitting across the table, next to Haya. Reaching out a hand, she ruffled her niece’s hair. “I’ve been camping with your uncle, and it’s never pleasant.”

“And you’re not too pleasant to be around, either, Ms Farooqui,” Asad murmured acerbically.

“Mom, really?” Sanam yelped, standing up and reaching across the table to pull away her mother’s plate. “How can you be eating pizza for breakfast? It’s not healthy! You’re addicted! Dad, Badi Ammi, why won’t you say anything?” she demanded in a frustrated tone.

“Sanam, your mother has been addicted to pizza since before you were born,” Asad pointed out. “Her pregnancy just ramped up her cravings, and they’ve never returned to normal. If her habit hasn’t done her any harm in all these years, why would we take pizza away from her now?” he asked with a smile, pushing the plate back towards Zoya.

She mouthed a loving thank you to him, and he smiled back, mesmerized by the glow that made his Zoya so special. That had never changed over the years.

“We had such fun,” Haya enthused, eating her eggs and ignoring the pizza drama. “Rahat is back on base now, and will be busy with some military exercises they want him to take charge of. I told him I’d be over here. Dad is still overseas for his big conference. You don’t mind me being here, do you, Mamu Jaan?” she quipped teasingly.

“Why would I, Haya?” Asad replied. “Especially since you’re my favorite niece on this continent.”

“I’m your only niece on this continent, Mamu Jaan,” Haya shot back.

“But that doesn’t make the sentiment any less true,” he murmured, pushing her favorite potato dish towards her. “You’re a part of my Najma. Our tamater. How could I not rejoice in you spending time with us?”

Haya smiled at him in silent thanks, her eyes brimming with silent love for the man who was like a second father to her. Clearing her throat, she turned her head towards Sanam, “I heard the event was a huge success. And even the Nawab of Bhopal deigned to be there. There was a lot of buzz about it in the newspapers this morning.”

Sanam nodded her head, taking a sip of her tea. “His being there ramped up the donations,” she said. “And he also made a huge donation himself. We haven’t made this much money in all of LSB’s history.”

“Well, that’s great news,” Haya murmured. “Maybe I should invite the Nawab to our school’s fundraiser,” she said musingly, tapping her chin. “If we can get hefty donations this year, then we could even get another teacher for the students. Think on it . . . smaller classes and less of a student-teacher ratio. Did you get a chance to meet him? Could you put in a good word for me, Sanam?” she asked with a cajoling smile.

Sanam snorted softly. “I wasn’t the one flirting with him,” she said with an impish grin, trying to hide it behind her cup of tea. “I didn’t even meet the man. Ask Seher.”

“What is this?” Zoya asked with an interested smile. “Flirting?”

“What the heck are you telling everybody?” Seher screeched from the top of the stairs. Running down to take a seat next to Sanam’s, she reached out and tugged at her sister’s hair. “I was not flirting, daddy,” she asserted, throwing a beseeching glance at her father. Smiling at her mother, she held her thumb and index finger an inch apart, showing her just how much she had been flirting.

Reaching out for a paratha and some eggs, she glared at her sister before turning back to the others at the table. “He’s a wonderful guy. Really sweet. But you shouldn’t ask him to make an appearance. I don’t think,” she leaned in to whisper, “He even gets to decide. Ask the man in charge.”

“What do you mean, Seher?” her mother asked in interest.

“Mom, Badi Ammi, you wouldn’t believe it,” Seher said, smirking at Sanam. “There’s this other guy, Rehan something or other, who is the one in charge. He was even ordering the Nawab around! And that guy was with Sanam last night!” she finished gleefully.

All eyes turned towards Sanam, the shock apparent in their gazes.

Sanam blushed to be the center of attention. “We weren’t together, per se,” she argued. “We just happened to bump into each other. He wouldn’t listen to me,” she protested vehemently. “I barely got a name out of him!”

“Sanam,” Badi Ammi said softly, “You were interested enough to press someone for a name? And a man at that?”

“Well, I told him my name,” she muttered in reply. “It was a matter of etiquette that he tell me his.”

“Sanam, he made an impression on you, huh?” Haya asked softly, reaching across the table to press Sanam’s hand.

Asad looked unhappy at the direction this talk was taking. His Sanam blushing because of a guy? He expected this from Seher, but not his lioness! He opened his mouth to say something, but Zoya’s foot kicked his under the table softly.

He turned to gaze at her in silent question.

“It’s time they grew up,” she said softly. “Let it be.”

Asad shook his head at her, but kept his lips shut. She was right. Their daughters had grown up. He turned to gaze at them squabbling next to him. The two were loud in their exuberance, and it made him so happy to see them like this. Not that any of the other women in his life were any quieter. Haya egged Seher on from the other side of the table, with both Zoya and his mother laughing loudly.

“Seher Ji, there’s a phone call for you,” a voice called out from the side.

The twins turned to look at Kuljeet standing at the end of the table with the phone outstretched in one hand in the general direction of the twins. There was a look of uncertainty on her face.

“Kuljeet!” Sanam complained. “You’ve been with us for two months now, and you still can’t tell us apart?!”

“Ji, it’s not my fault,” Kuljeet stammered. “You two are too alike. Even Raggu, the gardener, says it’s hard sometimes to tell you two apart. And he’s worked here for years! Phone call!” she reminded them.

Seher raised her hand and got the phone. Minutes later, she was gossiping away, while everyone else finished their breakfast in happy silence.

Asad’s eyes moved over his daughters, his niece . . . his wife and mother. They were all so full of life . . . filling his life with colors.

They were what mattered. Only them.

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

“You know what I just heard!” Zoya squealed, coming over to sit next to Dilshad begum. “I’ve got some wonderful news!”

The family was sitting in the living room, having just finished eating lunch. It had been a quiet morning and looked to be a quiet rest of the day, but only if Zoya didn’t drag them into something wonderful.

“Oh no, mom, not another wonderful thing that really won’t be so wonderful,” Seher teased her mother. “Remember the time you got so hyper over the celebrity that was going to come to dad’s offices? He turned out to be a two-bit actor that you didn’t even know.”

“It’s nothing like that,” Zoya insisted.

“Is it like the time you thought you had won the big prize in the lottery, and ended up winning 50 rupees?” Sanam asked in interest.

“No!” Zoya protested, “It’s nothing like that.”

“Is it as wonderful as when you thought you’d gotten a reservation for a premier restaurant in Bhopal, but it turned out to be a total debacle?” Asad asked from behind the newspaper. “They tried to feed us raw food,” he reminded her, shuddering with disgust.

Allah miya, what’s wrong with you Mr. Khan? That was a fusion restaurant! They expect you to like the raw food!” Zoya erupted.

Everyone hunched down, realizing that Zoya had reached her limit.

“Will you all please stop teasing Zoya?” Dilshad asked, pulling her daughter-in-law in for a hug. “Look at her face, bechari. You’ve taken the joy out of what made her so happy.”

“Ammi,” Asad protested. “She’s not a bechari. And she knows we were just teasing her.”

“Humph,” Zoya murmured, turning her eyes away from the laughter she could see in her Asad’s eyes.

Mami Jaan, you know they were just playing,” Haya cajoled, coming to sit on the other side of Zoya. Leaning over, she planted a kiss on her aunt’s cheek. “So, what’s the big news?”

“I don’t think I want to share it with you guys,” Zoya retorted with a mulish expression.

“Come on, Ammi,” Sanam urged. “Tell us the big news, please!”

“Okay, fine,” she said giving in immediately. “We have new neighbors!” Zoya yelled gleefully.

The family looked at each other quietly, and then said, “Yay!” in unison.

Zoya made a face, and then turned to look at Sanam and Seher. “Let’s go welcome the neighbors. You too, Haya.”

“But, they’re your neighbors, Mami Ji. What would I do there? They’re not even my…,” her voice trailed off, when Zoya made another face at her.

“I went over there,” Zoya enthused. “I saw a lovely woman, and I promised her I’d be back with some food to welcome them to the neighborhood. I think she must be the matriarch of the family. Like me.”

Dilshad delicately cleared her throat.

“After you, of course,” Zoya cried out. “Come on! We need to show them they made a good choice coming to this neighborhood and picking a house next to the Ahmed Khans!”

“You’re just curious,” Asad pointed out.

“Well, yeah,” Zoya blithely agreed. “I want to meet the people there. Who knows? They might have some eligible guys for our daughters.”

“And you want your daughters to have first pick.,” Dilshad noted with a smile.

“It wouldn’t hurt them to have choice,” Zoya proffered.

Both girls looked at their mother in surprise.

“Since your father won’t go,” Zoya said, staring at an immobile Asad, “We can go. I’m not like that poor mother in Pride and Prejudice, waiting for her husband to go and introduce the family and invite them to dinner before we can get the lay of the land. We’ll go ourselves. That way I can see if they have any marriageable boys for our girls. I think she has two sons. I was peeking over the back fence, and saw a couple of young, marriageable guys.”

“Mom!” Sanam protested. “You said you didn’t want us to marry too soon! Weren’t you getting all emotional yesterday?”

“I changed my mind,” Zoya said. “Think about it. If you get married into that house, you won’t have to go far. You’ll be right next door!” she crowed in triumph.

“And Zoya will go over all the time,” Asad muttered drily.

Zoya nodded in mute agreement.

“Well, I’m off,’ Seher said, getting up and grabbing her purse.

“Where are you going?” Zoya demanded. “You have to go over, so that I can check out the guys and their mother can check you two out.”

“Mom!” Seher whined. “Sanam and I are twins. If they see her, they’ve seen me. So, sister,” Seher said, turning to glance at Sanam, “Make a good impression for the both of us.”

Sanam reached out to swat at her, but Seher stepped aside and ran out the door with a final goodbye.

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

“Ammi, stop!” Sanam protested, pulling away from her mother’s persistent pulling and pushing. “We’re just going over to give some food. Why did you make me get dressed up?” She stood still in exasperation, when he mother brushed back her hair one final time. Her hands were loaded with dishes filled with biryani, korma, etc. “Can we finish up, so that I can go home and eat? I’m hungry.”

Haya laughed from the side. “Now you know how I felt when Mami Ji was going all hyper on me during my wedding preparations,” she pointed out. “You would only laugh at me.”

Sanam made a face at her cousin, reaching out to kick at her. Haya danced aside, her own hands full with drinks and bread for the new neighbors.

Zoya whisper-yelled at them to act like adults, and then rang the doorbell. “It’s a beautiful house,” Zoya said, looking up at the mansion, “But nothing like our home. It doesn’t have that special something. No. Not like the Siddiqui Mansion.”

“The Khan Mansion now, Ammi,” she reminded her.

Zoya’s gave grew clouded with memories, the smile slipping away.

“But you’re right. It doesn’t have us, Ammi,” Sanam murmured.

The door opened, and the girls’ eyes widened to see the big figure standing in the open doorway.

Haye Allah, what is this?” the . . . woman cried out.

“Hello,” Zoya cried out. “I spoke to you this morning. Remember? Sanam this is the lovely woman I told you about.”

“Of course, how could I forget?” the woman replied. “You’re back with yummy food. I was wondering how I was going to cook after being so tired after the move. It takes a lot out of you. And if I had to do any more work, I would hurt something in my fragile body. Main to hui chui mui,” she said, twirling her braid in her hand.

“Ammi?” Sanam said out of the side of her mouth. “You really need to wear your glasses. That is not a woman!”

Haya giggled softly to the side.

“My name is Lateef,” the woman said. “Please come in.” She ushered the trio into the room. “Oh, everything smells so yummy. I can’t wait to taste it.”

The women looked around the house, the pillars, high ceiling and contemporary furniture making for an impressive view. Sanam’s mouth dropped open to see a swimming pool in the center of the house, identical to theirs. How often did the same crazy design happen?

“What’s going on here, Lateef?” a soft male voice called out from the side.

The three women turned their heads down the hallway and saw . . .

“Mom! That’s the Nawab,” Sanam said softly. “Did you know? Why didn’t you say anything?! Seher will be so angry.”

“I didn’t have my glasses on,” Zoya muttered through gritted teeth. “Do you think that I wouldn’t have dragged her away from shopping for this?”

“Wow,” Haya mouthed. “He’s quite handsome. And you said that Seher was flirting with him last night?”

Sanam nodded with a smile.

“Asalam Alaikum,” Zoya said, raising her hand to her head. “We thought that we would welcome you all to the neighborhood with some food.”

She gestured for the two girls to put the food and drinks on the table.

Zoya moved over and began to uncover the dishes with Lateef’s help. She pointed out the various mouthwatering delicacies and urged Lateef to taste them.

Haye Allah, what is this?” Lateef cried out, his mouth closing around a spoonful of rice. “This is so delicious! Aahil baba, you have to try it!”

“Lateef, can you please tone it down?” another male voice asked in exasperation from another doorway.

Sanam froze at that voice. It was him! There was a soft sounds behind her, as if someone had moved to standing close behind her. Her thoughts flashed to her puffy cheeks and the bags under her eyes! Why hadn’t she listened to her mother and put on some makeup?

Her shoulders slumped. There was no getting around it. She was going to have to face him. Sanam began to turn, and her foot slipped on a puddle of liquid on the floor.

Allah miyah!” she yelped, as she began to fall. And then those arms were there once more. They were wrapping around her . . . and saving her again.

She leaned against the hard male chest, breathing in a scent that had become so familiar to her after just one meeting.

Looking up, she met his eyes once more.

He looked into her eyes for a frozen moment, and everything seemed to disappear. “What’s this? You again.” A beat of silence. He then began to smile. “Not that I mind, but we’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 4: Star Light . . . Star Bright
~*~*~*~*~*~

“If you see a falling star, make a wish on it. Your wish will come true.”

Aahil sat near the pool, his head resting against the back of the chair. His eyes were trained on the skylight and through it to the night sky above, trying desperately to find something . . . anything. Even though it was completely dark in the living room . . . and it was the middle of the night, but he still couldn’t see any stars.

He hadn’t seen a light up in that sky for the longest time.

He made a face, an annoyed huff leaving his lips. Why couldn’t he . . . but there it was! A single, bright light in the sky. A star!

He smiled triumphantly.

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

Six Years Ago . . .

Aahil drank his coffee, his mind engrossed in the study materials placed in front of him. His mind was numb due to a lack of sleep and too much studying. He winced as the words in the book began to blur in front of his eyes. He couldn’t afford this right now.

“Here are your eggs and fruit,” a male voice said briskly, setting down the plate in front of him.

Aahil looked up and flashed a smile in thanks. “Thank you.” For a moment, the numbness washed away, as the smell of the food penetrated the fog that had surrounded him. It was late at night, and the all night diner had only one or two customers. It was the perfect place to get the food he needed, along with the peace to continue studying for mid-terms.

The waiter in front of him acknowledged the thanks with a nod and a smile. “Need a refill?” he asked, holding up a hot carafe of coffee.

Aahil quickly nodded, glancing down at the pile of books in front of him. “I’ll need it,” he murmured, “For this all-nighter.”

“Studying can do that,” the man replied. “Turning day into night and night into day. Probably explains why you’re having breakfast for a midnight snack,” he noted.

Aahil nodded absently, beginning to eat. “I shouldn’t even be taking this break,” he grunted, “But I have to eat.”

“Business Law?” the male asked, gazing down at the books. “That’s a difficult course.”

“Yep, but unfortunately it’s a requirement,” Aahil replied. “Are you a student, too, Rehan?” he asked, looking at the name tag on the uniform.

“Yep. Still in undergrad,” Rehan explained with a self-conscious laugh. He began to arrange the desserts in the bell jar display placed on the counter. Quickly putting the cover back on, he began to wipe off the counters. “It’s my second semester,” he explained. “I’m still finding my way around. It makes me feel a bit weird being one of the older students. Especially since . . .,” He broke off, shaking his head.

“What?”

He shook his head again. “Excuse me.” He moved off to refill coffee for another customer, jotting down their order and passing it on to the cook in the back.

Aahil continued with their conversation when Rehan moved back toward him. “I’m older than you and only in my second year of college. Think on how that makes me feel. It’s not easy. Especially, being in another country. I’m sorry, do you have to…?” he asked, waving his finger around the diner.

“No, I’ll take my break now,” Rehan said, settling down for the brief break he was allowed during his eight hour shift. “And I’m sorry. You know my name, but I don’t know yours.”

“My name is Aahil. Aahil Raza Ibrahim,” Aahil responded, holding out a hand.

Rehan shook it with a smile, and then glanced down at the books once more. “It’s a heavy load for someone only in their second year,” he noted.

“You’re one to talk,” Aahil retorted good-naturedly. “You’re in your second semester and taking advanced courses. You must have taken this course in your first semester.” He shook his head, amazed.

“Well, I have a scholarship for my tuition, but not enough for much of anything else,” Rehan explained in a matter of fact tone. “Finishing college in three years means I can then try to get a Masters in Business. And I’m hoping the foundation that gave me my scholarship will be willing to pay for one year of my Masters instead.”

“And afterwards?” Aahil asked, staring at the boy in front of him.

“Afterwards, I stop sleeping, save up money and pay for the second year and then I can go back to Bhopal,” Rehan replied easily. “I have no reason to stay here and many reasons to go back.”

“You’re from Bhopal?” Aahil burst out, almost spitting out his mouthful of coffee in his surprise. “I’m from Bhopal.”

“Are you attending UCLA, too?” Rehan asked.

Aahil nodded silently in reply, a smile growing on his face.

“Really?” Rehan asked skeptically. “What are the chances that two people from Bhopal, who never met in that big city, would come across the world and meet at a diner like this and also be attending the same university?”

“I don’t know what the chances are,” Aahil said drily, “But it happened. Believe me. It happens. I’m not going to say it’s destiny or anything like that. I’m not trying to hit on you,” he said emphatically.

Rehan burst out laughing. “I didn’t think that! In fact, I’m pretty sure I’m not your type,” he quipped, raising an eyebrow at the other man.

“You’re right. You’re not,” Aahil said, finishing up the meal.

“How do you like it?” Rehan asked, gesturing at the textbook.

Gazing down at the book, Aahil looked up with a grimace. “The course is definitely no fun, but I’m doing this for my pre-law major. I want to specialize in business law, so there is no way around it. But seriously, it’s making me rethink my decision. But you’re not doing business law, then why?”

“As part of my business major,” Rehan replied, staring at the title of the book. “That class does not bring back pleasant memories.”

“You just began working here,” Aahil suddenly said. “I’ve been coming to this diner for the last couple of years, but haven’t seen you before.”

“I did,” Rehan answered. “I was working at a construction site before this, but I’m hoping the diner will give me better hours.” Distracted, he glanced over to a gesturing customer. “I’ll be right there! Excuse me. It seems my break is over. It was good talking to you, Aahil.”

“It was good talking to you, too, man,” Aahil, watching the other man walk away with a smile before turning back to his studies.

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

“How’s it going?” Aahil asked, glancing up to see Rehan approaching the table.

The two had forged a connection over the past few months as they shared the trials and tribulations of being later in life students. The two also enjoyed grumbling about how immature today’s students were. It truly made him feel like they were two grumpy old men.

He shook his head, wondering at how much time he had begun to spend with Rehan. He had been hesitant on forging this friendship, having preferred to remain alone and isolated in the past. But Rehan’s honest and hardworking character and optimism, despite what little he had heard about Rehan’s past, had melted any resistance Aahil had. The two had even begun to study together when they realized they had a couple of overlapping classes together. The study sessions usually took place after Rehan’s shift ended a few nights a week.

Rehan blew the fringe off his forehead and shook his head silently. “I’m not going to be able to study tonight,” he told Aahil unhappily.

“What do you mean? We have finals, man!” Aahil protested. “You need to study. You said that you were having trouble with this material.”

“I know,” Rehan muttered, “But my boss wants me to cover for another worker.”

“You have a test tomorrow, Rehan,” Aahil enunciated carefully. “This is really important.”

“You think I don’t know that?” Rehan ground out, his face darkening in irritation. “If I don’t work, I lose this job. If I lose this job, I can’t pay my rent. I can’t feed myself.”

“If you don’t study, you fail this class. You lose your scholarship,” Aahil pointed out.

“What do you want me to do?” Rehan burst out, clearly unhappy with the pressure Aahil was putting on him. “I don’t have a choice.”

“You do have a choice,” Aahil insisted. “Just talk to your boss. I’m sure he’d be willing to work with you on this. I’m sure he’d understand.”

“Mr. Qureshi, I pay you to work, not to fraternize with the clientele,” a stern voice called out from behind the two. Rehan looked around the empty diner and then turned towards his boss.

“Talk to him,” Aahil encouraged Rehan.

Rehan gave a reluctant glance over his shoulder, and then walked over to the man standing at the back doors. He indicated a hand towards the back office, and then followed his boss in.

Aahil stared down at his watch, realizing that 10 minutes had elapsed since Rehan had gone to the back. Where was he? His eyes widened when Rehan stomped out minutes later. “What’s wrong?” he asked worriedly, his eyes taking in the bag that Rehan had slung over his shoulder.

“Let’s go,” Rehan ordered, his expression dark.

“What’s wrong?” he asked again, refusing to get up until he found out what had happened.

There was no answer; Rehan stood there, a blank expression on his face.

“Look, your shift is clearly over. If he gave you a hassle about it, then let me talk to him,” Aahil offered. “Where is he?”

“Let’s just go, Aahil,” Rehan said through gritted teeth. “You wanted to study, right? Let’s go study.” He strode out the door and into the dark night.

“Rehan!” Aahil called out, quickly getting up and following the retreating figure. “Rehan, slow down. What’s wrong?” Aahil insisted, grabbing at Rehan’s arm to halt his headlong movement.

Rehan swung around, angrily pulling his arm away. “I was fired, okay?”

It was unseasonably cool for spring in California, but the two men paid no attention to the cold wind blowing over them, their minds intent on having this conversation.

“It’s not okay,” Aahil replied grimly, seeing that Rehan had tears in his eyes. “Your boss shouldn’t have done that.”

“There’s a lot of things that people shouldn’t be doing,” Rehan said, beginning to walk again. “We’ll have to find a place to study.”

“Wait, that’s it?” Aahil asked, following Rehan. “What about work?”

“It’s over. That job is over,” Rehan muttered. “What else is there to say? I’ll just have to find another job.”

“That’s great!” Aahil said excitedly.

Rehan stopped abruptly and turned to glare at Aahil. “Are you high? What the hell does that even mean?”

“No, I didn’t mean that!” Aahil said, shaking his head. “I meant that you can come work for me. I need someone to help me with the business related stuff that I get from back home. All the things my Badi Ammi keeps on sending me and insisting that I look over. I can use someone to check out the paperwork and save me the trouble. You can even pick your own hours. It’ll be perfect.”

Rehan’s lips firmed in anger. Turning he began to walk more quickly, his face revealing the anger he was still feeling.

“Rehan! Where are you going? Rehan! Stop!” Aahil ordered. “Stop right now.”

Rehan stopped and turned to glare at Aahil.

“What is wrong with you?” Aahil demanded, coming to stand next to him. He crossed his arms across his chest, his eyes boring into Rehan’s.

“What is wrong with me?” Rehan asked incredulously. “What is wrong with you? Why can’t you understand? Oh, I forgot. How could you? You’re the great ARI.”

Aahil’s face fell at those words. No one knew to call him that. At least no one in this country.

“The great Aahil Raza Ibrahim.. The Nawab of Bhopal. You think I wouldn’t find out?” Rehan asked, crossing his arms across his own chest. He had a bitter smirk on his face that Aahil had never seen before. “You’re the reason I’m here. The Ibrahim Corporation funds scholarships at various orphanages in Bhopal. I’m one of those lucky recipients.”

“What’s wrong with that?” Aahil asked belligerently, slightly shivering now in the cold, night air as it began to penetrate deep within. “What’s wrong with me being Aahil Raza Ibrahim? I feel like I should be apologizing for something that is not my fault.”

“I’m already living on your charity,” Rehan ground out, looking up to the skies for some sort of inspiration to make this man understand. “Literal charity. Now you’re going to make up a position just so that you can give me more money?”

“It’s not a made up position,” Aahil said through gritted teeth. “What is wrong with you? Why are you acting like this? You weren’t like this, Rehan.”

Rehan shook his head. “It’s soul-destroying enough to have no support . . . no family . . . nothing and no one in this entire world to call my own,” he said in a broken voice, his voice trembling under the weight of emotion he was finally letting out. “It’s hard enough to fight for every bit you can get, and to fight to keep your optimism and the ability to love alive . . . but to have what little you have taken away because people just don’t understand . . .” He firmed his lips, and glared at Aahil. “You don’t understand. And you’re taking away my pride! Why can’t you see that?”

“Rehan,” Aahil murmured, reaching out a hand.

Rehan stepped back, rejecting that comfort.

“Don’t be like this,” Aahil said after a short, uncomfortable silence. He shifted from one foot to the other. Fiddling with his bag, he put it over the other shoulder. “Just because I have money doesn’t mean life was easy for me,” he finally got out. “Do you have any idea . . . ?” He stopped and took a deep breath. “It’s not easy for me to say this . . . but I’d like to be your friend.”

There was no response from Rehan, who seemed busy staring at his own shoes.

“You don’t seem to have a friend,” Aahil finally said, breaking the fraught silence. “I’ve seen you on campus. Always alone. We’re study partners. But I think we could be friends?”

Rehan refused to look up.

Aahil bit his lip, unsure of what to say. He didn’t know how he had allowed himself to care, but he did . . . he cared about this boy. He had even begun to consider him a friend, but now he realized that that had just been his mistake. And the thing was that he understood Rehan’s hesitation all too well. Sighing heavily, he turned away. There was nothing more to say.

“I can use a friend,” Rehan called out from behind him. “But I don’t need a savior.”

Aahil turned around and looked at him.

The two smiled at each other hesitantly.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Two Months Ago . . .

“What do you mean? Did she leave any provisions? No. Okay. I’ll let you know.”

Aahil sat staring out the window of his penthouse apartment in Southern California, his eyes trained on the public below. His mind wouldn’t stop circling around the conversation he had just had with one of the Ibrahim Corporation’s in-house lawyers.

His Badi Ammi was gone. It was time for him to go back home. A sick feeling was beginning to gnaw at him. He didn’t want to go back. He didn’t want to become the Nawab of Bhopal.

He heard the door opening and looked up to see his roommate walking in. Rehan stopped in the doorway, his eyes widening in surprise to see Aahil there before him. “Why aren’t you at work?” he blurted out, referring to the job that Aahil held as an associate lawyer at a big law firm.

His eyes landed on the whiskey in Aahil’s hand. He opened his mouth for a reprimand, but stopped when he saw the bleakness in Aahil’s gaze. “What’s wrong?” he asked instead.

“There was a phone call from Bhopal,” he responded hoarsely. “It was a lawyer. My Badi Ammi has passed.”

Rehan came and sat down beside Aahil, placing a hand on his arm in commiseration. “I’m sorry.”

Aahil shook his head. “She was sick, but did not tell me. It was her choice. I have to go back,” he uttered grimly. “I have to.” His gaze revealed how much he hated that thought. He took a deep swallow from the glass, setting it down on the coffee table when the need to drink it all down in one gulp grew inside of him. “I have to take care of the Nawab’s properties and businesses since grandmother has died. After all, I am the Nawab of Bhopal.” His tone was anything but happy about that truth.

“Can’t you just hire some trusted people to take care of things?” Rehan offered the option. “Why do you have to go back when you don’t want to?”

“No, I can’t,” Aahil replied. “My sisters are in Bhopal. They’ve been staying in the college dorms, and that was okay while Badi Ammi was alive. Now that she’s gone, and they’re growing up . . .I have to get them married. I haven’t seen them in more than a decade. I need to go back and take care of them. And the business. There are things that I can’t do from here.”

He got up abruptly and strode over to the big glass doors leading out to the balcony. “I don’t know if I can do this and still keep my peace of mind, Rehan,” turning to the man who knew his every secret. His legs were trembling beneath him. He reached out a hand and braced it against the wall. “I don’t want to be in the limelight again. If I start going out amongst Bhopal’s elite . . . what if rumors begin to spread? I don’t want any hint of my past out there for the world to see.” He sighed heavily, his shoulders slumping. His thoughts were in turmoil, and he didn’t know how to stop that torrent of worry. His hands clenched into fists, the emotions roiling inside of him.

“Aahil bhai,” Rehan murmured, coming to stand next to him. “Don’t take it to heart so much.”

The two had became roommates soon after Rehan had lost his job at the diner. While not allowing Aahil to help by giving him a job, Rehan had agreed to move in and live rent free until he could find another job. The two had become the best of friends, trusting each other enough to share their deepest secrets.

For Aahil, Rehan was the second friend he had allowed himself in his life. And . . . the best friend that he had ever had. His brother of the heart.

Rehan turned to stare at Aahil, able to see the pain that Aahil hid from the entire world. For Rehan, Aahil was his brother . . . his family . . . his support. It hurt to see his support hurting like this.

“My grandmother and I did not have the best relationship,” Aahil murmured. “You know that, but she was able to keep the vultures away. No one questioned where I was because she fed them the right kind of information in the right-sized bites.”

“You know that you’ll be okay,” Rehan encouraged him. “We’ll take care of it.”

Aahil looked at him in surprise. “You’ll go back with me?”

“Of course,” Rehan quickly answered.

“What about your job? You just got promoted to associate director in HR,” he pointed out. “You’ve been going from one high to another, Rehan. You can’t just give up everything you’ve been working towards in the past two years after getting your Masters. How could I take that away from you?”

“You’re not taking anything away from me. Aahil bhai, you know I don’t use that word lightly,” he pointed out softly, gazing at him. “You are my brother in every way that counts. I am going back with you. There is nothing you can do about it,” he said implacably.

Aahil nodded, grateful for this man’s support. He looked out the window, a great feeling of relief welling up inside of him. But would he really be able to do this? Would he be able to go back to Bhopal and face those people again? The deep ache inside of him made him feel afraid that he really couldn’t.

“Stop thinking about it,” Rehan ordered. “We’ll find a way through this.”

“I really don’t think I can do it,” Aahil said softly . . . so softly that he was sure that Rehan couldn’t have heard him. It was a cry for help. . . a soft cry from that little boy he used to be. But even that little boy knew that help wouldn’t come.

But it was Rehan, after all. “You can do it,” Rehan murmured encouragingly. “In fact, since I’m not emotionally invested in this . . . I have an idea.”

Aahil turned to look at him enquiringly.

“How about when the Nawab of Bhopal returns to Bhopal, he looks a little bit different?”

Aahil quirked an eyebrow in silent question.

“How about he looks like this handsome gentlemen instead?” he asked, pointing to his own face.

“What?” Aahil asked.

“What about I pretend to be the Nawab instead?” Rehan asked. “That way you won’t have to worry about the limelight while learning the ropes of the Nawab role. I’ll be your ‘public face’.”

“You’d do that? Even knowing everything?” Aahil asked incredulously.

Rehan nodded silently.

“Why?”

“Because you’re my brother,” Rehan replied.

Aahil tightened his lips, unsure of what to say.

“And besides,” Rehan continued, clearing his throat, “Who would it hurt? Right now, you’re too emotionally affected that you can’t be rational about this. If we do this, you’ll be able to slip back into Bhopal society, and we can let the truth come out slowly.”

~*~*~*~*~*~

One Month Ago . . .

“I can’t wait to get to your house and sleep,” Rehan groaned out loud. “I couldn’t sleep a wink on that flight. I hate airplanes.”

Aahil stiffened by his side. “Unbelievable.”

“What’s wrong?” Rehan asked, sensing the change in mood.

“Lateef at 2 o’clock,” Aahil said carefully. “She’s the . . .”

“Where?” Rehan asked, looking around.

“Your other right, Rehan,” Aahil barked at him.

“You told me about her,” Rehan said, looking in the right direction. “What is she doing here?”

“You think I know? I was expecting an attorney not a house employee. Get ready. She’s very flamboyant. As you can very well see.”

“Aah!” Lateef exclaimed loudly. “Aahil baba, you’re finally here. Do you have any idea how long I have been waiting, sitting in these hard airport seats? I almost thought my delicate body would be permanently harmed. After all, main to hui chui mui.”

Rehan raised his eyebrows at that, trying to control his smile.

Lateef raced over to the two men and clasped her hands in joy.

“You’re finally back where you belong,” she sang joyfully. “Do you have any idea how long I have waited for your return? Well, me and Suleiman chacha before he passed.”

Aahil’s smile disappeared at the reminder that the elderly man who had taken care of him to the best of his ability had recently passed, as well. The sad thing was that his passing hurt more than his own grandmother’s passing had.

“Aahil baba, let me take your things,” she offered enthusiastically. “We have everything ready at home. You said that you wanted to change houses, so I’ve been going around with the real estate agent, as well. I think we have the perfect house picked out. You just have to give your final approval.” Reaching out, Lateef grabbed Aahil’s bags.

Aahil tugged them back. “Uh, no. I’m not Aahil,” he explained, wondering frantically if their attempts at subterfuge had failed at the first obstacle. “My name is Rehan. I’m Aahil’s friend.”

Lateef began to laugh, placing her dupatta in front of her face.

“What’s wrong?” Rehan asked.

“How could I not know my Aahil baba?” she demanded, her hands going to her waist as she shook her head at the absurdity at their claim. “Do you think I wouldn’t recognize the boy that brought me home when I was being beaten up for dressing like a girl? Or the boy who shared his meager amount of food with me?” She began to cry loudly, her mind remembering the tragedy of their shared childhood. “Why would you say that? Why would you think you could fool me?!”

“Lateef!” Aahil cried out in exasperation. “Put a sock in it, will you?” He had never thought that Lateef would recognize him so easily and so adamantly.

“See! It’s the exact same attitude! Even when you’re pretending to be someone else, you can’t stop being the Nawab,” Lateef cried out in delight. Using her dupatta, she wiped her tears away, making sure to wipe away any traces of running mascara.

Aahil noticed the looks Lateef’s loud voice were drawing. If they didn’t calm her down, she would reveal everything and it would be game over before the game had even started. “Lateef, stop,” he ordered authoritatively.

“But, why?” Lateef asked in confusion.

“Okay, fine,” Aahil said in defeat. “I am Aahil Raza Ibrahim,” he admitted.

Lateef nodded. As if there had ever been any doubt.

“Just relax. I’ll explain everything, but you better not let anyone know that I am the actual Nawab.”

Lateef tilted her head in question. “But . ..?”

Aahil raised an eyebrow at her.

“Why?”

~*~*~*~*~*~

Aahil’s eyes burst open, his heart racing. It seemed that he had fallen asleep for a few moments there. He looked at his watch. An hour had passed in the blink of an eye. His eyes looked up at the night sky once more.

That light was still there. But to add to it . . . there was another twinkle. Another star.

He smiled softly.

Was there hope yet for him?

~*~*~*~*~*~

Sixteen Years Ago . . .

Star light, star bright,
First star I see tonight,
I wish I may, I wish I might,
Have this wish I wish tonight.

“Aahil baba, I’ll keep watch,” Lateef said from the doorway. “You go out and look at the stars.”

“If father finds out, you’ll get punished,” Aahil said somberly, as he sat on the bed. “He’s already exploded once today. And you weren’t even supposed to come on this trip with us. Why did you hide in the trunk? I told you to keep away from dad! With you coming here, he’ll definitely see you.”

“You are all down here for months at a time,” Lateef complained, her hand playing with her short braid. “I can’t protect you while I’m in Bhopal, can I?” Using the fingers of the other hand, she carefully patted down the final bandage and stepped back. “Besides, Suleiman Chacha said it would be alright and that he’ll say I’m his apprentice if anyone asks.”

Aahil just shook his head at the older child, and took a deep breath. “I’ll go out for only a little while,” he promised. “Mom used to say that wishes made on falling stars come true . . . there’s going to be a meteor shower today with lots of falling stars. I read it in the newspaper that Chacha brought. I have to go out there and make a wish.” His lips trembled at the thought of what his father might do if he found out. He’d told him to stay in his room.

Lateef nodded in understanding. “Go!”

“I know I shouldn’t be like this,” he admitted, “But it’s just that I can’t see any stars from here,” Aahil explained, looking up at the sky from the window. “I think if I go out there, maybe they’ll be easier to see.”

Lateef looked confused, looking up at the sky and seeing all the stars. Her face softened when she saw the tears in Aahil’s eyes.

“Go, Aahil baba. I’ll keep watch,” she promised.

His steps quick and hurried, despite the pain his body was still feeling, he moved across the lawn, going towards the far end of the property. His hope was that even if his father chanced to look outside, he wouldn’t notice his son’s black-clad figure near the far end.

As he moved closer to the wall, he took a deep breath, telling himself to relax. He sat down near it, his head tilted to look up at the sky. Despite how carefully he had been moving, the pain had become unbearable, causing him to gasp. His breaths became quiet sobs, the tears beginning to blur his vision.

He looked up into the night sky, but there was no light. He could see no stars. Rubbing at his tearing eyes, he tried once more. It seemed that his tears wouldn’t stop. And if the tears couldn’t stop, then how would he see the falling stars . . . how would he be able to make a wish? He wanted to see his mom, even if it meant . . .

There was a quiet rustling on the other side of the wall. He froze.

“Are you okay?” a young girl’s voice called out.

He got up, moving quietly, hoping that his movements would attract no further attention. He didn’t want to talk to anyone right now. He should just leave. What was the point of staying out here, anyways? It wasn’t like he could see any stars today.

One final glance above. There were no stars. In fact, maybe Mom had lied. His movements jarred another one of his wounds, causing it to begin bleeding once more. He could feel the blood trickling down his ribs. Reaching down with one hand, he pressed it against the open wound, hoping to staunch the flow.

“Please don’t go! Please!”

That voice sounded so desperate. But . . . why?

He stopped for a moment, willing to listen.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Taking his glass, he took a healthy swallow of the alcohol within, hoping to numb the turmoil of his mind.

“I’m sorry! . . . I’m sorry! I’m sorry! . . . I’m sorry!

Why did he remember her even now?

Sanam Ahmed Khan.

His father hadn’t allowed him contact with outsiders, worrying that a chance to speak and connect would lead to certain revelations. Lateef had been his only confidant . . . his only friend for the longest time.

When he had talked to that little girl through the wall, it was the first time someone from the outside world had actually noticed what was happening and had actually cared. He could still hear the desperation in her voice as she called out to him how sorry she was.

That little girls sorrys had followed him through the years. It was proof that there were caring people out there in the world. There was goodness. But before his heart could get used to someone else caring, they had left the country. It was only years later that he had discovered the reason for their leaving the country so hastily.

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

And he’d met her again last night. He smiled softly at that memory.

Without even knowing who she was, he had noticed her. Before the announcement had been made about the Nawab of Bhopal attending, he and Rehan had come to the gala incognito. They’d checked out the organization before making a donation and talked to some of the staff.

And Sanam had been quite noticeable. The way she moved efficiently around the ballroom, taking care of business. The way she directed other people around, using her expressive face to demonstrate her happiness or unhappiness with her co-workers. And how gracefully she moved. . . how she smiled.

He smiled in the remembered glory of that smile.

And when she had landed in his arms . . . her scent . . . . her voice . . . the way she had felt in his arms . . . all of it had imprinted on him. He shifted uncomfortably in the chair, the feel of her still making his body react.

“You were with the Nawab. What is he like? I just . . . met him once. When he was a young boy. He wouldn’t remember me!”

And she’d turned out to be Sanam Ahmed Khan. The girl from the outside world. The woman that had cared enough to apologize for his pain. And she was living next door.

The smile fell away from his face.

~*~*~*~*~*~

Earlier in the Evening . . .

Haye Allah, what is this?” Lateef cried out, his mouth closing around a spoonful of rice. “This is so delicious! Aahil baba, you have to try it!”

“Lateef, can you please tone it down?” Aahil asked, exasperated by Lateef’s flamboyance, especially when he hadn’t been able to sleep the entire night and he had a throbbing headache. Looking more carefully at the tableau in front of him, he realized there were three women standing at the dining table, one older than the other two.

He blinked when he saw the face of the older woman, his body tensing when he took in the familiar features. The younger woman next to her smiled at him, as well.

But it was the third woman’s face he wanted to see.

Moving forward, he watched that figure tense up and then begin to turn around. Because he was watching her carefully, he saw her foot slip. Without thinking . . . without knowing . . . he was next to her and catching her. And she fell into his arms once more.

He felt his lips open and shape the words. But it was as if they were spoken by someone else from far away.

“What’s this? You again. Not that I mind, but we’ve got to stop meeting like this.”

His eyes blinked slowly, and he was unable to tear his gaze away from her eyes. She bit her lip and then looked away, a blush stealing over her cheeks.

Allah miyah, what’s wrong with you Sanam?” a voice intruded and someone pulled Sanam away from him.

His fingers grasped at air, as if wanting to hold on to her. But he shook his head roughly, trying to clear the cobwebs that had encased his thoughts. For a moment everything had seemed to disappear. But that wasn’t true. The world was still there.

“My name is Zoya Ahmed Khan,” the older woman introduced herself to both Rehan and Aahil. “We’re your next door neighbors.” She smiled happily at them, inducing the men to smile back at her in return. “This is my niece, Haya Rahat Ansari.”

The two nodded their heads in greeting at the one of the young women.

“And this is my daughter . . . what the . . . ?” She turned to glare at Lateef.

Haye Allah!” Lateef shouted, coming over with a napkin. “I’m sorry, my hand just slipped. The food was so delicious, that I got careless. I’m sorry for the juice.” She began to dab at Zoya’s dress.

Aahil ignored the drama, his eyes trained on Sanam and her conversation with Rehan.

Rehan was blushing as he spoke with her, reaching out to touch her hand.

His lips tightened at that touch. Just what was Rehan doing to a strange woman?

He saw her peeking at him from the corner of her eye, before turning back to smile at Rehan.

Minutes passed, and the two still spoke. What were they talking about?! His hands curled into fists. He didn’t like it at all. But, his hands slowing unfurled, what right did he have to say anything? Why should he care?

Stepping back, he turned and left the room, leaving all the confusion behind.

~*~*~*~*~*~

“Aahil bhai, what are you doing there?” Rehan asked sleepily, moving over to sit on the neighboring chair.

It was near dark in the house, with the only light the one coming from the garden outside.

“It’s the middle of the night, and we have multiple meetings tomorrow. We’re still playing catch up with all the things your grandmother left unfinished. You need your sleep.”

Aahil shrugged. “You know my sleeping habits,” he offered as an explanation. “I couldn’t sleep even if I wanted to. I thought that a change of environment might help me. Want a drink?” He gestured towards the bottle next to his half-filled glass.

Rehan shook his head. Hanging his head, he smiled and then looked up.

“You left so quickly this evening,” he finally said, his smile falling away. “The neighbors were worried that they had done something to make you unhappy.”

“It was nothing like that,” Aahil said, his body stiffening with rejection at the admonishing words. “You know it’s better if we don’t get to know our neighbors too well. What if something got out? I haven’t forgotten the precariousness of our position, but you seem to have.”

“It’s nothing like that,” Rehan said, echoing Aahil’s words. “They’re different. She’s different. Their daughter . . . she is just so wonderful,” he breathed out. “I really like her.”

Aahil stiffened even more at that confession. ‘No!’ his heart cried out. ‘She’s mine.’ He straightened at that thought. ‘She is not yours,’ he growled to himself. ‘You don’t get to think that way.’

“Do you think that she would mind it if I wasn’t the Nawab she thinks me?” Rehan asked in a vulnerable tone.

Aahil remained silent, unable to get any words past the knot in his throat.

“You’re right,” Rehan breathed out. “Of course she’d care about getting a nobody when she thought she was getting a Nawab. Who wouldn’t? What was I thinking?”

“Rehan,” Aahil burst out, seeing the unhappy expression on his face. “Any woman would be lucky to have you. If she can’t see that, then she doesn’t deserve you. Give her a chance. Since when were you the coward with your heart?”

“Just because I’m more willing to trust doesn’t mean that I risk my heart freely,” Rehan pointed out. “I’m more like you in that sense.”

Aahil smiled sardonically at that comment. “Then stop being like me. When has being me made anyone happy? Be courageous, Rehan. If you like her enough to risk that heart of yours, then I’m happy for you,” he murmured.

Rehan had finally gone, the smile on his face remaining there during the rest of their conversation.

Aahil sat back down on the chair after sending Rehan off to his sweet dreams. Where did that confidence from? This man . . . who had been hurt and abandoned by so many, and yet he still had the courage to entrust his vulnerable heart to another.

His eyes moved to sky above once more. His brow wrinkled in confusion. There was nothing there. What had happened to the stars he had seen before? He squinted, but there was nothing.

He closed his eyes, closing out that dark sky with no hint of light. He was tired of trying to find those stars.

It was better he stop trying.

~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 5: Affecting Her, Affecting Him
~*~*~*~*~*~

She had just had an extremely busy day, and she wanted so badly to just lay down and veg out in front of the TV for a while. Putting her arms over her head, she did a full-body stretch. “Hmm,” she moaned, her stiff muscles finally relaxing after a full day of being tense due to work-related stress.

She smiled slowly as an idea popped into her head. Why not . . . ? Half an hour later, she was standing in her best set of casual clothes, her hair carefully stylized. It was time to put her plan into action. Looking to the left and then to the right, she noted that the coast was clear. Taking a quick step forward, she smiled in satisfaction, almost tasting her successful escape.

“Seher Ahmed Khan, just where do you think you’re going?!” a voice called out to her from the direction of the kitchen. “What is the world coming to? My daughter comes home and doesn’t even stop by to say ‘salaam’ to her mother?” Zoya sighed dramatically. “Anyways, we’re having dinner in an hour. You can’t go anywhere! I’m cooking!”Zoya revealed chirpily.

Darn! Double whammy. Mom was cooking, and she was stopping her from going over to the Ibrahim Mansion and get her flirt on. She growled softly to herself, a scowl appearing on her face. She needed to spend some time with Aahil Raza Ibrahim. She hadn’t seen him in over a week, having missed out on the trip next door that her mother had made with Sanam.

Lucky girl,’ she thought for the umpteenth time. Who would’ve known that the Nawab of Bhopal was moving in next door to the Khans? Lucky us.

She hadn’t gotten much beyond texting him “Hi” and “How’s it going” a few times. How many times could a girl really text someone without seeming pushy? She exhaled loudly in frustration. The guy seemed really shy for being a Nawab. You’d think he would have gotten out and about and have some experience. A hint of a smile played across her lips, as she realized how much she liked that shyness.

The sound of a throat clearing brought her back down to earth.

“Do you have eyes in the back of your head, mom?” Seher asked in a disgruntled tone, turning around to frown at her mother.

“Yep, right smack dab in the middle,” Zoya tossed back with a smile.

“I’m going out to get some milk,” Seher lied blithely.

“We have enough milk, missy. And you’re going to the store in your favorite jeans and blouse?” Zoya asked skeptically. “Ha! Try again.”

“I don’t know why it matters, mother. Why am I even lying to you?” Seher whined.

“Why are you?” Zoya asked in interest, crossing her arms across her chest and leaning against the doorway. “I thought I was your partner in crime?”

“I’m going next door,” Seher admitted in a rush.

Zoya’s eyes brightened at that revelation. “Really?”

Seher nodded bashfully.

“To see the boys?”

Seher nodded again, wincing at him being referred to as a boy. He was all man!

“Which one?” Zoya shot at her.

“Which one what?” Seher shot back at her mother. “Mom, you know which one! Stop teasing me,” she suddenly said, moving over to stand next to her mother to tug at her arm.

“You’re right. I’m just joking. Go! Go!” Zoya urged, making a shooing motion with her free hand.

Seher chuckled at the delighted smile on her mother’s face and leaned in to plant a big kiss on her mother’s cheek. “Thanks mom!” she called out, racing out the door, confidence bubbling inside of her.

“What was that, Zoya?” Dilshad asked in a stern voice from behind her. “You just sent our girl over to meet some man?”

“Ammi,” Zoya protested, “They’re old enough. You know Seher is fun-loving like me. She’s had crushes before, but never acted on them that seriously. There are very few things that she actually does take seriously. Her career is one. And it looks like she may have found the other. Don’t you think we should help her find out whether this boy might be the one?”

Dilshad smiled and came up to hug Zoya. “I know,” she murmured unhappily. “It’s just that I don’t want them to grow up.”

“I think they grew up a while ago, Ammi,” Zoya replied gently. “They just let us pretend they were still our baby girls.”

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

Seher moved up to the doorway, reaching up a finger to ring the bell. It was then that she noticed that the door was already open. Sticking her head in, she called out a soft hello.

There was no answer.

Walking in, not as confident now as she had been minutes ago, she called out a hesitant, “Hello! Hello? Is anyone there? Hello?”

She heard a step behind her. Whirling around, her widening eyes caught the figure coming to stand in front of her.

“Oh.” It was a soft exhalation of sound.

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

“Ammi!” Sanam said indignantly, coming in from the garden. Her face was covered with a thundercloud of dissatisfaction. She rubbed furiously at her cheeks, where dirt had landed while she had been gardening outside. Abu liked to tease her that gardening was just an excuse for her to play in the dirt, just the way she used to when she was a child. She was in no mood to be teased today, she thought, rubbing furiously at the dirt.

“What is it, beta?” Zoya asked, wiping her hands on the apron tied around her waist.

“Is Seher over at the Ibrahim Mansion?” she fairly growled the question. “Raggu said he saw her headed that way. When did she even get home, that she’s now sneaking over there?”

“Ye-es,” Zoya answered, surprised by the anger on her daughter’s face. Sanam was never this emotional about anything. ‘Interesting,’ she thought to herself.

“Why?” Sanam fairly screamed at her mother, almost stomping her foot like a two-year-old.

“Sanam what does it matter?” Zoya asked, wondering what was going on with her normally quiet and rational daughter. “Your sister wanted to go over and see the Nawab. What’s wrong with that?”

“What’s wrong with that?” Sanam yelped incredulously. “That’s a bachelor’s house!” Sanam lectured her mother furiously.

“Since when did you become so old-fashioned?” Zoya asked in exasperation. “Don’t be such a prude, Sanam!”

“She has my face, Ammi,” Sanam finally muttered after a moment’s silence. She gulped, her throat dry at the thoughts running through her head. “What if . . .”

“What if the great Rehan thinks that she’s you and flirting with the Nawab instead of him?” Zoya murmured, finally understanding her daughter’s reasoning.

Sanam hung her head in shame, but nodded nonetheless.

“How could he not know the difference between you two?” Zoya asked, letting romance beat out any rational thought.

“He walked away, mom, when we were over there,” Sanam got out past the knot in her throat, her hands curling into fists. “Remember, when the Nawab was talking to me? It was just about when he touched my hand. Rehan didn’t know what was going on! He didn’t know that his friend thought I was Seher! Although, how the man missed you calling me by name, I don’t know,” Sanam muttered balefully, a pout appearing on her lips.

“But honey, if you’re meant to be, of course Rehan will know who you are. And of course Aahil will know who his sanam is,” she finished with a quip.

“Ammi!”

“I’m just joking!” Zoya said quickly. “Honey, you know your name means beloved. Don’t take everything so seriously,” she admonished her daughter. “They will know their beloveds, no matter how alike you look. If a man doesn’t know you . . . can’t tell the difference between the two of you, that means you don’t affect him. You don’t affect his mind, his heart or his body.” She blushed softly as she said those words. “If you don’t affect him in any way . . . is he really meant for you?”

“Ammi, this is not a romance novel! We can’t expect total strangers to know the difference between the two of us from the very first meeting. In the time it takes for someone normal to tell us apart, what if . . .,” her voice trailed off, as she was unable to give voice to her fears. “I’m going over there,” Sanam said abruptly. “Someone has to stop Seher from embarrassing herself!”

Zoya’s eyes widened. “Sanam, wait!”

Ignoring her mother’s calls, Sanam left the house with determined steps. What had her mom been thinking? How could she just let Seher go over there and make a fool out of the both of them?

She stopped outside the doors of Ibrahim mansion, those hateful thoughts still running through her head. Crossing her arms across her chest, she scrunched in on herself. Why was she thinking this way about her own sister . . . her twin sister, who was a part of her very soul? Her chest heaved frantically, as she dealt with her fears.

Leaning against the front doors of his home, she centered herself, trying to find the emotional calm she was so used to. She had never been one of those teenagers that had had emotional ups and downs . . . she had only had one focus. To become an attorney. To become a protector of the weak.

So what was the reason for this inner turmoil? What was the reason that her heart wouldn’t be soothed? She rubbed at the spot above her heart. She wasn’t ashamed of Seher! Seher was flighty sometimes and had a naughty streak, but she was all good with no hints of malice. Then, why was she . . . ?

A flash of chocolaty brown eyes staring into hers. A musky, addictive scent enfolding her in its sensual grip. A pair of warm, strong arms enclosing her body, his warmth stealing into her entire being.

It was him.

His breath wafting across her lips. His cheek brushing against hers. Her lips pressing against that golden, brown throat. She had felt the movement of him swallowing under her lips, that moment of intimacy still with her to this day.

He was the reason.

His presence . . . his entire being had taken over her senses so completely that she had spent the past week obsessing over him. He had been with her every second of her week off. She couldn’t believe that she’d given the man who had impacted her life to such a degree almost no thoughts . . . at least nothing compared to how many times she had thought about this stranger.

She put her hands up to her forehead, trying to massage the turmoil away. Sanam didn’t know how to deal with these feelings regarding a man . . . any man. She had ruthlessly cut any such thoughts from her conscious mind growing up. She had never even had a crush as a young girl. Ammi said that she was just like Abu in these matters. Emotionally stunted. She couldn’t de–

Sanam squawked loudly when the door at her back suddenly burst open, and she landed in a pair of strong arms. ‘Not again,’ she moaned to herself. Had she turned into a total klutz since that man had entered her life?!

Haye Allah! What is this?” Lateef fairly shouted in her ear.

She winced at the high volume and quickly pushed herself away. “I’m sorry!” she yelped, staring at the other woman.

“And just what were you doing leaning against our door?” Lateef asked suspiciously. “Wait a minute, you . . .”

Sanam’s heart began to pound. She wondered frantically if Lateef had realized her feelings for Rehan. Were they that apparent?

“What are you doing outside? Didn’t I just see you talking to . . .?” Lateef’s brow wrinkled in confusion.

“Oh, that wasn’t me,” Sanam said immediately. “That was my twin sister, Seher.”

“Hmph. Whatever. You two both look really alike. Well, what can I do for you?” Lateef asked impatiently.

Sanam cleared her throat and forced herself to ask the right question. “Where is Mr. Ibrahim? I need to see him.” While she really wanted to ask where Rehan Imran Qureshi was, it was Mr. Ibrahim who Seher had come to see. It would be with him that she would find her erstwhile twin.

“Oh, Laad Saab?” Lateef said, with a blushing smile. “He’s swimming right now.” She paused for a moment to sigh dreamily. “Oh, that reminds me. I have to get him some juice. He’ll be parched after his swim. Come in if you want to.” She left, saying those dismissive words.

Sanam walked hesitantly into the home, her eyes caught by the pictures that now graced the interior walls. Pictures of family. Of two little girls . . . seemingly twins like her and Seher. She remembered that Ammi had said something about the Nawab having sisters. Her eyes moved along, seeing 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. Her brow wrinkled in confusion. Exactly how long had the Nawab and Rehan known each other?

Shaking her head, she walked deeper into the home, making her way into the living room. Flowers were placed in multiple vases around the room, giving the room some badly needed color. Colorful throws graced the backs of the sofas and chairs.

She heard the soft sound of a splash. Turning her head, she followed the sound to the pool area. But she couldn’t see anyone else near the pool. Where was Seher?

Moving closer, she looked at the gliding figure under the water. Broad shoulders . . . strong arms . . . golden, brown skin. Her eyes widening in surprise, she realized that it was not the Nawab she was looking at, but the man she had spent the past week thinking about.

Without a second thought, she ducked behind the pillar, her heart beating double-time. What the hell? What was she doing? Why was she hiding behind a pillar rather than talking to him? Wouldn’t that make it worse if he found her here?

Carefully peeking around the pillar, she saw him pull himself out of the pool, reaching his arms above his head for a stretch. Stray droplets fell from his body, spraying the area around him. She bit her lip, her eyes moving over that breathtaking expanse. Turning, he grabbed a towel to dry himself off. Her eyes traced the play of muscles in that back, at the water dripping down . . . over that glistening skin . . . to the wet shorts, closely molded to his . . .

Her fingers curled into fists, as she fought the urge to touch. She gulped, biting her lip at the dirty thoughts running through her mind. Oh, how she wanted to trace those drops of water, touching that skin. She wanted to trace them with her lips . . . to taste him, taking his taste deep inside of herself so that she could keep him there forever.

She closed her eyes in embarrassment, a blush covering her cheeks. “Ya Allah, what is wrong with me? He’s a near stranger! How can I be thinking such thoughts about him? But why does it feel like I have some sort of connection to him? Why? Why do I have this strong urge to touch . . . taste? Am I making up for lost time? This can’t be normal,” she whispered to herself.

His hands briskly moved the towel over his body, wiping those tempting drops away, leaving him dry . . . but still oh so tempting. He began to rub oil over his body, his hands smoothing the oil over his chest . . . his six-pack . . . and down under the waistband of his swimming shorts.

“Oh my God,” Sanam moaned helplessly, her eyes glued to those hands.

Haye Allah!” a voice breathed out by her side.

Sanam turned her head, jumping slightly to see Lateef standing there.

Lateef looked at her and then muttered a quick “hmph.”

“Lateef!” Rehan suddenly roared, making the two of them jump. “Where’s my juice? Late–.” His voice broke off upon seeing Lateef standing there with the tray. “What are you doing there? Is something wrong?”

Sanam silently shook her head at Lateef, silently begging the servant to keep quiet about her presence.

Lateef shook her head at Sanam and raced forward. “It’s nothing, Aa. . .Baba. Here’s your juice. I just freshly made it.”

“Thank you,” he muttered, taking a quick swallow.

Sanam swiftly sidled away, thanking God that her presence had not been noted by anyone. And by anyone, she really meant him. Exhaling loudly, she quickly moved back towards the door, unable to deal with anyone else right now. Seher would have to make sure she didn’t embarrass the two of them. She’d done enough today to endanger their reputations.

As she was heading down the hallway, she heard the sounds of voices from another room. That was Seher’s voice! Following her sister’s voice to the dining area, she saw Seher and the Nawab at the dining room table, having tea. While they might have been talking a moment ago, they were now silently gazing at each other. Seher was actually blushing.

The dying sun’s rays came into the room from the sole window behind them, enclosing them in a glow of soft light. The curtain of that sole window fluttered slightly in the wind. The room itself was big . . . the table big enough to seat twelve. And in that room, the two sat close together at the head of the table, immersed in each other.

Sanam sighed regretfully. Her sister would never have embarrassed her. How could she have thought such a thing? Sanam cleared her throat delicately, breaking their enchantment with each other. “I’m sorry to intrude,” Sanam said, coming over to the couple. “I was looking for Seher.”

“Oh, you didn’t intrude,” the Nawab protested, quickly getting up. Pulling out a chair, he gestured for Sanam to take seat across the table from Seher. Going back to the head of the table, he offered to pour Sanam some tea. Sanam nodded her thanks, gratefully excepting the cup to calm her nerves.

Seher was staring at Sanam, seeming to signal something with her eyes.

Sanam shook her head, unable to understand.

Reaching up a hand, Seher touched her cheek.

Sanam shook her head at her weird twin and turned towards Aahil.

Aahil cleared his throat. “I apologize for mistaking you for your sister on the last visit,” he proffered.

“We didn’t even get a chance to really clear the confusion. Ammi hustled us out of there when Lateef dropped even more food on her while trying to clean up the juice,” Sanam protested. “Why would you worry about it?”

“Your sister was reading me the riot act about it,” Aahil explained wryly. “In fact, she has been doing so for the past half hour,” he continued ruefully.

“Well! How do I not scold you?” Seher protested. “You were cold to me all this week because my sister was clearly uncomfortable around you during that visit. I thought I had made enough of an impression on you that you would have known. But you thought I was Sanam! Please.”

“I did know . . . or I thought I did,” Aahil admitted, gazing into Seher’s eyes entreatingly. “That night . . .,” he shook his head. “The more I thought about it, the more I saw you hadn’t wanted to talk to me. You seemed more interested in . . . forget it. I didn’t want to presume.”

Seher smiled at him, shaking her head at how cute he was. “Aahil, if a woman text messages you multiple times, then take the hint.”

“You both are completely different,” the Nawab continued, gazing at the two of them. ” Your dear sister has pointed out to me that I better not make that mistake again.” He smiled at Seher, almost caressing her with his eyes.

Seher smiled cheekily in response, but then looked down to play with her cup of tea.

Sanam shifted uncomfortably in her chair, feeling like an intruder. What had she been thinking? Her sister might be serious about a man for the first time in her life, and Sanam had only been focused on herself and how Seher’s behavior would affect her. How selfish could she have been?

“Mom said your family had the summer house next door to our uncle when we were kids,” Seher suddenly mentioned, naming the town near which the summer houses had been located.

Sanam’s eyes widened. She tried to kick at Seher’s foot under the table, but the darn table was too big!

“What?” Aahil asked in confusion.

“Yeah, you know. It was that big converted farm house about 50 miles in that direction,” Seher reminded him, pointing in the entirely wrong direction. “Our uncle, Imran Qureshi, made his home there about 22 years ago after some . . . events. He lived there with my cousin, Haya, so we would visit quite often. You must have met her. She was here last time with mom and Sanam.”

Aahil’s eyes had widened at those words, his face paling. He swallowed and said, “I’m not sure . . .”

“You remember that house, Aahil,” a husky, male voice called out from the dining room entrance. “You told me many stories about it.”

Sanam looked at the man standing across the room, her eyes hopelessly entranced by him. He was fully dressed now. Darn it. In jeans and a white shirt with black buttons. The collar and the first few buttons were open, allowing her eyes to feast on all of that bare skin. His hair was still wet though, a reminder of the delectable view she had just enjoyed minutes ago.

She found it hard to look away, but a small part of her mind found enough rationality to wonder at the stories the Nawab would have told his friend about that house.

“Oh! Oh yes, we were rarely there,” the Nawab murmured. “That’s why I was finding it hard to remember.”

Sanam blinked at that statement. Hadn’t Ammi mentioned the Ibrahims would come down there multiple times a year? Then, why . . . She exhaled softly when she realized. Why would he want to mention that place to complete strangers? Especially when he had been so badly abused there. She gazed at the Nawab with compassion. It did her heart good to realize that he had escaped that abuse with nary a mark on his psyche. That smile on his face held nothing of what she usually saw in the faces of domestic violence survivors.

And then all thoughts fled, as that man came towards the table. Her heart began to beat rapidly. Where would he sit? Who would he choose? Her mouth fell open slightly, when he came around the table and sat next to her, his movements causing his leg to brush against hers. As he reached for the teapot, his arm brushed hers. Moments ago that arm . . . all of him really, had been glistening wet.

She closed her eyes, her mind now focusing only on the fact that he had sat next to her. He must somehow know that she was Sanam! All rational thought had fled her mind, her world view taking on the haze of rainbows and romance. Her heart was bursting with joy, translating into the smile that grew on her face.

“So, twins, huh?” he said casually, turning to gaze at Sanam with an unexpected smile.

Sanam nodded, smiling back helplessly.

“Your sister gave me quite a surprise when she came in this afternoon,” he revealed.

Her smile fell away, all of the joy draining away. Her fingers curled into fists, and she quickly put them in her lap. Of course. Seher had been here for an hour. What had made her think that this man hadn’t already seen her sister . . . hadn’t already talked to her? Seher would have told him immediately who she was, just like Sanam had tried to do with the Nawab on that last visit. There was nothing meaningful about him sitting next to her. He hadn’t known that Sanam was Sanam. He’d only known that she wasn’t Seher. She bit her bottom lip, unhappiness growing inside of her.

Aahil gazed at the unhappy look on Sanam’s face, wondering at the reason for that cloudy expression. He stared intently when his attention finally caught something else on that beautiful face. “I’m sorry. I can’t ignore it,” he said suddenly, pulling out a handkerchief and pouring some water onto it from a nearby glass. “I don’t think you’d want me to, either, when my silence would mean you’d walk around like that for who knows how much longer.”

Sanam blinked at his behavior, wondering what he was doing.

Reaching out, he touched her cheek, gently brushing at it with the handkerchief. “You had some dirt on your cheeks,” he murmured in explanation, turning her face with a finger to clean the other cheek.

Sanam gasped in embarrassment, quickly closing her eyes. Snagging the handkerchief from his hand, she scrubbed at her cheeks. She turned to glare at Seher, shooting daggers at her twin. ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ she yelled at her silently.

I was trying to signal. You didn’t understand!‘ Seher wiggled her eyebrows at her, the message clear.

You couldn’t open your mouth?‘ Sanam protested with her eyes.

I was about to, but he showed up!‘ Seher said with a frustrated grimace.

God, here she was in her oldest shalwar kameez, clothes clearly used for household chores, sweaty from gardening and now with dirt on her face! What a picture she must make. In the three times they had seen each other, she had looked utterly normal, even slovenly today, for two of those times.

“I hear you’re a lawyer,” he noted after she was done cleaning her face, her eyes resolutely downcast. “We didn’t get a chance to talk at the gala. Your sister said that you are actually an attorney for the non-profit that was in charge of the festivities.”

Sanam nodded, pushing away slightly from the table to put some distance between the two of them. “I just passed the exam a few months ago. It was my first assignment helping to prepare for that gala.”

Her mind wasn’t 100% on that conversation. Ammi had said. . . If a man doesn’t know you . . . can’t tell the difference between the two of you, that means you don’t affect him. You don’t affect his mind, his heart or his body. If you don’t affect him in any way . . . is he really meant for you?

Seher had told him. Seher had had to tell him. Because, like the Nawab, he hadn’t known the difference. Her shoulders slumped. Why was she making such a big deal out of this? ‘But . . . he’s supposed to know me. He’s supposed to know who I am,’ she thought to herself, irrationally disappointed. ‘I would have known.

“I specialized in business law so that I could work with Aahil and help him with the Nawab’s properties and corporate interests. And what do you do at LSB?” he moved slightly, his thigh lightly touching hers before moving away.

She flinched at the contact. Her mind strived to deal with her irrational feelings. Why was she expecting so much. They’d seen each other three times . . . but then . . . why did it feel like it had been more than that? Despite how hard she tried to convince herself . . . her heart cried out one thing . . . he was supposed to know me.

“I work with domestic violence survivors, helping them to get the help they need to escape their lives of abuse,” she said softly. She was too immersed in her own thoughts to notice him stiffening beside her.

There was a moment of silence, as two of the people at that table dealt with that disclosure. Sanam was too immersed in her own internal drama to notice the brittle silence that had fallen over the group. ‘Doesn’t he feel anything special around me? Don’t his heartbeats tell him who I am? I can feel his heat from here, but he feels nothing. My hands won’t stop trembling, the need to touch him is so strong, but I don’t affect him at all.’

“Oh, Sanam,” Seher broke in.

Sanam looked up questioningly, raising her chin in silent question.

“I didn’t even have to tell Rehan that I wasn’t you,” she revealed, slanting a speaking glance at the Nawab at her elbow. “He just knew.”

“Hey!” the Nawab protested to Seher. “I didn’t know you two were twins. Cut me some slack!”

“Excuses. Excuses,” Seher said archly. “But Rehan knew immediately.”

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

She heard a step behind her. Whirling around, her widening eyes caught the figure coming to stand in front of her.

“Oh.” It was a soft exhalation of sound. “Rehan!” Seher said, frantically looking around for her prey . . . um, the Nawab.”You’re here.” She blinked innocently up at him.

She looked at him, confused, when he abruptly stepped back, his face stiffening almost imperceptibly. “Hmm. What are you doing here?”he asked abruptly, crossing his arms across his chest.

“Well, I just came to pick up the dishes we dropped off last week,” Seher murmured distractedly, grabbing onto that excuse for her presence here. Why had she been so confident when she traipsed over? Why couldn’t her addled brain think of any reason besides the dishes that the others had brought over? Oh my God, what if he thought she was Sanam?! She didn’t want to do that to her sister. Especially not with this man. Opening her mouth, she was ready to confess all and throw herself at his mercy. Although, her heart did cringe about having to admit her actual reason for coming over.

“I’m sorry,” he said suddenly. “I thought . . .” His arms fell to his sides.

She looked up, distracted from her own internal argument.

“I don’t think we’ve been introduced. You are . . .?”

A big smile grew across her face, revealing her intense relief. “I’m Seher Ahmed Khan. Sanam’s twin sister.”

“So, twins, huh?” A smile grew across his face.

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

Sanam turned to gaze at the man next to her, her eyes meeting his with a look of chagrin.

He wondered at that. Why was she . . .?

She turned away, a blush appearing in her cheeks once more. Her hands continued to tremble, so much so that she dropped his handkerchief on the floor. “Shoot,” she softly murmured, reaching down to grab it.

Her hand was caught in his, as he leaned down, as well.

Her eyes rose to meet his, startled at that contact. He was so warm, his heat invading her entire being from that point of contact. A feeling of lethargy was spreading through her limbs; it was as if she was unable to move . . . to pull away from him.

He stared into her eyes, his lips inches away from hers. Their breaths mingled . . . their faces so close . . . close enough to kiss. Her lips fell open in response to his proximity, the breath leaving her body with a quiet gasp.

His gaze was smoldering, a small smile playing on those sexy lips.

She wanted to touch. The handkerchief fell out of her hand, but his grasp did not loosen. His fingers gripped hers tightly; it felt for a moment as if he was threading his fingers through hers, but he suddenly let go.

Sanam slowly straightened, the handkerchief lying forgotten on the floor. Staring at his profile, she wondered at his behavior.

He was deliberately looking away, his attention focused completely on Seher and his friend now.

His eyes had burned with the fire inside, speaking of his own need.

She wondered what her own eyes had revealed to him? She blew out a breath, trying to cool down her cheeks. And then a smile began to grow on her face once more.

She did affect him. Mind, heart and body.

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

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