Chapter 11: Where There’s a Will
“Are you kidding me?” Seher yelled, her eyes furiously gazing up at the man who had kept so much from her. Her mind was whirling; as she struggled to deal with this latest revelation.
“Seher,” Rehan began, his voice trailing off when he realized he had no idea what he could say. His heart had begun to pound rapidly, seeing her there in front of him. ‘Allah miyah, how long will this test last? How long will it be before she gives up and goes away forever?’ he asked silently, looking up to the sky.
But another conflicted part of him, the desperate lover, immediately protested the thought of her leaving. She couldn’t go away. She wouldn’t just turn her back on him, would she? He clenched his fists, fighting the emotional storm brewing inside of him. But it was her next action that gratified that desperate part of him.
Seher bounded up the stairs, running towards him instead of away. She stopped only when she was in front of him. Reaching out, she grabbed his wrist in her slender hand, as if afraid that he would escape before she had the chance to demand answers.
Rehan closed his eyes, her intoxicating scent hitting him like a blow. She was here right now, and he would make this moment into another memory. With that one touch, everything else had disappeared. Aahil bhai . . . the reasons for why he should stay away . . . none of that mattered now. But, no. He ruthlessly shook his head, breaking free of the spell that she had cast. She wouldn’t get him that easily. “What do you want, Seher? Where did you even come from?” He looked behind himself at the closed door leading out from the house and then to the backyard.
“Does that really matter?” Seher threw at him incredulously. “Come with me.” Tugging on his wrist, she pulled him one way and then stopped. Moving once more, she began to pull him toward another direction, and then stopped once more with an annoyed huff.
“What are you doing?” Rehan asked her in confusion. He flexed his arm unconsciously on feeling her fingers clench around his wrist, his body warming at her touch. ‘Maybe just a little bit longer?’ that desperate lover begged. In rejection of that plea, he pulled his arm away.
“I’m trying to get us some privacy,” Seher barked at him, grabbing onto his arm once more and tugging at it.
“And you didn’t think that maybe the house might be a good place for that?” he asked sarcastically.
“Well, I couldn’t trust you not to go and hide in some random room with Lateef acting as your bodyguard, now could I?” Seher threw back at him.
Rehan shook his head at her, unable to defend himself. “This way,” he said brusquely, pulling free and then grasping her hand in his. Unconsciously linking their fingers together, he led her into the house and down the hallway. Soon they were in the privacy of his sitting room, his eyes trained on her while she paced in front of him.
She stopped and glared at him, her arms crossed over her chest. “So?”
“So what?” he repeated, staring back at her.
“Begin talking, Aa-,” she closed her eyes, biting her lip. Her voice was thick when she spoke the next words. “If you ever had any feelings for me, begin talking, Mr. Rehan Imran Qureshi.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sanam stared at the man left behind, wondering if she could get him to talk now that they were face to face. Her eyes moved over his clothes, still impeccable, despite the fact that his life was going through such upheaval. The same style. Open-necked navy blue dress shirt, with a couple of buttons undone. Pants closely molded to his legs. The same arrogance projecting from him.
He still seemed like that man that she had come to know, but looks could be deceiving. If you looked closely, you could see the affects of the past few days. There was the full five o’clock shadow covering his jaw, rather than the shaped goatee she had come to expect. The hair falling across his forehead, instead of being fully styled. She blinked rapidly, her eyes fascinated by that unkempt look. Some secret part of her just wanted to run her lips across that roughness covering his jaw. She wondered, suddenly distracted, how it would feel to kiss him there.
‘No,’ she shook her head. She couldn’t be distracted by such thoughts. She looked into his eyes, and saw the evidence of sleepless nights. She saw the bags under his eyes. She saw the sadness . . . had it always been there, and she just hadn’t noticed? Had she been too mesmerized by who she thought he was to worry about the man behind the façade?
“What are you doing here?” he asked grimly, a muscle clenching in his jaw.
She firmed her jaw and moved over to him. “This time, there’s no gate between us,” she remarked drily. “You don’t get to walk away.”
“If I recall correctly,” he said, moving back, “You were the one who walked away this morning.”
She smirked at him, stepping closer. “Did that annoy you?”
He moved back some more, creating more distance between them.
“Why do you do that?” she asked, staring at him quizzically.
“What?” he asked, crossing his arms over his chest, causing his muscles to bulge.
“Why are you backing up as if I’m going to do something to you?” she asked in frustration. “Why can’t you trust me? Why couldn’t you tell me the truth before revealing it to the world?” she demanded, striding forward. When she finally stopped, he realized that she had left him no room for further retreat.
He silently gasped as his back landed against the wall, flinching at the unexpected contact. The feeling of being cornered was an unpleasant reminder of the past that he was still trying to forget.
Aahil carefully lay down, his body flinching when his back came into contact with the bed. Turning over, he lay on his stomach, hoping that the pain would lessen. His wounds were still tender. The blood still thrummed in his body, his heart beating furiously, as he struggled with the aftereffects of that last beating.
He heard soft footsteps, and then a presence by the bed.
“Go away,” he ordered quietly.
“You’re still bleeding,” a voice noted solemnly.
“I know,” he muttered. “It’ll eventually stop.”
“I can bandage it up,” the figure offered after a pause. “Let me clean the wounds.”
“Leave me alone.” He buried his head in the pillow to hide the tears that had begun to fall. “I just need to sleep. When I wake up, it’ll be fine.”
The figure silently left the room, but Aahil didn’t hear. He’d already fallen into the darkness.
Sanam crowded him into the wall. When he turned to the right, she slammed an arm up to block him. He glared at her, and then moved to the left. She slammed her other arm up.
She raised an eyebrow at him. When he said nothing, she urged softly, “Don’t shut me out, Aahil.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Please don’t shut me out.” Tears slid down her cheeks, as her eyes silently begged him to open up.
His heart fell at the tears. He had been a stone . . . he had been resolute behind closed doors and with Lateef between the two of them last night. But the wall he’d built around his heart was melting in the light of day. Nothing he told himself, no warnings, worked to stop his mouth from opening and the words pouring out.
“When I was 4-years-old, I was abandoned at an orphanage by my mother,” he began, making an effort to keep his voice steady. “I didn’t have a father to begin with. Well, I do have one, but just purely in a biological sense. And then my mother decided to leave me behind.” He turned away from the sympathy in her eyes, abhorring the fact that she was pitying him.
If he was completely honest with himself, he had felt a rush every time people had looked at him with awe when they believed him the Nawab of Bhopal. But he was the little orphan boy once again, and while he was ashamed of those feelings, he missed being the person that people automatically respected and revered. He flexed his jaw, trying to suppress the regret flooding through him when he glimpsed the pity in Seher’s eyes.
Seher walked towards him, placing a hand on his shoulder. “Go on,” she softly urged him.
Nodding his head, he began once more. “You know my mom passed away a long time ago. She left behind a note signed with only her name when she abandoned me at that orphanage. She only left behind her name because it was required. Otherwise, I may not have even had that. One day I decided to do some research and find out everything I could about her.” He shook his head at his own naiveté and at the optimistic youth that he had once been.
Seher waited for him to continue, but he remained quiet for too long. Looking at his down bent head, she turned him around and cupped his cheek. Caressing it lightly, she repeated once more, “Go on. Please.”
“To my horror and disbelief,” he said through clenched teeth, pulling away from her touch, “I found out that she was a psychopathic killer who not only killed a whole slew of people, but she also killed my sister’s mother.”
“What do you mean?” Seher asked. “You have a sister? Isn’t that good news? Isn’t that something good coming out of all of this tragedy?” she demanded in confusion.
“My father . . . the man who impregnated my mother was your Imran Uncle,” Rehan explained heavily.
Seher’s eyes widened at that revelation.
“He is Haya’s father, but he’s also my father,” he explained with difficulty. “I’m sure your parents never told you about what else my mother was guilty of before she went on her killing spree.”
Seher gradually connected the dots in her mind. Was that why . . . “Was that why you were so fascinated with Haya?” she demanded.
He shook his head at her. Grabbing her by the shoulders, he shook her gently. “Seher, you have a family. You have a mother and a father. A grandmother. Sisters. Aunts. Uncles. Cousins. You’re surrounded by love. I have no one. The day I found out about my mother’s past . . . was also the day that I found out I had a father and a sister. For a brief shining moment, it was the happiest day of my life. For that moment I had family. I wasn’t alone in the world, but that happiness was too short lived. Because immediately thereafter I found out just who my mother had killed. Thanks to Tanveer, I had a sister that I couldn’t call my own.”
“Rehan,” Seher said achingly, staring up into his eyes. She stepped closer to him, so that he was almost embracing her instead.
“Seher, please, let me finish,” he ordered, stepping back. But he did not let go of her slender shoulders, his hands now resting on the sides of her neck and a thumb absentmindedly playing with her collar bone. “And stop pitying me. I was all alone in the world. But that hasn’t weakened me.” His gaze was steady and confident. “Thanks to what I have lived through and what I have discovered about my blood, I have loved myself earnestly. I grew up making da*n sure to give myself plenty of love,” he admitted. “I never once forgot to get myself a birthday gift nor to praise myself when I succeeded in my goals. Fortunately, I had the nature and the intelligence to be worthy of all that love.” He smiled at her crookedly, backing away until the distance of the room was between them.
“Rehan,” Seher protested, missing his touch.
“And when I finally found someone else that I felt a connection with. Someone that my heart called its own within moments of meeting her, imagine how I felt when I realized who that person was.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Despite her entreaty, Aahil remained silent. That muscle was twitching in his jaw once more, as he struggled with . . . something.
Was he tempted even a little bit to share with her, she wondered. When he said nothing, she leaned in, inhaling his unique scent mixed with that cologne that she had come to crave. And leaning further in, she did what her heart most desired. She placed her lips against his jaw, feeling the roughness of that stubble against her soft lips. Her skin prickled at the contact.
Aahil turned his face away, closing his eyes at the sensation Sanam’s touch evoked deep inside of him. The desire to grab hold of her and never let go was rising inside of him. He inhaled sharply, steeling himself against the temptation, but it was no good. With that breath, he took in her exotic scent. He relished her touch. He moved slightly, and brushed up against her delectable body, and he was ensorcelled by her softness. She was a seductive temptation, and he wanted nothing more than to give in.
She reached up and traced the shadow on his jaw with her fingers. “How do you think I felt that day I saw you at the gala?” she mused softly. “I felt a connection with you from the first moment we met.”
“You felt sorry for that little boy,” he said, almost sullenly.
“That makes no sense at all,” she growled, giving him a punishing bite on his jaw. “I thought you were someone else, you idiot! I didn’t know you. And I wanted to know you. I wanted to touch you. To taste you,” she finished in a whisper. She moved even closer, plastering her body against his. Her fingers came up to clutch at his collar.
Aahil’s body stiffened even further, the desire inside of him growing into a furious storm. He clenched his fists, seeking the power to control that storm before it destroyed everything.
She kissed his jaw once more, and then licked him, tasting him. She exulted in that exotic taste, almost drunk on it. She was losing control, and she felt no shame. This was the man she loved. So how fair was it that she hadn’t even kissed him?
He shuddered, his arms coming up to pull her even closer so that there wasn’t even air between their bodies. Reaching up, he grabbed her by the nape of her neck, his hold gentle yet unbreakable.
She let her head fall back, her eyes meeting his. She was pliant in his hold.
Aahil closed his eyes against the surrender he saw in hers, and then shook his head. Seeming to come to some sort of decision, he leaned down, stopping only when he was millimeters away from her lips. He stopped because Sanam was speaking once more.
“And then to find out you were Aahil Raza Ibrahim?” she whispered, her lips so close to his that they touched him for mere fractions of seconds as she let the words out. “My mind was blown. You were that first meaningful meeting I had. You were also the second most meaningful meeting I had.”
She swallowed with difficulty. “And to be told along with everyone else that you were a convicted murderer? To see you taunting the world with that truth and to walk by me as if I didn’t matter?” Her eyes were awash with tears, the passion of moments ago disappearing under the bitterness of last night. She paused and then spoke again. “To realize that you didn’t care enough to tell me first. To prepare me. To have me at your side. To realize that you didn’t care at all.”
He stared down into her eyes, and then leaned in to place a kiss against her lips, as if he was unable to stop himself. He saw the passion glazing over her eyes, as she allowed him a glimpse of how much his proximity affected her. He saw her lips part once more, as she took in a tremulous breath.
And it was enough. Leaning down, he touched her lips with his once more. Biting softly at her plump bottom lip, he pulled them apart, seeking entrance. He began the plunder, his tongue surging into her mouth, tasting her for the first time. It was her taste. It was her. Pulling back, he breathed deeply, his arms now tightly holding her in his embrace. Leaning back down once more, he began to place kisses along her jaw, to her ear and the soft spot behind her ear.
She moaned softly, passion burning inside of her. It was too much. The tears that had been ready to fall had burned away under the fiery passion. And now, she could only feel him, taste him, breathe him. She moved her hands up to tangle in his hair. Tugging gently, she pulled him back so that she could kiss his cheek. Kiss his jaw. Taste his skin. Pulling his head down, she kissed his eyes. First the right one and then the left. She kissed his forehead. A part of her hoped that he would know that this was more than just passion. It was her love.
Aahil abruptly pulled away, pain flashing across his face. He let her go, his fingers falling away.
And it felt like a rejection of her love. She was looking and saw his face stiffen. She thought she was ready, but when he pushed her away it was still unexpected. She fell back, stumbled, fell.
His hands reached out quickly and grabbed her, pulling her back into his arms. He saved her before she fell. His heart was beating rapidly, his hold strong.
She looked up into his eyes and saw the alarm there.
“I didn’t mean to hurt you,” he explained with furious urgency. “That was never my intent.”
She wondered if he was only talking about her almost fall. “It’s okay.”
“It’s not okay. Using force against a woman is never okay,” he retorted.
Aahil sat up in bed, his heart pounding furiously in his chest. What had happened? What was it that had awakened him?
He heard it again. Someone had cried out in pain. His brow wrinkled in worry, and then he bolted out of bed when he recognized that shrill cry. Running down the hallway, he reached the living room. His heart froze when he saw the scene in front of him.
“I told you not to touch that!” his father was shouting at five-year-old Shazia sitting on the floor, crying. She was knuckling the tears away, her small shoulders hunched over. Her small body was trembling in fear, but it meant nothing to the man shouting over her.
“Stop crying!” he shouted. The man looked more monster than human, as he stood there and yelled at the small girl. “I said stop crying! What do you have to cry about? Looks like you’re not going to learn this way,” the monster murmured. “Maybe you need a harsher form of discipline.”
Aahil’s eyes widened in horror when he saw him pick up the whip. His precious sister would not be hurt by that monster. He had thought that as long as he bore everything, as long as he was the proper son, it would be enough. Everything else would be okay. But not anymore.
“Leave her alone!” he shouted, racing into the room.
The Nawab turned to glare at him, astonished that this boy had dared to challenge him. He raised the hand with the whip, ready to punish him for his temerity.
Aahil reached out and grabbed the monster’s hand. “No.”
“You didn’t hurt me,” she said, seeing the panic in his eyes. “You pulled away, it was this,” she said, pointing down to the rake someone had unthinkingly left on the porch, “This made me stumble and fall. It wasn’t you. You could never hurt me.”
She moved forward slowly, hands raised, as if approaching a wild animal. She was afraid to startle him. She was afraid that he would run if spooked and maybe never come back.
He backed away, putting distance between them. “Leave, Sanam.”
“Leave the darkness of the past, Aahil,” she encouraged him, “And live in the light.”
“It may be light for you,” Aahil retorted, “But it’s always darkness around me. Leave before you become trapped like me in the darkness.”
She shook her head, moving closer. Reaching out a hand, she smoothed back the hair that had fallen across his forehead and wiped away the sweat that had appeared with her fingers. She cupped his cheek.
He turned his head, almost against his will, and kissed the center of her palm.
She hoped that her touch would soothe him. She hoped that it would take away the worry and pain in his eyes. She hoped that he could trust her and tell her the truth.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Rehan closed his eyes; he could not bear to see the hope in her eyes.
“Imagine what I felt when I realized that the woman in my arms . . . the one who told me her name was Seher Ahmed Khan. The one who conned me into giving her my number. The one who was an accountant. The one who loved orchids and loved to dance.”
She smiled helplessly at the love she could hear in his voice.
“When I found out that the woman who’s little habits and quirks I was gathering like little treasures, was the daughter of that Khan family. The family that my mother had tortured and destroyed so many years ago. When I found that out, I prudently backed away.” He opened his eyes, looking into hers to emphasize his next words. “But you wouldn’t leave it at that, would you? What is wrong with you?”
“She didn’t destroy us,” Seher burst out, folding her arms across her chest in defiance of his words. “Granted she hurt my family. She hurt them terribly. But she didn’t destroy us. We’re still here. Living. Flourishing. Making our own lives and planning our own futures.” She waved her arms in the air. “And my future was supposed to be with you before you turned coward.”
“I am an orphan, Seher Ahmed Khan! I am the son of the woman who killed members of your family. I am the son of the woman who tried to kill your parents. She was the reason that you were in that brot–.” He stopped, unable to say another word.
She could see the tears in his eyes, and her heart turned over at the self-recrimination she saw there. “Why do you blame yourself for what happened in the past?” she cried out. “Why do you blame yourself for the blood in your veins?” She strode towards him and grabbed him by his shoulders. She tried to shake some sense into him, but he barely moved. Huffing in frustration, she settled for digging her nails into his skin as punishment. “What happened to the boy you were just talking about moments ago? He was confident. He was almost arrogant. And you’re . . . not. What happened, Rehan?”
“That boy had nothing to lose!” Rehan shouted at her, clutching at her wrists, trying to get her to understand. “That boy had no family. No parents. No siblings. No friends. No one to love. And I . . . I now have a brother I care about. I now have a woman that I lo–.”
“That you love and are afraid to lose,” she finished for him. She smiled softly. “And she loves you so, so much. You’re not going to lose her because of this.”
“That’s easy for you to say,” he shot back, letting his hands fall away. “What about your family? Will they think the same?”
“I don’t care about my family!” she shouted. She grabbed at his shirt, tugging at it. “If they would turn their back on someone just because of their parents, then they aren’t the family I know. They aren’t my family.”
He leaned towards her, grabbing her face in his hands and forcing her to meet his skeptical gaze. “They will not accept me once they know the truth. They couldn’t. I know what it’s like to live in a world without family. I won’t do that to you.”
“You won’t be doing anything to me!” Seher shouted back, frustrated beyond belief. “I get to decide what happens with my life. You don’t get to be the noble idiot in this relationship.”
“What relationship? How can I begin something when I know some day you will resent me for all of this?” he asked in frustration.
“I will never resent you,” she replied. “I will never resent the man that I love.”
He opened his mouth.
“I know you’ll say that I just met you. It’s only been months, but I know my heart.” She slapped a hand over her heart. “It has settled on you, and it won’t change its mind. I will convince my family. We will convince my family. We won’t take any actions that’ll turn them against us, but you have to trust me. You have to trust in us. You have to remember, where there’s a will, there is a way.” She leaned forward and kissed him. “Please, tell me that the love you confessed was true.” Tears began to fall once more.
Rehan stood there, the woman he lived inches away. He stared into her eyes and saw love. It was too much. He took a deep breath, trying to clear his mind of all emotion and think rationally. Sending her away would be the best thing for Seher. If he sent her away, she wouldn’t lose her family. She wouldn’t resent him one day.
“You worry about my resenting you years later,” she said softly, “but imagine this. What if we don’t have years together? Anything can happen. Accidents. Tragedy. We could live long miserable lives separately. We could die tomorrow. Isn’t it our duty to live our lives to the fullest? Isn’t it our duty to love as much as we can without fear of what life may bring?”
If he sent her away, he would have turned his back on the best thing that ever happened to him. He would turn his back on love. He had spent years at the orphanage seeing couples come and take children away to be a part of their family, but no one had ever chosen him to be a part of their family. No one had chosen him. No one had cared enough or loved enough.
He wiped Seher’s tears away, unable to bear the pain he saw there. He didn’t want to be a cause of that pain. Ever. “I’ll . . . trust you with my heart,” he finally said, giving in. He had a feeling that he’d be doing that for the rest of their lives together. “I will trust you with our future.”
“And you won’t regret it,” she said with a cheeky smile.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Aahil, as long as you will it, we can find a way,” Sanam whispered. “Tell me what happened. Please, tell me the truth.”
He closed his eyes, her hand still caressing his cheek, his hand now cradling hers. And with his eyes closed, his only link to the world was her touch. But it wasn’t enough to help him forget the darkness. It wasn’t enough to forget the pain, nor the fear.
Most of all, her touch wasn’t enough to erase the self-loathing.
“You dare say no to me, boy?” his father shouted back at him, his hands struggling to keep hold of the whip.
Aahil fought back like he had never done before. And to his surprise, he won. He got the whip and threw it across the room.
“Enough!” Aahil shouted at his father, pushing him back and away from him and his sister. “You will never lay a hand on my sisters, do you understand?”
“You don’t dictate to me,” the Nawab of Bhopal yelled back. “You are my children. I do what I want with you. I do what I want!” he shouted at Aahil.
Aahil grabbed the man by the collar. “Not anymore.” For the first time, he realized that he was taller than his father. And when he pushed him back, his father actually stumbled. “You don’t beat my sisters. You will never lay a hand on them,” he said through gritted teeth. “Shazia, go to your room.” He watched his little sister look at him fearfully before running out the door.
“How da–,” his father began, his voice loud enough to bring servants running to the door.
Aahil did not notice them. “You will never beat us again. You will never beat me again. Lay another hand on me, and I’ll tell the world. What do you think Bhopal will think about the Nawab being an alcoholic and a child beater?”
“You wouldn’t dare. You, the fearful little dog that I’ve kept chained and beaten? Where would you get the courage?”
“Do you want to try me? I’ll spread the word, and you’ll lose your reputation. Know this. If you don’t stop and your reputation doesn’t matter to you . . . if you touch her again, if you touch me again, I’m going to kill you.”
The Nawab began to laugh, the incredulity apparent on his face. “You and what army, son?”
“I stopped being your son when you began beating me.” When the Nawab only continued to laugh, Aahil lunged at him. “I’ll kill you!” And it was the servants that pulled him away. The servants who held on to him, while the Nawab walked past him, still laughing at Aahil’s temerity.
“. . . kill you!”
He pulled away from her touch, unable to handle her or the past any longer.
“Don’t pull away from me!” Sanam shouted in frustration. “Why do I have to beg for the truth from the man I love? You said you loved me,” she said in a small voice.
Aahil stared at her, his head tilted to the side. A coldness had appeared in his eyes that made her very afraid. She knew that she didn’t want to hear the words that would come out of his mouth next.
“There is so much you don’t know about me,” Aahil said harshly. “Back then, you said you had faith, but now you want answers? You want me to tell you my secrets. Why would I trust you? How could I trust you? I have been alone all of my life, Sanam Ahmed Khan. Everything I’ve done, I’ve done alone. I saved myself. I protected myself. And, suddenly, you expect all of that to change? You want me to depend on you?” He laughed sardonically. “Stop dreaming, Sanam. I have.” He walked to the door of his home, leaving her standing on the porch. Gazing back at her, he issued an order, leaving no room for further debate.
She faltered at the blankness she saw in his eyes, falling back and away from him. “You want me to leave? Fine. No more,” she said resolutely. “No more begging you to tell me the truth, Aahil Raza Ibrahim. I’m done. I will walk away now since that’s what you want,” she said. “Just know one thing,” she said calmly, pushing all of the pain deep inside of herself, deep enough so that she could function right now. “I’m going to make sure you regret turning me away.”
“Ammi,” Sanam called out, disturbing her mother, as the older woman sat in front of the computer, doing some work before their father came home.
“What is it?” Zoya asked, turning to smile at her two lovely daughters. The smile fell away when she saw the distraught expressions on their faces. “What is it now?” she asked with trepidation.
“Mom,” Seher began hesitantly. “It seems,” she tilted her head, her fingers twisting themselves into knots, “That the Nawab was not the only one who was keeping secrets.”
Zoya steeled herself, taking a deep breath and then gazing at her daughters. “Okay, tell me. I’m ready.”
“Rehan is . . .,” Seher began. “Now that we know that he is not the Nawab, I was able to piece together that he was the orphan that he told me about. He grew up in an orphanage right here in Bhopal. He lived there until he was 18, and then won a scholarship to go to the US to study. That’s where he met the Nawab.”
“Is that what this is about?” Zoya cried out, relieved that this was all it was. Jumping up, she came over to Seher and grasped her hands. “Beta, I don’t . . . . we don’t care about that! Just because he’s an orphan doesn’t mean anything. You know this family doesn’t care about status.”
“Mom!” Seher said, “I know that. You didn’t raise us to be snobs, either. The real problem is. . .” She stopped, unable to go on. “The truth is . . . ” She stopped once more. She turned to look at Sanam, silently entreating her twin to say the words that she couldn’t.
“When we went over there today to demand some answers,” Sanam began, “We heard something that I don’t think Rehan wanted us to.”
“Now what?” Zoya repeated, gazing at Sanam in consternation.
“You know that he was an orphan,” Sanam began.
“We’ve already established that,” Zoya snapped at her. “The longer you take to tell me, the more worried I’m going to get.”
“Well, he eventually found out who is mother is. Or was,” Sanam explained.
“Well, isn’t that good news?” Zoya demanded.
“No,” Sanam said, shaking her head.
“His mother was Tanveer,” Sanam forced herself to utter the words. “The same Tanveer who turned this family’s lives upside down years ago.”
There was a moment of silence as Zoya processed those words. Her eyes blinked open and shut, and then filled with horror. Her body froze from the shock. “Allah miyah! What is wrong with that boy?” Zoya yelped, her heart beating furiously. “How could he hide that from us? How could they both hide such huge things from us? From the two of you?” She was practically yelling now. “First, they switched identities,” she began at full volume, counting their sins on her fingers. “Then the Nawab came out as being a convicted murderer. And not just any murderer, he killed his own father! And the cherry on the cake, Rehab, who I kind of figured as being an orphan when I really thought about it last night, turns out to have a psycho bit*h as his mother. The same psycho bit*h who wreaked havoc on our family decades ago?” She stopped and glared at her daughters, tapping one foot in her agitation. “They should have told you every da*n secret about themselves before you all fell in love with each other!”
“Mom, please,” Sanam entreated. “Rehan didn’t do anything.”
“Except hide the truth from us,” Zoya pointed out, grabbing her hair and tugging at it in frustration. “What is your father going to say?”
“Is that the truth?” Asad’s voice called out darkly from the doorway.
Three pairs of eyes turned to stare in horror at the man standing there.
“Dad,” Seher began uncertainly, unsure of what to say in the face of his shocked fury.
“It seems we heard correctly,” a voice murmured from behind him. “Rehan is Tanveer’s son,” Dilshad repeated, coming to stand next to Asad. The tears glimmering in her eyes were evidence of the pain inside.
Asad placed a consoling arm around his mother’s shoulders, directing her towards the couch. “What right did they have to . . . come into our lives when they weren’t going to be honest? What right did they have to steal your hearts without telling you what they were getting you two into?”
“Asad beta,” Dilshad began, brushing her tears away. “You can’t jus–”
“Ammi, no! He’s Tanveer’s son!” he said, emphasizing the name. “She killed my sister. Her blood runs in his veins. He cannot have a place in our lives. I cannot have him as a guest in our home.” He shook his head, struggling with his own surge of dark emotions. The fury seemed to be winning. “I can’t have Tanveer’s son as part of our family.”
“Asad beta,” Dilshad said sadly. “She killed my daughter. You think I don’t remember what that woman did? She killed my husband. She killed Zoya’s father. She tried to take you and Zoya from me,” she said, reaching out a loving hand to cup his cheek. Tears were trickling down her cheeks, as she struggled with the horrific memories of discovering the bodies on that tragic day.
“Ammi,” Asad said, covering that hand with his own.
“But he’s not the one at fault,” Dilshad said softly, hoping that her son would understand. “I don’t believe in the sins of the father. And when you calm down, you’ll remember that neither do you.”
“No!” Asad burst out, standing upright and beginning to pace back and forth across the room. “I can’t have Seher marry Tanveer’s son. That would mean she’d have won!”
“Abu, please!” Sanam said, coming up to grab her father’s arm. “Please. She didn’t even raise him! How can you blame him for his blood!”
“Because it’s her blood!” Asad shouted, pulling free of her hold and glaring at his family. “I almost lost your mother and all of you because of her. I lost my father and my sister because of her. Zoya, you lost your father. Why are you silent?” He turned to glare at his daughters and his mother. “Accept him? You want me to say it’s okay for Seher to marry him? One day, you would have kids together,” he said, gazing at Seher. “What if I can’t love them because of the blood running in their veins? Then what?”
Seher’s heart melted when she realized the fear that was behind her father’s rejection. “Dad, that won’t happen, because those children would also be a part of me. They would be a part of you. You couldn’t hate a part of yourself. You have to know, Rehan isn’t just Tanveer’s son. He has no memories of her. He grew up alone. He took care of himself. And on his own, he came to be the man he is today.” She came to stand next to him, grasping his hand entreatingly. “Do you realize, that a woman like Tanveer could never have raised Rehan to be that man? He’s already shown you how different he is from her.”
“Please give him a chance,” Sanam said. “Please.”
Asad stared at them silently, and then shook his head. “I can’t. Don’t ask me to forget. Don’t ask that of me.”
“Haye Allah, who is it at this hour? Don’t these people know how tired I get at the end of the day?” Lateef cried out. “After all, main to hoon chui mui.”
Rehan heard Lateef muttering to herself before flouncing toward the door. Shaking his head at her shenanigans, he moved towards his bedroom. Whoever it was, Lateef would turn them away. It hadn’t been an easy day for anyone in the house, especially after Seher and Sanam had left. Aahil bhai had been in a black mood since then. He’d finally gone to bed, after giving explicit orders to Lateef about not letting anyone in on pain of death.
“Hey! You can’t ju–”
Rehan wondered why Aahil’s sisters had come back to the home. The last he knew, they were staying at a hotel near the airport. The two would be flying out tomorrow morning for the states to stay with an aunt living in New York. The girls had decided to study there until the furor died down in Bhopal.
“Rehan . . . bhai,” the female voice called out hesitantly.
Rehan whirled around to stare at the doorway, his eyes widening in shock at seeing Haya standing there.
“Zoya auntie,” she began, walking into the room with uncertain steps, “told me the truth.”
Rehan stepped back, one step for each one of her steps forward. “Did she tell you who my mother was?” he asked hoarsely. “Did she tell you that my mother was the reason that your mother isn’t in this world today?”
Haya shook her head, tears glimmering in her eyes. “She told me that I had a brother. A lonely, young boy who grew up in an orphanage without any family.”
Rehan froze, his eyes widening at her words. “Did she tell you that that woman’s blood runs in my veins? Didn’t she warn you away from me?” he asked hoarsely, trying to suppress the emotions that were welling up inside of him.
“She told me that I wasn’t alone in the world anymore,” Haya answered. “That I would now have someone . . . a sibling to depend on, unlike my father who has spent the past two decades running from the guilt he felt at my mother’s death. My father wasn’t mine even when we were in the same home.”
Rehan bit his lip, his eyes uncertain. How should he react? What should he say? The uncertainty inside of him was eating away at the happiness a small part of him dared to feel.
Haya came to stand in front of him, and reached out to grab his hand. “It’s so nice to meet you, Rehan bhai. I can’t tell you,” she began with a teary laugh, “how nice it’ll be to have a sibling. Someone who’ll always be on my side, just like I’ll always be on theirs. At least that’s the conclusion I’ve come to after a couple of hours of thinking. Can I tell you a secret?”
Rehan raised a silent eyebrow at her, his fingers grasping hers in return.
“I’ve been very jealous of the relationship that Sanam and Seher have,” she confessed with a chuckle. “And now I have you.”
Aahil strode back and forth in his office, his movements angry and abrupt. Glaring silently at the man sitting on the other side of his desk, he began to move once more. Opening his mouth, he stopped again, unable to find the words that could get past the anger that was eating away at him. He began to pace once more. The pacing continued, until he was dizzy. But he couldn’t stop. He was afraid that if he stopped, he would explode and rain fire on anyone in the vicinity. Especially the man in front of him who had insisted on this meeting so early in the morning. Now he wished that he had told his secretary to turn him away.
“Are you kidding me?” he finally burst out, unable to suppress his anger any longer. “Are you f***ing kidding me?!” He glared are the man across the desk, crossing his arms across his chest.
“Aahil Bhai,” Rehan reprimanded from the side of the room.
“No, Rehan!” Aahil barked at him, turning to glare at the other man. “I’m not going to calm down. Not about this. What the hell was that old man thinking?”
“Aahil bhai, stop yelling,” Rehan instructed, coming over to stand next to Aahil and placing a hand on his shoulder. “Let’s find out if there is any way out of this predicament.”
“I’m afraid it’s air tight,” the other man said, his expression calm despite the fury he saw in Aahil’s face.
Aahil laughed bitterly, pulling away from Rehan to go slump in his chair. “One more F-you from the old man, Rehan. And this lawyer tells me there is nothing I can do.” Turning his head, he stared out the window, his eyes focused on the sunny scene outside.
“I’m afraid, Mr. Ibrahim, there is no legal loophole. There is nothing you can do to get out of your obligations,” the lawyer said with finality, standing up. “Your father left a will behind when he died. And despite how he met his demise,” the lawyer said delicately, “the will states that you must be married before your 30th birthday or all of the properties and everything associated with the Ibrahim name . . . down to your home and the wealth that you have accumulated will be confiscated by the state.” Nodding his head in a silent farewell at the two men, he turned and left the room.
There was only silence in the room after he left, as each man grappled with this new and troubling revelation.
“I’m not going to let him get what he wants, Rehan. Not this way,” Aahil muttered bleakly, his eyes focused on the scenery outside. “I don’t care. Let them take it all. I’m not going to dance to his tune. Never again.”
Chapter 12: Zara Sa
Sanam dropped her files in her hurry to get to her supervisor’s office, her thoughts centered for the moment around what this meeting could be about. She didn’t have time for this. She wanted to be thinking about the subject that had kept her engrossed all morning, the DV hearing scheduled for two hours later. She had spent the morning preparing. Now she had to deal with this interruption, especially when she had been ready to slip into her professional shoes and head out the door. Sighing deeply, she knelt down to grab the scattered papers.
She heard movement from down the hallway, her ears picking up the hushed conversations of coworkers in their offices, as she gathered the papers. LSB’s office building was huge, with numerous offices spread out over a sprawling maze of hallways. When Sanam had begun at the office, she had gotten lost many, many times, but now the office was a second home. She blinked as a ray of sunlight caught her right in the eye. Turning, she looked at the big windows lining one of the walls, letting in sunlight, and hope, at the same time. She smiled softly, thinking that it truly was a beautiful, energetic home where she could do lots of good.
“Miss Sanam, you’re here!” a young girl’s voice cried out, right before Sanam heard the pattering of eager feet as they ran to her. Sanam looked up and smiled warmly at the little girl who had knelt down beside her and was now gathering up the papers in her little hands.
“Sarita, you’re here with your mommy?” Sanam asked, reaching out to brush back the hair that had fallen across Sarita’s face.
Sarita nodded her head, and then handed the papers to Sanam. “You said that you were going to help me with the essay I had to write for school,” she reminded Sanam plaintively. “It has to be done in English. Remember, you said that you would check it for me?” she asked.
Sanam closed her eyes in chagrin, realizing that she had forgotten that particular promise. “I’m sorry, Sarita,” Sanam murmured, reaching out to lightly pinch a chubby cheek. “I think I can find my red pen.” She chuckled at the pout that appeared on Sarita’s face. “Leave it on my desk, and I’ll check it after I come back from court.”
“Sarita! Let’s go,” a voice called out sharply from the doorway of one of the offices down the hallway.
Sanam looked up. “Good morning, Mel,” Sanam called out, getting up and walking over to Sarita’s mother. “Are you here for your career counseling appointment?”
“I . . . I don’t have time to talk right now,” Melina said abruptly. “Sarita, let’s go.”
“But, mommy, I was going to put my paper on Miss Sanam’s desk! She said she would check it for me!”
“Not now, Sari,” Melina muttered. Pulling the protesting girl down the hallway, Melina left with nary a goodbye to Sanam.
Sanam wrinkled her brow in confusion, unable to figure out what had just happened there. Shrugging her shoulders, she began to walk to Shaleen Malhotra’s office, her thoughts again on her upcoming court appearance and the cross examination she needed to get through.
“Shaleen, couldn’t this conversation wait?” Sanam demanded, striding into her supervisor’s office. “You know that I have to leave for court soon.”
“I’m afraid you won’t be going into court, Sanam,” her supervisor answered carefully, silently inviting Sanam to take a seat across from her. The office was small, just like any of the other offices that housed the staff at LSB. The room itself had a single desk with three comfortable looking chairs placed around it. The table had a computer and big stacks of files waiting to be reviewed and approved. Despite the fact that she was one of LSB’s supervisors, Shaleen Malhotra did not demand nor expect any special treatment. And her passion for her work and her attitude was the reason that Sanam had chosen to work at this organization.
“What do you mean?” Sanam asked, plunking the files on the table and sitting down.
Raising a finger, silently asking for a minute, Shaleen picked up the receiver and spoke into it. “Pammi, could you please come in here?” Pammi was there in half a minute and standing at their supervisor’s desk. “Please take these files and look through them,” she said, fingering the folders on the desk.
When Sanam moved to protest, the other woman raised one hand, asking for some more patience.
“You have been helping Sanam with this case, so you already know what was planned for court today. You take lead, and Pratik will be there to support you.”
Sanam stared, her mouth falling open, as Pammi left with her files and an apologetic glance he way. “What’s going on?” Sanam asked icily, her anger leaking through despite her efforts to control it.
“Things have come up that require me to pull you from the case,” Shaleen began carefully.
“That is my case,” Sanam protested vehemently. “That is my client. I promised her that I would be there today. I told her that I would have her back. I have spent the past month preparing for this case, and I have let nothing distract me from it. Nothing.” Her eyes were deliberately wide, as if she was trying to stave off tears. Taking a deep breath, she continued. “And you just took that case away from me so easily. You made me break my promise. What could justify your actions, Shaleen?”
“Sanam, there have been certain rumors that are going around,” Shaleen explained, “rumors that have begun to hurt the program.”
“What does that have to do with what you just did?” Sanam asked, leaning back and crossing her arms across her chest in angry defiance.
“Those rumors are about you, Sanam,” Shaleen revealed after a pause.
“What?” Sanam asked, her eyes widening when she saw the sympathy in the other woman’s eyes.
“About you and your night with the Nawab. And what that says about you.”
“What night?” Sanam yelped, leaning forward angrily. “We’ve never had a single night together! Believe me. I would know if I’d spent the night with the Nawab of Bhopal.”
“You were seen returning with him one morning,” Shaleen pointed out delicately, “after one of the city’s biggest storms. The Nawab left you outside your door. Remember that?”
“That night?” Sanam asked incredulously. “That was the night we were stuck in that storm and spent the entire time in his car! We had no choice!” Sanam protested, banging the desk with her fist.
“I’m pretty sure that you spent last night preparing for the hearing,” Shaleen said, abruptly changing the subject. “And all of this morning, too, right?”
Sanam nodded, confusion writ clear across her face.
“Was your family acting strangely?” Shaleen prompted.
Sanam nodded, a sinking feeling growing inside of her. “Abu seemed a bit stressed, and Ammi had to hush him up a few times. But they know to leave me alone the morning before I have a court appearance. They don’t want a repeat of the last time; I threw up on Abu when he insisted I eat something.” She knew she was saying too much, but Sanam also knew that when she stopped, she was going to hear something she definitely wouldn’t like.
“The newspapers came out with some pretty salacious stories this morning, painting you as a scarlet woman, Sanam,” Shaleen said with difficulty. “We’ve been contacted by reporters; they’re all asking about you.”
“But,” Sanam began, unable to breathe, the world whirling crazily around her. “Nothing happened.”
“No one believes that, unfortunately,” her supervisor responded with a sigh. “The Nawab of Bhopal has come out as a convicted killer, practically taunting the public with that truth.” Shaleen leaned forward in chair. “Now imagine the speculation that began when someone first whispered that this man spent the night with the daughter of an esteemed family. With Asad Ahmed Khan’s daughter. Your family is well known, and infamous because of what happened decades ago. The reporters are digging all of that old history up now, directed that way by some very disapproving people.”
“Are you kidding me?” Sanam yelped, jumping up and pacing to and fro across the room. “How? How the he** can this be happening in the 21st century? I’m talking to my boss about rumors that are hurting my reputation! And are now hurting this organization? I haven’t even seen the man for the past month! Practically since the night the truth came out! He’s avoiding me like the plague, and now suddenly there are rumors about that innocent night? What do those rumors have to do with this job? Why are you even talking to me about this? The people that I help don’t care.” She turned and stalked back to the other woman’s desk. Leaning over, she planted her hands flat on the desk. “Those women and men, those kids, still want me here to help them.”
“You haven’t seen any difference at all in their behavior? Not even today?” her boss asked gently.
Sanam’s mind flashed back to Melina and Sarita. Melina hadn’t even said hello, and she was a very courteous woman.
“You’re right,” Shaleen continued. “Most of them don’t care. But some do. And our funders do, as well. The private funders. The conservative lot who use their donations as tax write offs; they are unhappy. Especially since the Nawab is holding them hostage and forcing them to work with him despite their aversion to . . . him. Since rumors spread like wildfire and reach many, many ears even before newspapers publish their stories, those disapproving many spoke with our executive director. From what I can understand, based on the rumors, they think that you mean something to him. And they want to hurt him any way they can.”
“Mean something to him?” Sanam burst out. “If rumors reached their ears, then why haven’t they figured out we haven’t had any interaction since the truth about his past came out!”
“Well, even if whatever you had is in the past, they think that by slighting you, they can get a little bit of their own back,” Shaleen said morosely.
“What does that mean?” Sanam asked. “Okay, let’s say that I was still the Nawab’s love. Let’s forget all of the good I can do . . . have done here. Let’s focus on that. What if I am his love?” Sanam asked, her mouth twisting bitterly, “And he gets angered by your treatment of me? He has given a lot of money to LSB. Recently, before all of this blew up, he promised a lot more. I told you about our conversation. If he refuses to donate that money? What then?”
“The executive director has decided to deal with that when the problem arises,” Shaleen said on a heavy sigh. “It’s easier to think about the money already in hand, then a donation that may not have been made anyways.”
“None of what I do matters because a bunch of old fogies want their revenge against Aahil Raza Ibrahim,” Sanam said bitterly. She clenched her fingers, trying to control the shivers that were running through her body. She was so angry that her mind had begun to spin.
“I’m sorry, Sanam. There was a board meeting last night, and a decision was made. I’m going to have to ask you to resign. It’s for the good of the program,” Shaleen explained unhappily.
Sanam nodded, quietly getting up and moving towards the door.
“Where are you going?” Shaleen asked, her eyes focused on Sanam’s back.
“Sarita,” Sanam began, and then paused to clear her throat. “Sarita asked me to review her essay. If she has left it on my desk, I want to keep my promise before I leave. I hope that is okay?” she asked, throwing a challenging glance at her former supervisor.
Shaleen nodded silently, her eyes trained on Sanam’s retreating back. She had hurt a good person today, all for the greater good. That was one part of her job that she did not like at all.
Aahil sat on the floor near his bed, his eyes focused on his hands. These hands had grabbed at that whip, and for the first time, he had held it. He had grabbed his father’s collar and pushed him back. And the man had stumbled. He had walked away.
Aahil Raza Ibrahim had fought back. And he’d succeeded.
And that wasn’t it. That confrontation had been two weeks ago. When that man had returned from wherever he had gone, Aahil had stood in front of his sisters’ bedroom door. He had held the whip in his hand, his eyes staring into his father’s, daring him to raise a hand against them ever again.
Things were going to change around here. Things were finally going to get better. He was going to protect his sisters. He was going to protect himself. No one would ever take his sense of self again. The confrontation just last week flashed through his mind.
“How many times do I have to tell you?” Aahil shouted, pushing his father bacl. “You’re an old man. You’ve become weak. And you will no longer hurt us. If you do, I will make you sorry. The next time you touch any of us, I will call the police. This isn’t Bhopal. They don’t know or revere you here. And then,” he said, moving forward and staring into his father’s eyes from inches away, “I’ll notify all the newspapers in Bhopal about this. All of this. Your alcoholism. Your abuse. Your perversions.”
“Don’t get too big for your britches,” the Nawab of Bhopal growled, grabbing Aahil by the back of his neck roughly. “You don’t seriously think that you can beat me, do you? I’m so many steps ahead of you boy, that you don’t even know what I have planned. You wait. I will make your life hell.”
“And exactly what would be the difference between that and what I’m living through now?” Aahil asked softly.
He was pulled from his reverie by the sound of heavy footsteps thundering up the stairs. His brow wrinkled in confusion, wondering who it could be at this time. He could see lights under the doorway, and then it burst open, causing him to jump from shock.
He had seconds to take in the black clad figures, with guns in their hands, before those hands were roughly pulling him up.
“What’s going on?” he asked, feeling the handcuffs come around his wrists, the metal harshly cold against his skin.
He heard a child’s wail, and his eyes swung to the door. His sisters were standing there, fear in their eyes. Nazia was crying, while Shazia stood there, holding her hand.
“Aahil Raza Ibrahim, you are under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. Anything you say can be used against you . . .” The voices came as if from a distance; the words themselves were garbled, making no sense. The hands began to move him towards the door, the pressure inexorable.
“What’s going on?” Aahil demanded. “What did I do?!!” But there had been no answers. Not that night.
“Aahil Bhai! Aahil bhai!” He heard Shazia cry out, as they went past them. He turned to look at her. He wanted to say a word of comfort, to tell her everything would be okay. But there hadn’t been a chance. He was being pushed out the door before he could take a moment to think, to process.
” Don’t leave us! Please! Aahil bhai!”
“Aahil bhai. Aahil bhai?”
Aahil shot up in bed, his heart pounding rapidly in his chest. Looking around, he realized that he was in his bed. He wasn’t in that mansion. It was now, not years ago. He was almost 30 years old, not that 15-year-old scared child. He was here, not there.
His eyes moved across the navy blues walls, and the starkly white furniture. There was a hard sofa at one end of the room. A TV cabinet placed under the LCD screen hanging from the wall. A king sized bed was situated in the center of the room, its back against the wall, a blue comforter covering its expanse of white. The closet across from the bed had mirrors for doors, allowing him a glimpse of his face in those mirrors. He flinched from the darkness he saw in his own eyes.
The light coming in through the doors was enough to break through the sticky web of the nightmare. By forcing himself to think about the now, he brought himself to the present. He wasn’t stuck in that nightmare. Never again. He took a deep breath, turning away from the mirror and from his own darkness. He was the master of his own destiny.
The doors shut, sealing out the light and leaving the room in darkness once more. “Aahil bhai?” Rehan prompted softly, coming to stand on the side of the bed. “Are you okay?”
“What is it, Rehan?” Aahil barked at him, running a frustrated hand through his hair, making it stand up even more. He glared at him grumpily. “You know that I don’t like waking up early in the morning. Just let me sleep,” he muttered, lying back down on the bed and snuggling up to his pillow.
“Aahil bhai,” Rehan said apologetically. “I thought you’d want to see this. I waited as long as I could.” Leaning down, he placed the newspaper on the pillow next to Aahil’s head. “I really dropped the ball on this one,” he said, clearly unhappy with himself. “I should’ve kept my ear to the ground. I don’t even know why I am so surprised.”
“Just what are you muttering about, Rehan?” Aahil asked, opening one reluctant eye and staring at the newspaper print in front of him. Both eyes popped open once his mind actually processed the words on the page. “What the heck is this?!” Aahil roared, sitting back up in bed. His hands gripped the papers, almost tearing it in his fury. “Just what the hell are they talking about?”
“You don’t know?” Rehan asked in a surprised tone. “Just how many nights have you spent with her?” His voice rose on the last words, demonstrating his shock.
“None!” Aahil exclaimed. “I mean, we were out for one night, but that one night was us being stuck in a broken down car. I’m sure we can find someone to vouch that we were at the DV location until late evening. And that the first thing we did at dawn the next day was to find someone to help us fix the car. We came right back home.”
“There are a lot of hours between late evening and dawn, Aahil bhai. No one believes it was innocent,” Rehan said after a moment of silence. “And they’re all blaming her for what they think happened. This is just one newspaper. Every paper has picked up this story, and all of Bhopal is talking about her.” He paused and then continued reluctantly. “There’s one more thing.”
“What more?” Aahil asked in a disgruntled tone.
“Seher just called me. Sanam was forced to resign from her job at LSB.”
Aahil groaned, furiously tugging at his hair and then turning his fury on the newspaper, the reporters, and what those rich men had done to his Sanam. He tore the paper into bits and pieces.
“You need to do something about it,” Rehan prompted him.
“Well, obviously,” Aahil shot back.
Rehan laughed suddenly, shaking his head.
“What are you laughing about?” Aahil demanded. “What is there to laugh about?”
“Nothing. It’s funny, you know. Well, not really funny,” he backpedaled, seeing the incredulity in Aahil’s face. “More like ironic. You thought that being in her life would hurt her, but now look at this.”
“Look at what?” he asked, throwing the pieces of the paper up in the air, and watching the pieces float down to land around him.
“Your absence is hurting her even more, Aahil bhai. The hyenas think they can close in while the lion is away. They don’t even care that you never intended to go back.”
“They’re going to pay,” Aahil said grimly, jumping out of bed and striding towards the bedroom door.
“Bhai!” Rehan called out.
“No, Rehan, don’t stop me. We have to help her. You just said that this is my fault.”
“But, bhai,” Rehan began.
“Call the reporters. And then begin making calls to each of the companies we have contracts with,” Aahil ordered. He pulled open the doors.
“Hui Ma!” Lateef could be heard through the now open doors.
“Aahil!” Rehan yelled to his retreating figure.
“What?” Aahil shouted, coming back to stand at the door.
“At least put on some clothes,” Rehan said in an exasperated tone.
Aahil looked down at his boxer-clad body, and made a face at Rehan. “I’m glad that you continue to find things to laugh about, Rehan,” he said through gritted teeth.
“Aahil baba give me a warning next time,” Lateef called out playfully from behind them.
“Just where were your rushing off to?” Rehan asked with a laugh.
“To save . . . Sanam,” Aahil explained slowly.
“Did you have some plan in mind?” Rehan asked.
“I was going to gather the reporters and those CEOs together and put the fear of God into them,” Aahil said straight facedly.
Rehan shook his head at him. “That’s fine, but do it tomorrow. Zoya Auntie called and said that she still wanted us to come to the party they invited us to months ago. Remember? It’s their wedding anniversary party. They tend to celebrate that in a huge way, since it took them so many tries to finally get married.”
Aahil looked at him, surprised. “Why?”
“She’s hoping that maybe your presence will get the rumormongers to back off,” Rehan explained. “Maybe take this opportunity to scare them?” he asked reflectively.
“Fine. We’ll go. We’ll play it that way instead,” Aahil said grimly.
“What are you doing here?” Asad Ahmed Khan growled angry, staring at the two men standing in front of him. “Anyone with common sense would have realized that they were no longer invited after what happened in your own home a month ago.” He practically bit out the words.
“I invited them, Asad,” Zoya said quietly, coming over to stand beside her husband. Reaching out a hand, she curled it around his arm, gently squeezing it in an effort to calm him. “No matter how much you might not like it, he can make things right. Your daughter lost her job today. She was heartbroken when she came home today. She cried, Asad. How often does our Sanam cry? Please let it go. Think of it as an anniversary gift to me?”
Aahil’s lips tightened, his jaw muscle twitching, when he heard her whispered words. But he said nothing.
Smiling lovingly up into his eyes, she continued, “We’ve invited some of the people who had a hand in getting her fired. We mix with the elite of Bhopal, and they stabbed us in the backs. He is the Nawab of Bhopal. He has the power to put the fear of God into those men or women,” she said furiously. “And he will let us know who is our enemy. Who is our daughter’s enemy.”
He nodded and grudgingly gestured for the two men to enter. “Don’t make me regret letting you come in.”
The two of them had been at the mansion many times, but everything look completely different. The room had been transformed completely for the party. The normally sedate colors had been replaced with black and red. Every item in the living room, from the chairs, to the tables, to the napkins and wall decorations were in one color or the other. Plants had been set up around the perimeter of the room, creating private alcoves for the guests to use for intimate conversations. Food and drinks had been set up in one corner of the room. Tables had been set up around the pool for people to sit and enjoy the delicacies.
“You’re here,” a woman’s voice called out gaily. The men turned to see Seher rushing towards them. “Asalaam Alaikum,” she said, raising a hand to her forehead.
Rehan smiled bashfully at her, blushing lightly at the wink she threw his way.
“You are so cute,” she said, reaching out a hand to grab at his arm. “I’ve been waiting for you. Badi Ammi wants to see you.”
Rehan blanched at her words. “I don’t think,” he began doubtfully.
“Rehan,” Seher said warningly. “Aahil will take care of everything out here. You get to talk to Badi Ammi. She explicitly stated that she wanted to talk to you when you came in.” She quickly pulled him away, ignoring the green cast to his features.
“Aahil bhai, I’ll be back. We can begin then,” Rehan called back, despite his own worry. In mere seconds he was dragged away by Seher to some private corner of the home.
Aahil was left alone, his eyes clinging for a moment to their retreating backs. He raised an eyebrow in confusion. For a moment, he had felt a flash of uncertainty, but no, he was the Nawab of Bhopal. He had nothing to fear. The monster that had terrorized him had left this world. And now, he was the biggest monster in Bhopal. It was time to face the crowd.
Adjusting his suit jacket, he turned and crashed into a slight figure.
The soft exclamation at the contact, the feel of her, the scent that came to engulf him, gave him the clues he needed to divine how had landed in his arms. It was Sanam Ahmed Khan. And for the moment, she was back in his arms, his hands around her naked waist. He inhaled softly, wanting to savor her and this sensation. He wanted this moment to last forever. And on that thought, he closed his eyes, wanting to close the world out but for the sensation of her in his arms.
Sanam stared up into his face, but his eyes were closed. He was wearing black. A black suit. A black shirt. A black tie. The prince of darkness. Was he trying to prove something to the world? But those morose thoughts were swiftly swept away by his scent. By the warmth of his lips, so close to hers. She inhaled his scent, the movement causing her chest to lightly graze his.
This was the first time they had touched since their kiss. It was the first time they had seen each other since that last confrontation. His hold was strong, protective, so that she wouldn’t fall to the floor. She wondered suddenly what was going on through his mind now, as he held her in the middle of a filled room, with all of those judgmental eyes fixed on them. She angled her head to the side, her eyes landing on her parents’ stricken gazes.
Jerking up into a standing position, she slowly and steadily pushed him away. By the time they were inches apart, his eyes were open and aware. Shaking her head at him, she turned to walk away, without feeling the need to say a word.
She felt his hand come out to grab her upper arm, and she closed her eyes at the feel of his warm hand on her bare arm. She cursed Seher for convincing her to wear this sleeveless choli lehenga in her favorite shade of red. That direct skin to skin contact made everything so much harder to bear. His hand slid down her arm to her wrist, and then to her hand.
She pulled lightly, refusing to turn back.
He held on, refusing to let go. It was as if his fingers had a life of their own. They twisted slightly, causing her to gasp, but it was enough to awaken him. Letting go, he stepped back and she walked away.
And he watched her walk away, unable to say anything. The pain of loss was burning inside of him, eating away at what remained of his soul, but this was a decision he had made. He would just have to learn to live with it.
Anyone looking at him, would not have seen the turmoil inside of his heart. His jaw muscle twitched, and his lips firmed. Grabbing a drink from a passing waiter, he sipped it, watching the crowd mill around. He was here to do business, not moon over the one woman he had already decided to give up for her own good.
His eyes alighted on Ashok Mehta, one of the bigger companies Ibrahim Corporation contracted with. He knew that their contract had saved Mehta Industries from bankruptcy a few years ago, and the loss of that same contract would put them right back on the brink.
Walking towards the man, he called out, “Mr. Mehta, a word please. I’ve been hearing some rumors that I wanted your feedback on.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
An hour had gone by, and Aahil, soon joined by Rehan, had worked his way through the room, warning the men that Sanam Ahmed Khan wasn’t their prey. He’d spent the hour reminding them of the power he had over their wealth, and the thin line they were walking by hurting Sanam in this way. He’d seen the suppressed anger, the frustration, but he had also seen and heard them acquiescing to his demands. The calls would be made tomorrow morning, and he was sure that Sanam would have her job back by end of business tomorrow. He smiled, satisfied with a job well done.
Sitting down in one of the alcoves, he allowed himself a moment to relax, ready to take a breather. Rehan had gone off with Seher; she had been intent on having some time with him. He’d laughingly urged his brother on, wanting them to at least have a happily ever after.
His eyes landed on a svelte figure in red at the other end of the room. Sanam hadn’t looked his way the entire night. She was heartbreakingly beautiful, and achingly vulnerable. The mere fact that her name had been linked to his had almost ruined her life. Taking a deep swallow of the drink in his hand, he rested his head on his hand. He had made the right decision.
“Look at her,” a female voice said from the other side of the plants, disturbing his peace. Making a face, he took another swallow, wondering who the woman was talking about. Ah, but he didn’t really care, as long as they didn’t get too loud.
“Sanam Ahmed Khan. Asad and Zoya were so proud of her. Their daughter, the lawyer. Their daughter, the serious one. Their precious, precious daughter,” another woman said, laughing maliciously.
Aahil’s eyes widened, realizing that the catty remarks were directed at Sanam. His hand tightened around his glass, but he forced himself to stop, wondering how far they would go.
“The newspapers are tearing her apart,” a third voice chimed in. “Can you believe it? How must Zoya and Asad be dealing with that? Their unsullied daughter spent the night with a convicted felon. They must be so embarrassed,” the woman gleefully crowed the words.
The satisfaction had long disappeared, and a fire was burning inside of him now. They were talking about her. How could he make them stop? His body stiffened, as he tried to deal with the yawning darkness inside of him. This darkness had always been his constant companion, but now it was growing with each vicious word. How could he make this right? What he had done hadn’t been enough. Why was it never enough?
“Shh!” a male voice interrupted. “I have told you not to gossip, Nandini.”
“I’m just saying the truth,” the first woman protested. “She was out all night. She was with that man. He is a convicted killer. It’s not like any of that is okay.”
“Well, you can’t talk about her,” the man ordered. “The Nawab has spent the night warning all of us about the dire consequences.”
“Please,” the second woman said, snorting in disgust. “That man doesn’t scare me. Who is he going to silence? He can’t get everyone. They have no relationship. They have no connection. They have nothing that would have made this night okay. Her behavior makes her a slut, and I am not afraid to say it.”
Aahil shot up, his hand crushing the glass in his hands. His hold was so strong that the glass broke into pieces, stabbing into the palm of his hand. And it was enough, barely enough, to drown out the cries of that ever increasing darkness. He ignored the shards of glass biting into his skin, and stepped out of his alcove.
One by one, the members of the group fell silent, belatedly noticing his presence feet away from them.
Opening his hand, he let loose the shards of glass, the only sound in the room the tinkle of the glass against the hard, unforgiving floor. His face was clear of expression, but anyone stupid enough to look into his eyes would see the fire of retribution burning there.
The silence grew outward, spreading across the room, the roar of the crowd diminishing into whispers from the impact of the Nawab’s angry presence. The stone had been dropped into the center of placid lake, and the ripples would not stop until they crashed against the shore. Moving across the living room, he found her red figure standing by the pool, at the top of the stairs. She stood alone, her eyes turned away, gazing at something in the water below. He didn’t know what she had been looking at, but her eyes widened when they met the gaze of his reflection.
She turned away, but he reached out and grabbed her, entrapping her before she could escape. Her eyes glared up into his, as he forced her to turn and face the crowd below.
“Just what are you doing?’ she whispered furiously to him.
“Saving you,” he breathed against her lips.
“Ladies and gentleman,” he began, looking at the men and women who stood staring at them. His eyes met the glare Sanam’s father was sending his way. He saw the wary looks on both her mother and grandmother’s faces. The half smile on Rehan’s face and the excited, yet curious, look in Seher’s eyes.
“I am sure that you have all heard the rumors regarding myself and the daughter of this esteemed family, Miss Sanam Ahmed Khan. Not only have you heard them, but it seems that some of you seem to relish spreading them,” he continued, meeting the eyes of the trio of women that had so avidly gossiped near where he sat. He had to admit that he enjoyed how one of them actually flinched. “You stand in this room, eat their food, share pleasantries with them, and then talk behind their backs and cackle over the fact that their daughter has fallen so low.”
He saw Zoya’s lips fall open on a gasp, her eyes reflecting the pain of betrayal. He felt Sanam jerk in his hold, and swiftly quelled her attempts to escape.
“The newspapers say that Sanam returned one morning with me. They tell you that we were out all night, eyes witnessing us leaving her place of work, but due to us not returning to any place that these reporters know of, rumors began. But what really is so scandalous about meeting the family of your groom before the wedding?”
The room fell completely still, even the whispers falling silent at his words.
“These efforts to blacken Sanam’s reputation have not gone unnoticed. The fact that she lost her job because of these rumors has not gone unnoticed,” Aahil roared to the crowd, making them back up from the storm of his anger.
“Just what are you saying, Mr. Aahil Raza Ibrahim?” a voice demanded. “Nothing we have said has been false. Why would you blame us for what both of you did?”
“I do not explain myself, but I will make one exception. This is the only chance you all get. If you do not toe the line, Bhopal will suffer. You will suffer. Sanam Ahmed Khan is my fiancé. We have been engaged for a month, a secret well kept because of my history,” he said, smiling sardonically. “On that aforementioned night, we took a trip to meet my extended family. We stayed there all night, under very innocent circumstances, and returned the next morning.”
“I don’t like to repeat myself, but I’ll make another exception. She is my fiancé. No one touches her. One day she will be the Nawab Begum of Bhopal. Begin to treat her as such from now on.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Sanam stared at him, her arms crossed over her chest. He stood against the closed door, leaning against it, trying to appear nonchalant.
The two of them were in her bedroom. She saw his eyes flicker, moving across the room briefly, and wondered what he saw. After all, he was the first man to come into this room besides her father.
The walls were a cream color, the bed in the corner of the room queen-sized, to ensure there was enough room for Seher share on the nights that she or Sanam needed company. A desk was placed in the other corner of the bedroom; the place where she worked and prepared for all of her hearings. Sanam’s shoulders slumped for a moment. There would be no more preparation at that desk, at least not for a while. In the center of those two corners, there was a vanity, covered with makeup and bits of jewelry. A little messy, and all her.
She took a deep breath. They were alone in that room, with the doors closed. It was the only place where she could guarantee them privacy without interruption. When he’d entered the room, it hadn’t taken him long to realize where they were. Given the choice between staying here with her or not talking to her at all, he had stayed.
A muscle began to twitch in his jaw, as his eyes moved over the place that was so intimately hers. It was stark and to the point. She worked in one corner and slept in the other. The only hint of disarray was the makeup and jewelry on the vanity. Even the sheets were impeccably straightened out and the blankets precisely folded.
“Well?” she asked abruptly, realizing that he could very possibly remain silent all night.
He could see the anger flashing in her eyes. And the irritation, as evidenced by the pursed lips. Sanam was angry. He wondered suddenly if she wanted to hurt him.
“How could you?” Sanam demanded, practically yelling at him.
Aahil raised an eyebrow in surprise. That certainly did not sound like the Sanam he knew.
“What is wrong with you, Aahil Raza Ibrahim? Don’t you ever think before you open your big mouth?” she yelled at him, striding over to poke him in the chest with one agitated finger. “No, really! What is wrong with you? Just last month you were taunting the public with your past. The next day you were making out with me one minute, and telling me to leave the next. You haven’t spoken to me for a full month. Thirty days. And suddenly you’re telling the world we’re engaged and being extra chatty with your lies?” With every question she threw his way, there went the finger. Poke. Poke. Poke.
“They were saying bad things about you!” Aahil yelled back at her, his voice replete with his anger. He grabbed her finger, stopping her from doing any further damage. “How dare they do that? Especially when . . .,” he stopped suddenly, unsure of how to go on.
“Especially when what?” She shouted, jumping onto that slip. “What relationship do we have that you would even care? Who said it was up to you to make things right? Why should it matter to you?” And there she went, back to poking at him with the finger that had escaped his clutches.
Brushing her finger away, he gripped her by her shoulders, gently shaking her to stop the tirade that was coming at him. “It matters. You matter, Sanam Ahmed Khan.”
She gazed up at him, caught by surprise at his words. “Do you really mean that?” she asked brokenly, her lips beginning to tremble.
“Of course,” he affirmed. “Especially since I am the reason all of this is happening. And those people dare to try and come after me through you. How dare they think the Nawab of Bhopal would be so weak?”
Sanam’s expression had hardened as he continued to speak, realizing that it only mattered because he thought it was about him.
“Tonight was just the warning. I’ve let them know that you are untouchable,” Aahil said confidently, seeing that she was finally listening. “And I kind of owed you that, anyways. We’ll let the engagement go on for awhile. Once the stories die down and the next scandal hits the papers, we can quietly break up.” He gently pushed her back, making room between the two of them.
Her mouth fell open at his arrogance. She shook her head, stepping further back and folding her arms across her chest. “Oh, no, you’re not ending this that easily. You just said in front of the “whole world” we’re engaged. You say we’re engaged, and we’re engaged? You say we’re done, and we’re done? That is not how it’s going to work.”
“What do you mean?” Aahil asked, becoming wary of the sparkle in her eyes.
“If you have any honor in you at all,” she uttered, silently daring him to deny that, “Then we’re seeing this through.”
“We’re getting married, Aahil Raza Ibrahim,” Sanam said, grabbing him by the collar. “You will not embarrass me by backing out now.” She shook him with each word. “I will not be a shamed woman in the world’s eyes for what they think I did and then for what you do. You don’t make me part of a scandal thrice in so many months. You said we were engaged, then we’re engaged. We’re getting married.”
Aahil’s lips opened and then closed, and he seemed to be ruminating on something. Staring at her, he lightly smirked. “Even if we torment each other for the rest of our lives?”
“Even if,” Sanam said softly. “I’d rather torment you than live a carefree existence with anyone else.”
He shook his head at her. At this moment, he didn’t know what to say. The only thing he could do was glare at her, muttering, “We’ll see.” Turning, he opened the door and quickly left the room. He’d spent the night fighting and winning every battle. Then, why did it feel like he had just lost a war?
Sanam stood there, her eyes focused on his retreating back. Slowly, very slowly, her fingers uncurled and her body relaxed. And slowly, so very slowly, the worry fell away, a calm acceptance replacing it. Going to sit down at the vanity, her eyes focused on her own reflection. She met her eyes in the mirror, wondering who this woman was. On days like this, she wondered if someone else was taking over. She certainly didn’t feel like the Sanam she had known herself to be all these years.
“Haye, Sanam ki bacchi, I can’t believe it worked!” Seher cried out from the doorway. Striding forward, she sat down on the bench next to Sanam.
Now there were four of them. Sanam smiled slightly, seeing the happiness on the face of Seher’s reflection. Was it any wonder that those men hadn’t had a chance?
“But was it worth it?” Seher asked with concern, putting an arm around her sister’s shoulders. “We haven’t had a chance to talk since you were forced to resign. Was it worth it, losing your job?”
“That wasn’t planned.” Sudden tears welled up in Sanam’s eyes. “I didn’t expect that at all,” she admitted in a broken voice. “I never thought they’d let me go. I loved that job, Seher. I trusted that Shaleen would understand. I was doing good there!” She took a deep breath, and willed her tears away. Straightening her shoulders, she raised her chin. “But I have to help him first. People who come to us, to LSB, are ready to change their lives. They ask for help.”
She got up and moved towards the window, her eyes focused on the starry sky outside. “He will never ask for help. He hasn’t so much as spoken to me since the blowup over his identity. That was a month ago, Seher. As far as I can see, he was serious when he told me to leave. I’m going to help him regardless of that. Once that’s taken care of,” she paused and took a deep breath, “Then I’ll go back to helping everyone else.”
“But it’s still a huge sacrifice,” Seher mused, coming to stand by her sister. “I don’t think I could put my life on hold like that. To give myself so totally for one mission.”
“Despite what you’re saying now, Seher,” Sanam said softly, “You would have done the same thing if Rehan needed it. It hurts a lot to let go of that part of my life, especially since I’ve worked toward this goal for almost two-thirds of my life. But I gave it up with only minor regret, just so that I can save that person who set me down this path.”
“What if he doesn’t appreciate it?” Seher asked suddenly. “What if he doesn’t appreciate any of this. What if he finds out . . . ?” her voice trailed off.
“What if he finds out that I spread the news myself? That I was the one who began the rumors?” Sanam completed for her. “I’ll deal with it when I have to.”
Chapter 13: Bharday Jholy
Aahil looked up, his eyes tracing the face of the woman sitting down in front of him.
“What happened to your face?” Badi Ammi asked softly, her hand coming out to gently touch the bruises on his cheek. She flinched along with him, her hand moving over to cup his uninjured cheek instead.
“It’s juvenile hall, Badi Ammi,” he answered gruffly. “Stuff happens.” He didn’t want to tell her about the first night’s initiation where a group of boys had cornered him and then attacked. By the time the guards had come to break it up, he’d been on the floor, bleeding. He didn’t want to tell her that he had to defend himself on a daily basis. Getting beaten . . . was nothing new. This time he was fighting back.
“Don’t worry, Aahil,” Badi Ammi said softly. Her hand gripped his. “I’m going to fight for you.”
“Badi Ammi,” he said softly.
“What is it?”
“There are no windows here,” he said raggedly, clutching at her hand.
She paused for a moment, an expression of confusion flitting across her face. “I’ll get you out of here, Aahil,” she said, patting his hand. “I promise.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Aahil adjusted his collar, trying to blink the sleep from his eyes. Last night’s nightmares hadn’t helped, and his head was killing him now. The early morning sun peeked in through the windows, shining into his eyes and making his head hurt even more. A light breeze caused the curtains to flutter, allowing fresh air to come into the room. He inhaled deeply, hoping the air would help.
“Aahil baba, here are the newspapers,” Lateef sang out, placing a big stack of papers on the table. Putting down the tray of food she was holding in her other hand, she quickly set the omelet, fruit and juice on the table before scurrying out of the dining room.
Aahil raised his eyebrows at the size of the stack, calling out to Lateef’s retreating back. “Since when did you start buying all of the newspapers in Bhopal?”
“Oh, there was some very important news in there,” Lateef said with a laugh, turning back to look at Aahil. She twirled her braid absentmindedly as she continued, “Especially after your announcement last night. I thought you’d want to keep these papers as a reminder of the beautiful night you revealed your love for that mohtarma in front of the entire world!” Lateef said, clasping her hands together under her chin. She sighed deeply. “I can’t wait to plan the wedding!”
“Lateef!” Aahil growled at her, sending the servant scurrying from the room with a squeal of fright. Aahil brusquely opened a newspaper, his eyes narrowing at the headlines that blared the news of the engagement. The articles were filled with gossip of the night before, touting eyewitness testimony of the “lovely” and “heart pounding” moment. Throwing the paper aside with angry disgust, he reached for the next.
“The Nawab and the new Nawab Begum of Bhopal.”
There was a picture of him and Sanam. It was a picture of the brief seconds he had held her in his arms when he’d bumped into her last night. When the hell had someone even had the chance to take that picture? Were there people holding onto their cameras, hoping to catch something like this? He snorted quietly, throwing down the paper and reaching for the next one.
“Bhopal’s Royal Nawab Meets his Match.”
Another picture of them standing at the top of the steps in front of the swimming pool. His arm was around her waist, and she was gazing up at him balefully. No one knew that he had had to force her to stay there as he made the idiotic announcement. What the hell had he been thinking? Sending that offensive paper to the floor, he grabbed the next one. This time a growl escaped his lips as his eyes read the words on the page.
“Bhopal’s Innocent Beauty and the Beastly Nawab.”
“How clever,” he muttered. This time they’d captured the perfect moment. Sanam was staring up at him right after he had made the announcement. He was smirking, so proud of himself after saying the words. Although, for the life of him, he hadn’t noticed any cameras last night. And Sanam . . . he looked closely at her face . . . she seemed to be smiling. He tilted his head to the side, wondering. Why was she smiling?
“Aahil baba, there’s a phone call for you,” Lateef sang out, bringing over Aahil’s cell phone from where it had been charging in his room.
“Can’t you see I’m busy?” Aahil muttered, still staring down at that smile, his brow wrinkled.
“But Aahil baba,” Lateef protested, “This is important. It’s your fiancé,” she said, carefully emphasizing the word in a loud whisper.
Exhaling loudly, Aahil grabbed the cell. “What?” he growled.
“Great. I’m glad you picked up. I’ve been calling and calling. What do you want?” Sanam asked over the phone. “Red roses or white orchids?”
“What?” he asked after a pause. His heart had begun to pound at the sound of her voice, but her words brought him back to reality. “Want for what?”
“For the wedding!” Sanam said in a put upon tone. “What kind of flowers should we have for decoration? We should get married at my home, but I still want flowers, and mehndi and all of the ceremonies that come with getting married.”
“Unbelievable,” he muttered angrily. “We are not getting married!” He hung up the phone, and then turned the power off. Shaking his head at the now silent appliance, he wondered what had gotten into Sanam. When had she become so irrational? She clearly knew that last night’s announcement had been a ploy to protect her reputation, but she wasn’t backing off.
Turning back to the food in front of him, he began to eat. He didn’t want to eat, but he knew he had to for his health. Not eating would only lead to weakness. A weak body could lead to a stupid mind that made mistakes. Some would argue that he had already made one of those mistakes last night.
He heard a phone ringing in the distance. Hunching his shoulders, he focused on the food. He became so engrossed in eating, that he barely acknowledged Rehan’s greeting when the other man came into the room and sat down across from him.
“I don’t know what you were thinking last night, Aahil bhai,” Rehan said, taking a sip of his coffee, “But at least your actions have saved Sanam’s reputation. She’s suddenly the darling of Bhopal’s society, and they find it fascinating that Beauty has tamed the Beast.” His eyes flickered down to the papers on the floor.
“Even if the beast is a convicted killer?” Aahil asked bitterly. “I don’t get people. Yesterday they were vilifying her. But suddenly, now that she’s engaged, everything is okay? Does that even make sense? How is being engaged to me a good thing?!”
“Aahil bhai,” Rehan said admonishingly. “It’s not for us to ask why. Just be happy it actually worked. I was able to contact some of your distant relatives. They agreed to tell anyone that came calling that you had spent the night with them, introducing the new Nawab Begum-to-be to the family.”
Aahil merely grunted in reply.
“Aahil baba, there’s a phone call for you,” Lateef sang out, running over with the landline. “It’s very important.” Handing the phone over, she ran back into the kitchen as if escaping.
“What happened to your cell?” Sanam asked from the other end.
“What? Why are you calling now?” Aahil asked her in exasperation, his hand clenching around the receiver.
“I was thinking about the food we should have for the wedding,” Sanam explained, ignoring the harshness of his tone. “We’re going to have high class folks, so maybe western cuisine. But I like Indian dishes the best. Should we mix it up? What do you think?”
“You know what, Sanam?” Aahil said, after catching his breath. “I think you’ve lost your mind.”
“Not really,” Sanam responded.
“Why can’t you understand?” Aahil growled into the phone. “What do I have to do for you to understand that we’re not getting married?”
“I’m never going to understand that,” Sanam responded softly.
He exhaled roughly, holding onto his tongue. He turned off the phone angrily, pulling out the battery to ensure that it would no longer ring.
Clenching his hands into fists, he slowly raised his eyes to glare at the offending appliance. Sanam Ahmed Khan was driving him crazy! He ran his hands through his hair, pulling at the strands to distract him from the ringing phone.
“Hello,” a deep male voice said, interrupting his increasingly melodramatic monologue.
Aahil relaxed. It was Rehan’s phone!
“I was waiting for your call,” Rehan murmured into the receiver. He silently mouthed “Seher” to Aahil before turning back to the conversation. “Oh, okay. Hmm. Um hm. Oh! What are you . . . right. You want to talk to him? Here you go.” He held the phone out to Aahil. “She wants to talk to you, Aahil bhai,” Rehan murmured reluctantly.
“Hello,” Aahil murmured. “What do you want, Seher?”
Aahil closed his eyes at the chirpy voice on the other end. “Sanam,” Aahil groaned with an almost fatalistic sense of defeat. “Would you please stop?!”
“But how can I stop calling?” Sanam asked in a sensible tone, unruffled by his mood. “We have so much to discuss. What will be our wedding theme? Who do you want to invite? Will this be a big shindig or small and intimate? When will be getting married?”
“Are you kidding me?” Aahil yelped at the barrage of questions. “Ridiculous. Do whatever you want, Sanam!” he shot at her. “You’re the bride! I’m just the da*ned groom.”
“At least you admitted it,” Sanam said quietly after a moment of silence.
“What?” Aahil yelped in frustration. “That you’re being ridiculous?”
“That I’m the bride,” she said calmly. “That you’re the groom. That I am planning this wedding, come hell or high water.” She paused, exhaling loudly. “That we’re getting married.”
“We’ll see,” he responded weakly, surprised by her response. He took a deep breath, and then quickly shut off the phone. He cursed himself for his cowardly action, but he really had no way to fight her words, her determination.
“Aahil baba!” Lateef called out. “There’s something I wanted to,” she began, her hand holding onto a cell phone.
Letting out a frustrated yell, Aahil sprung up and grabbed the phone and violently threw it across the room. “I swear, Lateef. The next time you bring me a phone, I’m going to cut all the lines in this house! There will never be another ringing phone! Then how will you gossip with your friends?”
Lateef stalked over to the corner of the room to pick up the pieces. “That was my cell phone, Aahil baba. My call. I just wanted to tell you I would be in my room for the next couple of hours doing some very important things. Hmph.” Making an angry face at Aahil, she turned and stalked off.
“Aahil bhai, relax! No one can make you get married if you don’t want to,” Rehan said with emphasis. “No one can make you do anything.” Getting up, he placed a comforting hand on Aahil’s shoulder. “Now, since it is Sunday, and I have a day off, I’m going to spend some time with my family,” he said. Shaking his head in wonder at the thought of actually having a family to visit on his day off, he walked off.
Muttering to himself about how crazy that crazy woman was making him, Aahil got up and moved towards his home office. It was the weekend, but there were things to do and no time for rest. The doorbell rang minutes . . . hours later, pulling him from his work. Cursing softly, he turned his attention back to the papers laid out in front of him. The bell rang again, distracting him once more.
He stared at the clock; it was 2 PM. He had been working for hours without interruption. The sun had traveled across the sky in the interim and was peeking in from the windows on the other side of the house now. His concentration broken, he sat back in the chair, stretching his body to loosen the kinks in his back.
The bell rang again. Once again there were no feet scurrying to answer the summons.
“Lateef!” he called out angrily, but there was no answer. “Lateef!” Nothing. “Kahan mar gaye sab ke sab?” he muttered angrily. Getting up, he left his bedroom, moving down the hallway to cut across the living room. He finally reached the front door and opened it, grouchily yelling, “What?!” His eyes widened at seeing who was standing on the other side of that door.
“Aahil beta,” Zoya murmured, moving forward, giving him no choice but to move back and let her into his home.
“Uh,” he began uncertainly.
Zoya strode into the hallway and looked around. Moving through the archway, she entered the living room. “Why are all the lights out?” she demanded, going to the side of the room and flicking on the lights. Turning, she smiled at him. “Now, that’s better.” She walked over to the sofa and sat down.
“What can I do for you?” he asked at last, when the silence grew between them. Seeing that smile on her face, he wondered why she wasn’t angry at him. And it took mere seconds for the thoughts to be expressed with words. “Why aren’t you angry?”
Zoya smiled at him, silently patting the seat next to her. She watched as he warily came and sat down beside her, his movements awkward and uncertain. This wasn’t the Aahil Raza Ibrahim she had come to know. He wasn’t the suave, confident man that had reminded her of her own Asad Ahmed Khan. For now, he was just a scared, uncertain boy.
The two silently stared at each other, until Aahil looked away, unable to stand the understanding he saw in her eyes. It made something ache inside of him, and he wasn’t sure of how to deal with that. He hadn’t had a mother in the longest time, and to see this woman here . . . this mother . . . looking at him with that warmth . . . it made him hurt. He breathed deeply, that breath almost sounding like a sob.
“Why would I be angry with you?” she asked, tapping the back of his hand as it lay on the sofa between them. “What have you done?” she asked, breaking the silence.
“I hid the truth from all of you,” he responded, pulling his hand away and moving away from her. “I dared to fall in love with your daughter when my life was such a mess. My mere presence in her life has caused her to lose her job. Rumors about us caused her to lose her reputation. And my announcement last night . . . seems to be causing Sanam to lose her mind,” he finished wryly.
Zoya laughed softly, her eyes twinkling. “Aahil,” she said, placing her hand over his, “Since when is it a sin to fall in love?”
Aahil got up, pacing back and forth in his agitation. He needed to put some distance between them, so that he wouldn’t be beguiled by another Ahmed Khan woman. “Why are you acting like this?” He stopped and glared at her balefully.
She smiled at that expression. It made him look just like a little boy.
“Why are you here?” Aahil burst out. “Am I crazy or are you really pushing me towards her when you should be telling her to run far, far away from me?”
“I have a theory,” she said quietly, her hands folded together in her lap, her eyes on her hands now. The smile had been wiped away. “I haven’t talked to Sanam or really anyone about this. Sanam trusts you, so there’s no room for questions there, but I’ve thought about it. I had to,” she explained apologetically, seeing his face blanch, “She’s my daughter.” She took a deep breath and then forced herself to say the words. “You were beaten as a child.” She stopped when she saw him flinch, flinching in sympathy with him. “I regret every da*n day that we didn’t get there in time to save you and your sisters,” she blurted out, sidetracked for a moment.
“You.” He stopped and cleared his throat. “You were talking about your theory,” he prompted brusquely.
“Right. The theory,” Zoya said, continuing. “You were beaten. And one day you fought back.” She struggled with her words, hoping that she had found the right ones. “The death was accidental. You paid your debt to society, and you got out. You made something of yourself, and now you’re back here saving a large part of this city. They don’t see it, but I do. If you hadn’t come back, it would have affected the Ibrahim holdings, which would have affected this city. Your company . . .your wealth . . . supports a large part of Bhopal’s population.”
He turned away, his eyes staring unseeing at the wall. A muscle twitched in his jaw, as he struggled with the emotions that were surging inside of him. Her words and her understanding were strange in a world where no one had chosen to be on his side for the longest time. It shook him. In fact, too much was leaving him shaken these days. He took a deep breath, tamping down on the uncertainty that was growing inside of him.
“It was not your fault,” Zoya murmured, coming up behind him. She placed a hand on his shoulder, seeking to give him comfort.
“You think that I’m a murderer, and it’s okay with you?” he asked incredulously. “What is wrong with you? You’re incredibly like your daughter, aren’t you?”
“My daughter is exactly like me,” Zoya quipped. “I live in the real world. I lost my mother as a child. Lost my father, after I had finally found him to a murderess. The same one who made my life hell for years before she was caught. I saw the man I loved lose his father and his sister, a woman who was also my best friend. I’ve seen evil and I’ve seen evil maliciously end human life. You’re not evil. And any life you took wasn’t because of malice. I have never allowed my past to pull me down. I have never allowed the darkness to engulf me,” she said softly. “I need you to do the same. For yourself and for Sanam. I need you to remember that what’s happening today, and what happened last night, that’s not your fault, either.”
“Your husband doesn’t think that,” Aahil told her, moving away from her touch. “Last night, he almost attacked me when I made the announcement. You and Dilshad Bi had to remove him from the room before he ruined everything.”
“He’s a father,” Zoya explained, waving her hands in the air. “Asad has seen Sanam’s passion to help translate into an unconcern for her own safety. But I was the one who held her in my arms when she was sobbing her little heart out after meeting you. I saw the nights she stayed up and studied. I saw the smile on her face when she won her first case.” She looked around the room, her eyes falling on the pictures on the far wall. She took special note of Aahil’s picture as a little boy. “I see the strength in her when her father only sees her fragility. She has worked hard to become the person she is today. She knows what she wants. I am not going to take her right to choose away from her.”
His jaw clenched once more, but he only stared at her mutely.
“You doubt me,” she noted, tilting her head. “I can see a hint of cynicism. You’re probably thinking she was so young, so how the hell would she have remembered? Sanam has always been this way. She feels too deeply. She cares too much. And from the moment she met you, you changed her worldview. Suddenly, she was realizing that there was evil in the world. And instead of forgetting it, forgetting you, she held on to both so strongly. It irritated her father. He wanted her to stop and think before jumping in. But I, I’ve always been afraid that in her pursuit to protect others, she’d forget about herself.” She took a deep breath.
“And didn’t she do that?” he asked in a hoarse voice, finally expressing the reason for the turmoil inside of him to another person. “In order to protect that poor, pathetic little boy, she sacrificed her career. Her reputation is lost. She’s a murder convict’s fiancé. She wants to marry me. She won’t back off.” His voice shook slightly at the words. His hands moved roughly through his hair once more, making it stand on end.
She shook her head at him. “You don’t understand, Aahil. She’s being selfish for the first time.” She gripped Aahil’s shoulders, wanting him to understand. “She chose you. She left behind that job with minimal regrets. She’s ignoring what her father is asking of her. She doesn’t care about our family’s reputation. And believe me, she’s been getting some flak from her aunts and uncles, asking whether she’s thought things through. She doesn’t care. She wants you. She only wants you.” When he remained silent, she shook her head at him, and then turned and walked to the archway.
“And that’s enough for you?” he called out to her.
Zoya turned around and smiled at him. “I’m happy if she’s happy. I’m happy that she’s finally going after what she wants.” Saying those words, leaving him winded, she walked through the archway and out the doors.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Hours after leaving Aahil, Zoya sat in her own living room with Dilshad Bi. The two had been talking since she’d returned from the Ibrahim mansion. Zoya had hid nothing of her plans, and she had made the other woman privy to them before heading to the boys’ home. After talking about how the meeting had gone, Zoya had now embarked on her favorite hobby. And she soon had the older woman laughing and moaning at the shayeri her daughter-in-law was reciting.
“Zoya, please,” Dilshad murmured. “Stop. You’re killing me.” She laughed once more, seeing the joy on Zoya’s face. The two had spent the past couple of hours just letting loose, hoping to forget the complications that had entered their family’s lives.
They jumped in surprise, pulled from their fun, when they heard the door slam shut. They watched Asad Ahmed Kahn stride into the living room and throw his briefcase down before slumping onto the couch across from them. He angrily tugged at his tie, pulling it loose and jerking it off before sending it the way of the briefcase. The anger was strong in his face and in his every movement.
“I have spent the entire day being congratulated for my daughter’s engagement,” Asad said cuttingly, his eyes glittering, his facial muscles rigid under the late afternoon light. “How dare they think that I am happy about my daughter’s engagement to a convicted felon?” He spat the words out, his fingers clenching into fists.
“Let me get you some water,” Zoya began, getting up and nodding meaningfully to Dilshad Bi before leaving the room.
“How did he have the nerve to make such a declaration?” Asad shouted, getting up suddenly and beginning to pace back and forth. “How dare he make our Sanam’s life hell and then say they’re engaged?!” he muttered, stopping abruptly when Zoya came to stand in front of him. “What?”
“Have some water, Mr. Khan,” Zoya said pertly, handing him the glass. “You need to calm down.”
“You know her, Ms. Farooqui!” Asad said grimly, clasping his wife’s shoulders and gently shaking her. “You know how our daughter runs into danger. You know she’ll move forward despite the risk that she’s taking. It’s up to us to protect her when she won’t protect herself. Why aren’t the both of you,” he asked, pulling away from her and moving back to stare at his wife and mother, “backing me on this?”
“I went to see Aahil today,” Zoya admitted, sharing a glance with Dilshad Bi. “I told him that if he could make her happy, then I would happily let them marry. He tried to remind me that his announcement last night was just a ploy to protect her reputation, but Sanam is serious. And I’m fine with that.”
“Zoya!” Asad uttered angrily. “No. You can’t be okay with this! What is wrong with you?”
“This isn’t about what I want,” Zoya responded calmly. “And it shouldn’t be about what you want. Your daughter trusts this man. She wants to save this man.” She raised a hand to silence Asad when he opened his mouth to speak. “She wants this man. And, for the first time ever, she’s going after what she wants to do, not what she feels she needs to do. Don’t you think it means something that when your daughter was in need, he stepped up and did something? His first and last thought was to save her. So yeah, I am okay with it,” Zoya said, going back to sit down next to her mother-in-law.
“Ammi?” Asad asked, turning to glance beseechingly at his mother.
“Asad beta, I know that you care. That all of this anger is coming from a place of love. You must think we’re crazy when we say this. You don’t want Sanam to marry a convicted felon. You don’t want Seher to marry the son of a psychotic murderer. You don’t want that notoriety for either of your daughters, nor the pain it will bring,” Dilshad murmured understandingly.
The memory of her conversation with Rehan came to mind. That boy, even when he had been a boy, had first thought of others before himself. She had met him before, when he had come to see the Ahmed Khans after discovering the truth. He had helped her, when there had been no obligation.
“I will support my daughter and granddaughters. Zoya thinks that we need to let Sanam do this. I think she’s right. And not just Sanam. I think that Seher has met the perfect mate in Rehan. When I spoke with him, I saw a down to the soul purity that I have only seen in my own daughter. And I can’t forget one important truth, Asad,” she murmured.
“What’s that?” he asked in a strangled tone.
“He is my granddaughter’s brother. He is the man that our Seher has fallen in love with. How can I begrudge him the love that he has never had a chance to experience? You forget one thing. He was also his mother’s own victim.” Her voice was soothing, but her decision unmovable. “As Aahil was his father’s victim. You need to deal with your emotions. I have dealt with mine.” There was finality in her tone now, leaving no room for any argument.
“Ammi,” Asad began, wanting to protest.
“There is nothing you can do, Asad,” Dilshad responded. “My granddaughters have chosen. They are not doing anything illegal. They are not going anything unethical. They are not doing anything that goes against our Khuda. They have that right. There is nothing you can do to take that right away.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Your best bet would be to plead guilty. The District Attorney is willing to deal,” the man said, his face expressionless despite the impact he knew his words were having on him.
“But I didn’t do it!” Aahil protested, griping the edge of the table with desperate fingers. “Doesn’t it matter that I didn’t do anything? Why should I plead guilty?”
“Kid, you were heard having an argument with your father the night before he died. You were heard threatening him. Your fingerprints were found on the bottle of pills that were forced down his throat. There were bruises around his throat. Around his hand.”
“I didn’t do anything. That man beat up on me for years! And you’re telling me that I have to pay for his death?” Aahil blurted out.
“And the fact that you were abused is a mitigating factor,” the attorney stated. “You’re a minor. That’s another thing to consider. We’re going to push you being tried as a minor. You’ll be out when you turn 19.”
“But I didn’t do anything.”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
“Aahil beta,” a female voice murmured.
“Badi Ammi?” Aahil said, jumping up. The chains caused him to fall back into the chair.
“I’m sorry, beta,” Badi Ammi murmured.
“I can’t stay here for five years,” Aahil said, tears trickling down his face despite how much he wanted to hide them. “I can’t be in here. I can’t . . . they don’t let us out at night.”
“We tried our best. I promise you,” she said, patting his hand. “I’ll take care of the girls. I have to take them back to India. We can’t stay here. You’re going to be transferred to a different juvenile hall. Just behave,” she urged tearfully. “Do your time and come out.”
He’d watched his Badi Ammi walk away, standing so still in that dark and cold room. His body had trembled with the need to call out, his throat aching to wail for her to come back. But all eyes had been on him. Any weakness on his part at that point would have lead to a world of pain later. And so, he had just stood there, watching her become smaller and smaller in his field of vision. And that’s why he knew that she hadn’t looked back once.
Aahil looked down at his hands, as he sat on the prayer mat. Would he raise his hands in dua today? It was dusk, time for prayer.
Zoya Auntie had left hours ago, and he had sat on the couch until the call to prayer had roused him. For the first time, in weeks, he had felt the urge to pray once more. He’d felt confused, her words echoing in his head repeatedly.
“I bow my head in supplication to You, Allah miyah. I have heard that making dua . . . asking from You . . . is an important part of performing prayers. So I ask you today . . . for the woman who has entered my life. Please give her to me. Allow me to cherish her for the rest of my days.”
His mind flashed to the dua in that dark room. So many weeks ago, when hope had been at its peak. He had been so brave, so ready to take on the world, but now he was afraid. He was a coward because he knew he had no right to grab for what he wanted so badly. Especially when the mere association of their two names had impacted her life so greatly.
There was a knock at the door, interrupting his morose reverie. Getting up, he folded the prayer mat and put it away. Looked like today was not the day for dua. He’d only found in himself the fortitude to pray. Opening the door, he saw a smiling Rehan standing on the other side. Raising a silent eyebrow, he waited for the other man to speak.
“I was speaking to Haya,” Rehan said. “She says that in this time of turmoil, we should go to a place that she knows of. Maybe it will give you peace of mind.”
“What are you talking about, Rehan?” Aahil said irritably, beginning to turn away.
“Bhai,” Rehan protested, reaching out a hand to stay his retreat. “You need this. We need this. Let’s go.” He pulled him out of the room and out the door, ignoring Aahil’s protests.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Aahil sat in quiet contemplation, his eyes gazing downward. He was at a dargah, a place that Haya and her family would come to quite often. She had urged Rehan to come here to pray to Allah miyah for his own peace of his mind. And Rehan’s first thought had been to bring Aahil bhai here, so that he could find some peace in feeling His presence.
Bathed in the nurturing light shining in the dargah, sitting next to others, his head bowed in supplication, he felt the pressure until he could do nothing else but let loose the desire that had been burning inside of his heart. He allowed his lips to speak the words that needed to be spoken. He knew that if he didn’t share his desires with someone, they would eat him alive.
“All my life I have longed to be loved and taken care of by someone. I have looked for someone to protect me from fear, to protect me from suffering, to protect me from being lost, to protect me from being alone and helpless. I am no longer that weak child that needed so desperately, but my heart still yearns for that love. Is she your answer. Is it her? Give me some sign so I know that I should move forward. If she is the answer, help me to be free of the past, let me find peace in my present, and let me find happiness in the future. Just give me a sign, Allah miyah.”
His eyes were closed, and he sat in the near darkness. The world disappeared, and he was alone. His silent words were stark . . . desperate . . . shaky. They echoed inside his skull, until they beat against his brain, reverberating in his soul . . . making his body tremble in need. His hands clenched, and tears fought to get free. He was tired. So tired of fighting the world . . . his past . . . himself. And he wanted to just give in.
The sound of a child crying broke the near silence of the room. It was enough to bring him out of his trance. Fighting the spell that had fallen over him, ruthlessly tamping down his emotions, he got up.
Feeling hands come up around his arm, he sharply turned and stared as Rehan wrapped black threads around his arm. “What are you?” he began.
“A taveez, bhai,” Rehan said with a smile. “I got it for your protection.”
Aahil stared as Rehan carefully tied the thread around his arm, his heart clenching at how much this man, who used to be a stranger, cared so much for him. He was a brother of his heart. He was his family now. Nodding his head in thanks, he made to step away.
“Bhai,” Rehan said, “There is a wall here.” He pulled his brother to a candlelit corner of the dargah. As they stood there, Rehan pointed to people tying threads.
“You tie your knot there,” Rehan murmured, “And who knows when a tied thread may unite with some other tied thread, and those two destinies may end up melding. I want you to do that. Leave your decision up to God.”
Aahil shook his head at him, amazed by the innocent faith that Rehan was exhibiting. Even now.
“Do it, bhai,” Rehan urged. “For me, if nothing else.”
Nodding reluctantly, he went to the latticed wall and began to tie a bright red thread that Rehan had given to him for just that purpose. As he tied the thread, intent on his task, he felt fingers brush his, interrupting his focus. He looked up, his eyes snared by those of another.
He saw beautiful eyes. He saw a dupatta covering the hair, leaving her face visible. It was Sanam Ahmed Khan. He saw those eyes smiling at him. And in that moment, his prayers . . . the desperate cries of his soul . . . came back to him.
So I ask you today . . . for the woman who has entered my life. Please give her to me. Allow me to cherish her for the rest of my days.”
His heart clenched, as she touched the knot that he had tied.
“You tied the knot so tightly,” she whispered to him. “This thread right here,” she murmured, touching the darker thread underneath his, “It’s mine. And your thread is wrapped so carefully around it. Almost protectively,” she finished.
“Is she your answer. Is it her? Give me some sign so I know that I should move forward. If she is the answer, help me to be free of the past and let me find peace in my present. Let me find happiness in the future. Just give me a sign.”
His fingers reached out, his fingers following through on an impulse to pull that thread free. To keep their destinies separate.
But she was in the way. Her fingers reached up and grabbed him, freezing him with one touch. Her eyes gazed into his, looking deep into his soul. He wondered silently if she knew how rapidly his heart was beating. Could she see how much he didn’t want to . . .
“Now that these threads have been tied,” she said softly, “Then don’t separate them. I mean . . . if you try to untie them now, they’ll break. They say that if that happens, it’s a bad omen. Bad luck. Don’t you have enough bad luck in your life?”
He pulled his fingers away, not saying a word.
Looking at him silently, waiting a moment to ensure that he wouldn’t untie those threads, she nodded at him and turned away.
He watched her walk away. He watched her leave, standing so still. His body trembled with the need to call out, to beg for her to come back. But even in this spiritual place, he could feel the eyes of others on him. The world . . . his world would notice the slightest tremble, and they would not be merciful. So, he just stood there, watching her leave. And she didn’t . . .
Sanam turned and looked at him. Her eyes meeting his across the distance, making him feel once more that she could read his soul and all of his hidden desires. Her eyes brightened, a smile growing across those lips. It was as if she’d heard his silent cries, and knew how much he needed her to look back, to return.
Returning, she stood on the other side of that latticed wall, her hand coming up to rest against the threads. And she waited.
He looked skyward, and then back down to meet her hopeful eyes. His fingers lifted slowly, as if his hand was not under his control, and rested against those threads. Those intertwined threads. Allah miyah had given him his answer, and he was ready to accept.
Reaching through the holes in the wall, he grasped her fingers, accepting their melded destiny.
Chapter 14: Stay
Two Weeks Later . . .
Loud music filled the room, coupled with the raucous laughter of friends and family as they enjoyed the food and company. Streamers of garlands hung from the walls, scenting the air with their perfume. Lights twinkled in horizontal columns down the walls and pillars, lighting up the room.
Haya carefully finished the mehndi design on Sanam’s hands, smiling at the quiet joy she saw in her cousin’s face today. “Now, for the most important bit,” she said, carefully placing an “A” in the space expressly left for that purpose. “Happy? I did your mehndi just like I promised you I would.”
The room was filled with family and friends, but, for the moment, it was just the five of them sitting on the dais and enjoying these moments of solitude. And for the moment, Haya, Seher and Sanam had huddled together for one last session of the best friends. The girls had never had many other friends. They’d shared their secrets, laughed together and cried together. It had been enough for them.
“I’m losing a second daughter! How did you plan everything so quickly, Sanam? I was thinking months, and you got it all ready in weeks!” Zoya suddenly wailed, the hint of melancholy that had been playing across her face all evening finally bursting forth. “You’ve all been mine,” she said, staring at the three of them. “And now I have to share you.”
“You were already sharing them with us, Zoya,” Dilshad Bi said soothingly, patting her daughter-in-law’s back. “It’s just one more person.”
“Yeah, but these are outsiders!” Zoya wailed, immune to the logic that was coming her way. “First Rahat.”
Haya raised a silent brow at this. She knew for a fact that Zoya Auntie loved Rahat.
“Now Aahil,” Zoya continued darkly. “When will it end?”
“With Rehan, Mom,” Seher responded, teasing her mother mercilessly. “You’ll run out of daughters at that point.”
“At least you won’t be going anywhere for a while,” Zoya shot back.
Seher’s face darkened. “What the . . . way to hurt a girl when she’s down!” she said acerbically, pouting at the reminder.
“It’s okay,” Haya murmured quickly, moving over to place a comforting arm around Seher’s shoulders. “Uncle will give in. It’ll just take him a little longer, since Rehan refuses to force your dad’s hand by taking the choice away from him. You have me as your truly wonderful support. You’re going to be my sister-in-law. Be a little patient. Why don’t we put an “R” on your hand?” she cajoled, bending down to do the task herself. Seher gave in and allowed herself a laugh as she watched the R take shape.
Sanam heard the two of them in the background, but her eyes were focused on the drying A on her own hand. A for Aahil. The haldi had been yesterday. The mehndi today. There were only a small number of guests, nothing near what they would have had for a normal Khan wedding. Hundreds of people had been invited to Haya’s wedding. But these weren’t normal circumstances, and everything was deliberately low key. The people who had been invited, and the ones that had come, were truly the well wishers of the Khan family
But there was one very important person missing. Aahil hadn’t been there for any of it, citing business conflicts for each and every event planned. She was beginning to worry whether he would even show up for the nikah.
“Sanam?” Zoya asked, disturbing Sanam’s increasingly depressed thoughts. “Why did you have to hurry things so much? You didn’t even give us a chance to get used to the idea of you leaving.”
“I had to hurry, Ammi,” Sanam explained candidly. “I didn’t want him to get away.”
Zoya nodded in reluctant agreement. “I can see the validity of that. Do you have any idea how many times your father escaped? Something would always come up! But don’t worry,” she cried, seeing the trepidation on her daughter’s face. “You’re going to get your man tomorrow. He won’t escape. I’ll even have your dad guard the doors. That’s what you want, right?”
Sanam nodded, her eyes catching her father’s as he stood at the door. Hugging her mother in silent thanks, she got up and moved over to stand by her father at the door.
“Abu,” she said, placing her hand in the crook of her father’s arm. Leaning her head against his shoulder, she stared into the room, her eyes moving over the family that had made the trek from their respective homes to join them for this sudden wedding.
Ayaan Uncle was here with his family, but Abu’s sisters couldn’t come so quickly. Humeira Auntie had come along with Haider Uncle, but their children had had to miss the event. She winced, remembering the barrage of questions she had received from all of them. They had relentlessly thrown criticisms at her, questioning her sanity and saying that she was making a mistake. She had literally been crying the day of her haldi until Abu had stepped in.
“. . . You’re marrying a convicted murderer! Just what are you thinking?” Ayaan barked at her. Haider Uncle stood behind him, his arms crossed across his chest. “Have you thought this through?”
“Ayaan Uncle, please,” Sanam uttered, “This isn’t the time. Guests will start coming soon. Can we talk about this later?”
“Sanam does not make mistakes,” Asad said quietly, coming to stand beside his daughter. “She has always been a conscientious child and a very responsible woman. If she had one flaw, it was that she always put others before herself and her own safety. That doesn’t make her insane. It makes her a person who cares.”
“But,” Haider Uncle began, clearly unhappy with where Asad was going with this.
“My daughter is an adult,” Asad continued evenly. “She can make her decisions. While we may question those decisions at times, she has the right to choose. I would never take that choice away from her.”
Sanam’s eyes filled with tears at his words, seeing the love and acceptance in his eyes. Her father might not understand the decision she had made, but now she knew he would defend it because he trusted her.
“My daughter has chosen this man,” Asad Ahmed Khan said reflectively. “And now our only job is to find the good in him.”
Asad silently placed a supportive arm around her shoulders, hugging her close. “You have to be happy,” he entreated, resting his chin on her head. “Don’t ever regret this choice.”
“I wouldn’t dare,” she teased back, wiping a tear with the back of one finger. “He wouldn’t dare make me unhappy.”
Twenty-four hours later, Sanam sat in her room, her eyes on her reflection in the mirror. The bride was ready for her nikah, but would the groom come? All of the confidence she’d shown her father last night had disappeared. Anxiety was eating away at her, and it was driving her crazy. This should have been the happiest day of her life, and she was unable to control the turmoil inside.
“Just what are you doing?” Seher demanded, coming over to stand behind her twin. Seher was a vision in pink, a direct contrast to the deep red tones of her sister’s dress. The two stared at each other for a moment, and then Seher moved to sit beside Sanam on the bench. “What’s wrong?” She placed a comforting hand around Sanam’s shoulders.
“What if he doesn’t come?” Sanam finally gave voice to the worry that had been eating away at her. “What if this is too much? What if he–”
“Sanam! Stop!” Seher barked at her, squeezing her shoulder. “This is your wedding day. Stop thinking about all that could go wrong and focus on what’s going right. This is not the woman that I know. Rather than giving up, rather than letting him go, you made it so that you were together. You fought the world. You fought your family. You’re a fighter. Where is that woman right now?”
“I’m trying,” Sanam cried out. “But there has been nothing but resistance on his part. At least before, he was being very loud. But now there’s only silence. He won’t even pick up my calls. What am I supposed to think? What if he really doesn’t show? What I’m sitting there, and I look through the net and there is no one there?”
“He stepped up to save you from scandal,” Seher reminded her. “He didn’t do that just to have you face humiliation weeks later. That would kind of defeat the purpose, don’t you think?”
“Maybe he thought his job was done,” Sanam tossed back. “He never planned on marrying me. If I hadn’t insisted, we wouldn’t be having this nikah today.”
“Want me to tell you a secret?” Seher asked.
Sanam turned to look at her, raising a brow in silent query.
“This wedding dress,” Seher murmured, fingering the material, “It’s in your favorite shade of red. Remember how hard it was for you to find? You wanted this exact shade, but none of the stores you went to had just the right color . . . just the right dress that gave you that feeling you were looking for.
“That’s why I’m so happy you and Haya came across it,” Sanam murmured, staring down at the cloth. “This is exactly what I wanted. It makes me truly feel like a bride,” she admitted with a blush.
“That’s because it’s a present from your groom,” Seher said. “I told Rehan about you obsession with finding the perfect dress.”
“You mean,” Sanam began uncertainly, touching the material with reverence.
“He asked for the details and took care of it,” Seher confirmed with a big smile. “He will be here because he made sure you were ready for the nikah.”
Sanam’s eyes widened at those words, her heart feeling lighter.
Seher got up and carefully took Sanam’s dupatta and draped it over her head
“Dulha aa gaya! Dulha aa gaya!”
Sanam’s eyes met Seher’s in the mirror, a relieved smile growing across her face.
“Looks like your prince charming is here,” Seher quipped. “Now, I’ll be out there and taking care of the wedding party. Just remember, the one thing you were worried about didn’t happen. He’s here. Nothing else can go wrong.”
Sanam nodded, silently watching her sister leave the room. She really had been worrying for nothing.
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Aahil stood in the doorway of his home, staring the closed doors in front of him. He was dressed in the groom’s sherwani, and everything was ready. Rehan and Lateef were gathered outside with the rest of the wedding party, all raring to go to the bride’s home.
The only question now was whether he should follow through on this. He clenched his fingers into fists. The nikah was never meant to happen. He’d only intended for the engagement to be announced, and then for the pretend relationship to quietly fade away without any comments. He hadn’t even given Sanam a engagement ring, and now they were getting married
“Are you insane, Sanam? What is this I’m hearing about Aahil Raza Ibrahim? He might be the Nawab of Bhopal, but he was in jail for murder. You’re marrying a convicted murderer! Just what are you thinking? Have you thought this through?”
He flinched, the words that he had heard on the day of the haldi still running through his mind. He’d gone over there, giving in to Sanam’s entreaties, and had been slapped in the face with those words. He’d seen Sanam’s uncles standing over her, and his first instinct had been to charge in and confront them . . . to get them to back off. But what right did he have? He was the reason that she was being called insane.
And, so, the uncertainty grew. He could no longer fight the doubts that were eating away at him. Most people would be celebrating at this moment in time, but he couldn’t. For a brief moment at the dargah, he had bought into the fantasy, but reality in the form of disapproving relatives and a teary-eyed Sanam had soon intruded.
And really, where did it say that the signs he had seen were coming from above, rather than the desperate hopes of a delusional mind? His own delusional mind. His mind knew now what his heart hadn’t wanted to believe. She was being forced to do this.
“Bhai, what are you doing?” a voice called out from the now open doors. Striding in, Rehan came over to stand beside Aahil. “It’s time. Everything is ready and everyone is waiting. Let’s go.”
Aahil’s shoulders slumped. “Am I doing the right thing, Rehan? I don’t want her to not have a choice,” he admitted starkly. “My skin crawls at the idea of her feeling trapped. “This, all of this,” he said, waving his hands to encompass everything, “feels like a trap closing in on her. And I don’t want that for her. I was trapped for a large part of my childhood by my father’s abuse. And then I was literally trapped in jail. I would never do that to anyone. I would never want to put anyone in that position. And I feel like my mere existence is doing that to her.”
“Sanam Ahmed Khan wouldn’t be trapped into anything,” Rehan said with a suppressed laugh.
Aahil looked at him in surprise.
“I’m sorry, bhai, but do you know that woman? She’s a lot like Seher, and those two know what they want and they go after it. She wants to marry you and that is the only reason that this nikah is happening today. You had something else planned, but Sanam wanted something else. And guess what’s happening today? I mean, did she sound depressed on the hundreds of calls she made to you?”
“No, she sounded very peppy,” Aahil responded. “I didn’t know she was a morning person until she called me at six for yet another detail about the wedding.”
“She made her choice when she pushed forward with this marriage,” Rehan stated. “Now, it’s your choice how you’re going to move forward. Will there be a nikah today or not, bhai?”
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Rehan sat with Aahil, his eyes trained on the other man. Aahil was nervous, anxious about something. Rehan knew it, but Aahil bhai had shut down after their conversation at the door of their home. When he thought that Aahil would run, his brother had actually put on his sehra and headed for the Khan Mansion instead.
His eyes moved over the blue of his brother’s sherwani, the back and gold of the scarf he had draped over his shoulder and his arm. The sehra now covered his face, so all expression was hidden, but he could see Aahil’s stress through the tense muscles and clenched hands.
For a moment, he allowed himself to be distracted by the decorations in the home itself. Garlands hung on the wall, side by side with streamers of light. Red flowers and blinking white lights covered every surface of the room, most likely in an effort to match the beauty of the bride herself. Family members and friends had arranged themselves around the room, and most of them were even smiling.
He saw Zoya Auntie and Dilshad Bi directing the staff in their efforts to keep all of the guests well-fed and happily hydrated. He saw Seher’s dad standing to the side, arms crossed over his chest; he was standing between two men, who Rehan assumed were family, since they wore identical expressions of mild discontent. It seemed that some of Sanam’s family still wasn’t quite happy with this union.
Turning his eyes back to Aahil, hoping to distract him from that discontent, he saw his brother reach into his pocket for his phone. He saw Aahil glance at it, and then pick it up, despite the fact that he had already taken his seat on one side of the net screen and was now waiting for the bride to enter the room.
Hanging up the phone, Aahil signaled Lateef over and whispered something in her ear. Giggling with gaiety, Lateef ran to the front door and ushered someone into the room.
“What are you doing?’ Rehan murmured softly to his brother. “Can’t you see this is not the time to conduct business? Things are tense enough as is. Don’t push it,” he urged, knowing his brother would always push the envelope because something inside of him needed to do that.
He heard the murmurs around him, pulling him out of his own little panic attack. Turning his head, he saw Sanam coming down the steps, a ghoongat over her face. Seher was by her side, and she caught his gaze. Smiling cheekily at him, she raised her chin questioningly towards Aahil. Looking back at him, he saw that his brother was distracted by the dapper little man at his side.
“What?” Aahil yelped, turning to glare questioningly at the man, one hand coming up to push aside the flowers covering his face.
The little man nodded, shrugging apologetically.
Taking a deep breath, Aahil brusquely nodded and gestured for the man to go away. Turning to look back in front of him, Rehan saw Aahil’s gaze catch the fluid movement of the bride as she walked to her side of the screen and begin the process of carefully settling down, with Haya and Seher there to help her.
“Bhai?’ he asked questioningly, leaning forward. “What was that about?”
Aahil shook his head, letting the flowers fall across his face once more. And he sat there quietly, as the maulvi sahib came over and began to make dua before the nikah.
“Janab Aahil Raza Ibrahim, wald Raza Ibrahim, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”
There was no response as the seconds ticked by.
“Aahil bhai,” Rehan prompted, clutching at the other man’s arm. Pulling at it, he forced Aahil to come out of whatever reverie he had fallen into.
“Hmm?” Aahil asked, turning to gaze at him from under the flowers.
“The maulvi sahib is asking you a very important question,” Rehan ground out.
“Janab Aahil Raza Ibrahim, wald Raza Ibrahim, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”
Aahil straightened and took a deep breath. “Qubool Hai.”
“Janab Aahil Raza Ibrahim, wald Raza Ibrahim, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”
“Janab Aahil Raza Ibrahim, wald Raza Ibrahim, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”
The maulvi sahib turned and went to the other side of the screen, and began to ask the same questions of the bride.
Rehan saw Aahil’s profile and saw Aahil smile when Sanam practically yelled the final qubool hai. He nudged his brother to get up and go to the screen for the public unveiling.
The two stared at each other across the net, and, not for the first time, he wondered what was going through his brother’s head. Because, instead of relaxing, now that the vows had been made, he saw his brother walk away and the smile on Sanam’s face disappear.
“Just what are you thinking, Aahil Raza Ibrahim?”
The wedding was over, the rituals complete. The vows had been spoken, and the commitment had been made. The look on her face when she had said those vows . . . the determination with which she had gazed at him had moved him . . . shaken him . . . scared him.
Could he hold out? Could he do what needed to be done? Could he do what he had decided just days ago, a decision that had been solidified hours ago, in the midst of the party, as their wedding pictures had been taken?
“Stop!” a female voice commanded, a figure jumping in between him and his bedroom door.
Aahil blinked, his eyes widening to see both Seher and Haya now standing in front of him, blocking his path. “What?” he began, clearing his throat. “What are you two doing here? Where did you two even come from?” He stepped back, crossing his arms over his chest.
“It’s your wedding night,” Seher said cheekily. “Do you think we’d let you go to your bride so easily?”
“You have to pay the toll,” Haya explained, laughing softly at the surprise she saw on his face. “Come on! You can’t be surprised by this,” she protested. “Every groom has to go through this.”
“Grooms with female relatives willing to do this,” he reminded them softly. “I didn’t. . .” his voice trailed off, as a the lump in his throat made it impossible to speak any further.
Seher and Haya both paused at this, their eyes blinking as they heard the suppressed emotion in his voice. “Well, who says that you don’t have female relatives?” Seher demanded. “We’re here.”
“You’re the bride’s sister,” Aahil told Seher sardonically. “And you are her cousin,” he pointed out, turning to Haya.
“I’m also your sister-in-law in all but name,” Seher threw back at him, raising her chin in silent challenge.
“And I’m your sister,” Haya proclaimed.
He turned his gaze to her, raising a brow in silent question.
“My brother is your brother,” Haya murmured. “Therefore, you’re also my bhai, right, Aahil bhai?”
A reluctant smile tugged at the corner of his mouth, as he desperately swallowed the lump that was growing in his throat. This brother-sister duo was going to be the death of him. Sometimes he just had to wonder where all of that faith in him came from? Why were they so trusting?
“Now, pay up,” Seher said, putting out a demanding hand. “You don’t get to see your beautiful bride until you bribe the gatekeepers,” she declared gleefully.
Reaching a hand into his pocket, he pulled out his money clip. As he began peeling the bills off, a feminine hand came out and pulled the clip entire from his grasp.
“Thank you, Aahil bhai!” Haya yelled as the two ran off with promises to put the money to good use.
Shaking his head at their shenanigans, he opened the door and stepped inside. He froze on the threshold, his foot raised forgotten in the air.
Sanam sat on the bed, her eyes downcast. The red outfit . . . the golden jewelry . . . the dark color of the mehndi . . . the blush on her cheeks all bespoke the splendor of a newly wedded wife. She literally took his breath away. It didn’t matter that he had seen her minutes ago, because her mere appearance in his home . . . in his bedroom made him literally stumble on air. Sanam . . . had been poetry in motion . . . dazzling any way you looked at her . . . she was the keeper of his heart, which he could admit at least in his heart, and quite a manipulator.
She jumped slightly at the noise he made landing clumsily into the room. Raising her incredibly long eyelashes, she stared at him inquisitively. She saw him gazing back at her quietly, his eyes almost devouring her in their intensity. His eyes were focused solely on her to the exclusion of all else. Blushing lightly, she wondered if he even saw the decorations that adorned the room.
Did he see the flower canopy comprised of her favorite flowers above the bed or the twinkling lights placed along the walls? Rehan and Lateef had gone all out for their sej. When Seher and Haya had snuck in to take care of the decorations, believing that the men wouldn’t think of something like this, they had been amazed to see what had been done. Seher had even been a little disappointed.
Sanam saw him shake his head. She saw him look away. Tilting her head to the side, she watched Aahil walk to the other corner of the room. The fact that he stepped past the table laden with food without a second glance made her realize that he didn’t see the food either.
He turned and walked back towards the bed, and she stiffened. Her heart began to beat rapidly, her lungs finding it hard to get the air they needed to breathe as he moved closer. Would he sit on the bed? Would they talk now? Would this be the beginning she had been s–
“I’m leaving,” he said abruptly, as he came to stand at the foot of the bed.
“What?” she asked, jerked out of her musings by his words.
“I’m leaving,” he repeated.
“What?” she repeated.
“I said I’m leaving,” he said slowly. “What is wrong with you? Are you okay?”
“You’re leaving on my wedding night,” Sanam responded curtly. “And you think something is wrong with me?”
“Our wedding night,” he inserted.
She snorted. “At least you admit it.”
“Admit what?” he said in exasperation.
“That’s it our wedding night. How can you even think that you can just leave me. Just stay, Aahil. That’s all you have to do,” she urged softly. “You just have to stay with me.” She clenched her fingers into fists, hoping that the words would be enough.
He turned away, shaking his head in rejection of her plea. Walking to the armoire, he began to pull clothes out. She silently watched him place the clothes into a suitcase, his attention seemingly focused solely on the task.
She pulled the dupatta off of her head, and quickly got up off the bed. Striding over to him, she grabbed him by the arm and forced him to meet her gaze. “What are you doing?” she demanded, irate beyond belief.
“I’m le-,” he began.
She glared at him, silently daring him to repeat it.
“I’m going on site for a project,” he explained. “The company has to finish the Diamond Plaza in the next two months, but delays have put us in danger of going over the deadline. I’m going on site to ensure completion so that the penalty doesn’t cut in,” he said brusquely, zipping up the bag and reaching out to grab the handle.
She clutched at his arm with her sharp nails, making him wince at the pain. “Was this your plan all along?” she asked incredulously. “We were going to get married and you were going to leave?”
“No,” he interjected.
“Right,” she said with a snort.” Looking around the room, she smirked angrily before turning back to him. “Then why this?” Sanam growled, pointing to the decorations. “If you were going to cheat me out of a wedding night, why bother with the sej and the decorations? Why bother with this,” she said, pointing at her dress. “Why make me hope?”
“Rehan went crazy,” Aahil explained with difficulty. “Lateef helped. I didn’t really intend . . .”
“You were courageous enough to marry me today,” Sanam interrupted in frustration. “Then why be a coward now? You’re my husband. I’m your wife. We said ‘qubool hai’ to each other!” She pulled him closer, her lips inches away from his. “Do you really think this is the right way to start our marriage?” She breathed the question against his lips.
“Some things just aren’t meant to begin,” Aahil finally muttered, entranced by her beauty once more. Sanam was beautiful on any normal day, but to see her as a bride, his bride, was heart wrenching. Stepping back abruptly, he pulled his arm out of her hold. Picking up the bag, he strode towards the door. “I have to go,” he said, stopping at the door. “and maybe while I’m gone, we can think about what we want from this marriage. Both of us.”
“If you’re going to be doing all of that thinking,” Sanam snapped back, her chin raised defiantly, “Then think about making this a real marriage!”
He shook his head, firming his jaw, even as a muscle ticked along its fine line. Glancing down at the phone he had in his hand, he looked back at her. “There are a lot of rooms in this house. I have nothing to hide from Rehan. Pick any one of them for the time you will stay here.”
She stood there, her eyes staring bleakly at his retreating back before looking down at the mehndi in her hands. Her eyes burned with unshed tears, blurring out the A that had been written there with such high hopes.
The twinkling lights . . . the red flowers, what had seemed like a fairy tale moments before was now just sad and garish. At this moment, she felt so small.
Had she really trapped him into this marriage? Was this how things would be? Her reputation meant nothing. She would have gotten through the scandal, and her family had enough clout to squelch any long-term effects of the rumors. She hadn’t wanted to trap him, but he would never have succumbed otherwise. That was just the kind of man he was. She’d never thought that he would regret it so soon. She’ d thought that if he gave their marriage a change, then he would give them a chance.
She angrily brushed away her tears, and firmed her lips with determination. She wasn’t some doormat that he could place somewhere and forget. She wasn’t going to play along. This was his house. He would have to come back at some point.
She’d be here waiting. Having made his house into a home.
Chapter 15: You Are
Aahil stepped into his home, his steps hesitant. The week of escape he’d planned, hoping the time would lead to a cooler head had stretched into three weeks on site. Problems with the contracts the company had signed with different subcontractors had required his firsthand knowledge both as an owner of Ibrahim Corporation and as a lawyer. He’d sat down with his own team, as well as the local attorney, and had hammered out new contracts, leaving everyone relatively happy. The unexpected complication had led to sleepless nights, leaving him exhausted.
There had been complete radio silence between Sanam and himself. The busy work had been the perfect excuse to avoid making any personal calls. But, if he was honest with himself, he hadn’t really made much effort. Rehan had railed at him, leaving him tons of messages and calling him all manners of coward for his conduct. Aahil had not been moved. He had chosen a path and he would continue on it, despite how much Rehan called his intelligence into question.
Now he was back, wondering how she would react. He’d opened the door carefully, and had been literally tiptoeing into the room before he realized what he was doing. Stopping himself from acting the coward again, he strode into the living room and stopped. He looked around carefully, but only silence greeted him. She wasn’t here. In fact, from the stillness of the house, he realized that no one was here at all. He was all alone.
For a moment, panic gripped him. Where was she? Had she gone, realizing that all of this was futile? The depths to which his spirits sank was no surprise to him. He had spent the past three weeks missing her. But no . . . he looked around more carefully. It was only now, when he had tamped down his anxiety and irrational panic that he could see how different the room really looked. Even the wedding decorations couldn’t hide the fact that this house was barren. The two of them, three, if you included Lateef, did not have the talent to make the mansion into a warm, welcoming home. The sad truth was that none of them had been part of a normal household, and had never learned by example the actions and emotions that made a house into a home. That had all changed in the time he was gone.
Sitting down on the sofa in the center of the room, he slowly loosened his tie, his eyes moving around the room. The lamps were different. Reaching over, he flicked on a light and saw the glow. It softened the room, smoothing out the harsh edges of everything. There were vases placed around the room, filled with flowers. The scent wrapped around him, soothing the shards embedded in his soul.
The wall across from him was now covered with pictures. Their wedding pictures. They were an addition to the others on the wall. He smiled helplessly, seeing the half grin on her face in so many of the pictures, revealing how happy and hopeful she had been on that day. And now that smile was appealing to him, silently asking what he was afraid of when he had her.
“Everything, Sanam,” he said out loud. “Everything.”
Turning his head, he stared at the books on the table. More proof that she was still here and slowly making this her home, too. There were fragile, little showpieces on various surfaces. The sunlight ran through those pieces and created rainbows all around him. He was surrounded by color.
Leaning back, he rested his aching head against the back of the sofa, and that felt different, too. Turning his head, he felt the softness of the throw against his cheek. The kitchen, which he could now glimpse from his new vantage point, had been repainted. He raised a silent eyebrow at that.
Closing his eyes, he tried to comprehend the changes. Sanam’s presence was stamped on every surface of this room now. For a brief moment, it felt as if the breath was leaving his body, and he wasn’t sure how to hold on to it. His house had needed his woman’s touch to make it into a home. She had done it, despite how much he must have disappointed her when he left. He had abandoned her, but she hadn’t once called him to remonstrate.
“Where are you?” he suddenly asked out loud, but of course there was no answer. His eyes landed on the wedding picture. Her smiling face. Her glowing eyes. The way she gazed at him in another picture. And the third one was the one that got to him. The way he had been captured gazing at her. He looked away, unable to handle the emotion in his own eyes.
Getting up, he walked down the hallway to his bedroom, his hands absentmindedly loosening his tie and pulling it over his head. He was so tired, but seeing the changes in his home had soothed him in a way he hadn’t been for the longest time.
Stepping inside his bedroom, he froze once more, wondering how many times she would surprise him today. She had made his house into a home, and she had transformed his bedroom into . . . theirs. His incredulous gaze moving over the space, seeing her presence on every surface. Inhaling, he reveled in her soft scent.
He saw the array of items on the vanity, her makeup, her perfumes, her jewelry. Her books on the other side of the bed. A splash of color lying across the quilt caught his attention; it was her dupatta. Flowers on the coffee table. The hard white sofa had been replaced by a softer version.
Sanam was staying here. Had she been sleeping in his bed? The books on the nightstand seemed evidence of that. Why had she chosen his bedroom when he had made it clear that she could pick any of the other rooms? He closed his eyes. Hidden in that request had been an order that she actually pick some other room. Then why his?
Tossing the tie on the bed, he moved across the bedroom to the closet. Unbuttoning his collar, he slid open the closet doors and stopped once more. More color. More feminine outfits. He reached in for a pair of gray sweats and a black T-shirt, and encountered the soft, flimsy material of her clothes instead. He gazed quietly at the bright colors, a direct contrast to his own monochrome colors.
She was making her way into every corner of his life. She was staking her claim on everything, him included. He was hard-pressed to resent her intrusion. What had started out as a desperate bid to save her had snowballed into something out of his control. He was beginning to wonder why he was even struggling against the tide. Why not just give in and become . . . hers? He ruthlessly brushed that weak thought aside.
Pulling out his clothes, he decisively shut the closet doors. Had he forgotten the many reasons he needed to stay away from her? Striding into the bathroom, he took a quick shower, ignoring the toiletries on the counter or the lacy bra hanging on the shower rod.
Moving into the bedroom once more, he slipped into bed, needing the rest after the sleepless nights he had had while onsite. And once again, he was engulfed in her scent. Breathing deeply, one hand unconsciously reaching out to the empty side of the bed, he slipped into slumber.
Minutes later . . . or was it hours later, he awakened to the distant sounds of movement in the home. Someone was back and seemed to be cooking. It was a smell he associated with home, and he hadn’t even known that. Long ago memories pierced the remaining veil of sleep, and he remembered the time when his mother was alive.
He raised his head. Sanam? Without a second thought, still half asleep, he got up and left the bedroom. Moving down the hallway and towards the kitchen, he stopped in the doorway, his eyes moving over her busy figure as it moved around the kitchen. She was humming. She wore a yellow shalwar, kameez, her hair tied back in a braid. His eyes moved compulsively over her slender figure, looking for any changes. There were none. After all, it had only been three weeks.
Suddenly, she stopped and swiftly turned towards the entryway, relaxing only when she saw him standing there. He saw emotions cross her face, joy . . . anger . . . before serenity seemed to settle in. Racing toward him, she grabbed him in a fierce hug. “You’re awake. Welcome back!”
Aahil’s arms seemed to automatically wrap around her body, grasping her close to him. The embrace was unexpected as it was welcome. Bending down, he buried his nose in her neck, inhaling her sweet scent. “Hmm,” he murmured, closing his eyes sleepily.
“Aahil?” Sanam murmured, patting his back. She moved restlessly.
He nestled closer, holding her tighter. She was here, in his arms, and he did not want to let go.
“Aahil,” she murmured, “The food is burning. Do you really want to eat burnt food tonight?” she whispered against his ear.
He jerked back, the sensation of her whisper against his ear too much for his senses. He stepped back, rubbing at his eyes with his knuckles.
“You are such a child,” Sanam murmured, pinching his cheek. “A very complicated one. Take a seat,” she ordered, patting the stool in front of the counter. Once she had him seated, she went over to the pot and stirred it vigorously before moving over to the coffee maker to pour him a cup of coffee. Returning with the cup, she placed that and a plate of samosas in front of him.
“Where were you?” he asked, taking a sip of the coffee. “I came home and you weren’t here.”
She stopped for a moment at those words, her back to him. Turning to look at him, she took in the shadows under his eyes, the stubble on his chin, the fact that he had lost some weight. Tilting her head to the side, she said, “Imagine how I felt every day when I returned to an empty home.” She paused for a moment, awaiting his answer.
He had nothing.
She smiled at him in a sickly sweet way, and then turned back to the pots on the stove.
He cleared his throat, shifting uncomfortably in his chair. “Where were you?” he repeated, taking a bite of the samosa.
“At LSB’s DV clinic,” Sanam responded over her shoulder.
“What were you doing there?” Aahil asked curiously.
“Just because they fired me doesn’t mean that I can’t do some good,” Sanam replied. “I went to volunteer. They always need volunteers, and the attorney in charge is a good friend of mine.”
“Wasn’t it hard to go back?’ Aahil asked hesitantly, taking a quick swallow from the cup.
“Not really. I know they let me go because of pressure, not because of anything I did,” she responded placidly.
Aahil raised an eyebrow at that.
“No big deal. I’ll go back and volunteer until the furor dies down. I’m sure they’ll hire me back afterwards.” She smiled at him brightly, almost too brightly. “Anyways. Help me to set the table,” she ordered, beginning to pull the dishes out of the cabinet.
The table was soon set, and. before he knew it. they were sitting down to eat. Aahil stared at the food in front of him, especially the apple pie. “Who’s been talking?” he asked, looking up at her.
“I pay attention, Aahil,” Sanam replied. “We’ve been having family dinners and dates for months. I’d be a dunce not to notice. Eat up. You look like you’ve lost weight.”
Aahil nodded, a lump growing in his throat. For the longest time, no one had paid attention to what he liked or didn’t like. He had Rehan and Lateef, but they were men. They didn’t notice things like this.
“How was work?” she asked casually, carefully watching how much he ate.
He looked up.
“It seems that you were very busy,” she noted, meeting his gaze squarely
He swallowed, wondering what gave her so much confidence. She never failed to challenge what she thought was wrong. She never beat around the bush. “Everything that could go wrong did,” he murmured. “Contracts fell apart. If I hadn’t been onsite, the project delays would’ve caused us damages in the lakhs.”
“Good thinking on your part about being there at this crucial time,” Sanam noted, a knowing look in her eyes.
He nodded again, a flush appearing on his cheeks. The truth was that he had been a coward in running away, and she knew it. Clearing his throat, he focused on the food to the exclusion of all else.
“Rehan is at Haya’s house,” Sanam disclosed. “I gave Lateef the night off, since I thought I was going to be alone.” Getting up after they were done, she began to clear the table. Filling the sink with water, she began to wash the dishes one by one.
He silently came and stood by her, reaching for a washcloth.
“Don’t,” she ordered, trying to grab the cloth from him. “You just came back from your trip.”
“I can help this much around the house,” he said softly, keeping the cloth in his hold. “It looks like you’ve taken care of everything while I’ve been gone. It’s only right that I help out in some way. Sanam, let me.”
Gazing up at him, her heart lightened by how some of the shadows had disappeared, she gave him a wet dish to wipe. Smiling at him, she went back to washing the dishes.
The two stood there, in silence, doing their domestic duty. Aahil had never had a chance to do something like this. When he was old enough to stand by his mother’s side, his mother had no longer been on this earth. Even if she had been, the Nawab’s household had never been a place where you could do something like that. After a moment, he realized that she was softly humming at his side. Looking sideways at her, he saw the smile playing on her face. That same half-grin that had been on her face in all of the pictures. A smile that said she was truly content.
Abruptly putting down the dish he had been drying, he stepped back and strode away.
. . . . . . . . . . .
Two hours later, after getting some work done in his home office, Aahil had entered the pool for his nightly swim. After 20 laps, he had to admit the tiny pool wasn’t doing much to help him work off any of his frustration.
What had he hoped for when he came back home? That he would get near her and not want her? What was he supposed to do tonight? No answers were forthcoming. And so he swam. Back and forth. Back and forth. And back and forth.
Landing against the side of the pool, he grasped the side and took a deep breath. Pulling himself out of the pool, he looked around for his towel, as water dripping down his body and into a pool round him. “Lateef!” he called out, forgetting for a moment.
“Still not here,” Sanam murmured, coming up to him. She had a towel in her hand.
Nodding his thanks, he reached out for it.
She pulled it out of his reach, shaking her head with a smile.
He raised a silent eyebrow at her, wondering what she was thinking.
Moving back in to him, she raised the towel and gently began to wipe at the water coursing down his body.
He inhaled deeply, his body reacting to her touch without his volition.
She moved on, undeterred, her hands moving lower, over his abdomen . . . and paused when she reached the waistband of his khaki shorts. Looking at him mischievously, taking in his frozen expression, she moved her hands back up. They moved across his broad shoulders, dabbing at the droplets there. Moving behind him, she allowed her emotions to show for a moment. Her hands shook slightly, and then stabilized as she moved the towel over his entire back. Moving to stand in front of him once more, she reached up and rubbed at the water in his hair. He shook his head slightly, and droplets of water landed on her cheeks.
Pulling away, she looked at his face, the harshness of it softened by the wet tendrils falling across his forehead. He looked so innocent and yet so manly. She felt her body clenching deep down in her core, as heat coursed through her body. Slipping the towel around his neck, she pulled him close so that his face was inches away.
“What are you doing?” he breathed against her lips.
Her lips fell open at the sensation, her eyes staring into his, mesmerized. Moving in closer, she went in for the kiss. She placed a butterfly kiss against his lips. They shared a breath. She pulled back and then went back in for another, only this time the tip of her tongue slipped between his lips, tasting him. Savoring him. Pulling back, she looked into his face.
His eyes were closed, his lips pursed. As if he was tasting her on his lips.
She blushed a fiery red, wondering where she had gotten the courage to do that. Moving in, she caressed his cheek with hers, her nose rubbing against his. Turning her head, they shared another kiss . .. another breath.
His hands came and clutched at her waist, gripping it tightly. For a moment, he pulled her close, her body coming to rest flush against his.
Sanam closed her eyes, her forehead coming to rest against the base of his neck. She inhaled deeply. The scent of his skin, mixed with the chlorinated water, engulfed her. She inhaled once more, wanting to take him deep inside of her. Nestling closer, she relished his strength against her softer body.
She shivered slightly, wondering . She could feel him against her . . . his hardness against her core. She gasped softly as he moved against her, her lower core clenching once more. She raised her head and reached her fingers up to clutch at the hair back of his head, pulling his head down to hers.
But he stopped her, his hands reaching up to grasp at her wrists and pulled them away. “No,” he murmured. His words were pained, and she could see the ache in his eyes.
“Why?” she demanded softly. “Why not?”
Shaking his head, he pulled away from her and walked away.
. . . . . . . . . .
Aahil rolled over in bed, trying to get comfortable. He was tired. But he couldn’t go to sleep. Not with her lying in bed next to him. She hadn’t been shy at all about any of this. He’d watched her go into the restroom, then seen her brush her hair in front of the mirror, and climb into bed next to him. She’d even murmured a soft good night before turning over to go to sleep.
How could she already be asleep? This was their first night in bed together, and she was already asleep. He had to admit that he felt a little bit insulted. But what was the alternative? Would he rather that she be awake and seducing him? What if he gave in?
He sighed softly, and rolled over once more, this time turning towards her. He jerked back when his eyes met hers, her face inches away from him. “Are you trying to scare me?” he growled, a hand going up to his pounding heart.
“I love you,” she said suddenly, blinking at him sleepily. “It’s our first night together, and I want to sleep in my husband’s arms.”
He gazed at her, his mind searching for the right words to say. They couldn’t be that he loved her, too. They couldn’t be that he wanted the same thing. Then what could he say?
She inched closer, her eyes pinning him in place. Lying down next to him, she rested her head on his shoulder. Slowly, so slowly, she placed her arm across his body, and cuddled close. It was as if she belonged there.
He sighed deeply, and placed a hand over her back, pulling her closer. And moments later he was asleep, finally able to find the peace that he had been so desperately seeking for such a long time. He had found it in her arms.
Aahil sat in the study, his eyes moving over the books on the shelves, the heavy desk in front of him . . . the curtains on the windows, even the wallpaper, anything to avoid the eyes of the man who sat in front of him. The two of them had come over for dinner, and Sanam had forced him into the room with the other man.
“You need to learn how to speak with my father.” Her tone was insistent, taking on that demanding quality that all wives seemed to have when cajoling their husbands. She crossed her arms across her chest and tried out a pout.
He nodded absentmindedly, his eyes roving helplessly over her slender figure bedecked in a beautiful lavender and black sari. She was a seductress, the shadows in her eyes drawing him in. His gaze landed on the curve of her waist, left bare by the short blouse. He wanted to pull her into his arms, but he controlled himself. Even if she looked like a goddess, his goddess, they had places to go and appointments to keep.
“Aahil, did you hear me?” Sanam said, her pout growing as she noticed his distraction.
Aahil snapped himself out of it, and shot back, “But we have nothing to talk about! Your dad hates me. I’m pretty sure he’ll attack me if we’re left alone too long.”
“He won’t attack you,” Sanam snapped at him. “Don’t be silly. You do have things to talk about. Very important things, namely me. You have to convince him that I made the right decision,” Sanam said, raising her chin challengingly. “You can do that much, right?”
Aahil could only look at her silently, wondering what was really going on in her mind.
“We’re together, Aahil for the rest of our lives,” Sanam said softly, walking over to place a loving hand on his cheek. “Do you really want to be in a cold war with my dad for that entire time?”
“So,” Aahil began, clearing his throat. He then stopped, finding he had nothing to say. This was the first time he was encountering the man after their wedding, and it seemed that his level of discomfort had increased.
“She seems happy,” Asad finally said, breaking his silence.
Aahil raised an eyebrow in surprise.
“I thought my daughter was making the biggest mistake of her life when she decided to marry you,” he continuing, his eyes focusing on Aahil’s face. “And it took me a long time to realize that she had the right to make that mistake. She has been an adult for a long time . . . enough time that I should no longer interfere in her decisions.”
“I’m sorry,” Aahil finally uttered, the surprise still apparent in his voice, “But where is this coming from? You haven’t spoken a word to me, to either of us, since the truth came out, and all of a sudden you’re sharing your feelings?”
“Sanam and Seher are the light of my life,” Asad continued, his expression implacable. “I want to protect them from every conceivable pain . . . from everything. When I heard the truth about the two of you, my first instinct was to separate you from their lives. But it seems that you both have taken far deeper root in their hearts than I ever thought possible. Seher doesn’t really speak to me anymore, but she’s hurting.”
Aahil’s mind flashed back to this morning. Seher had been at their home, and had spent the entire breakfast watching Haya and Rehan interact. She had been happy for them. Clearly happy. But he had also seen flashes of envy in those eyes. He had seen her hurt when she looked at him and Sanam. She wanted to be married to Rehan.
“And my relationship with Sanam is no longer the same,” Asad continued morosely. He clenched his hands on the desk, the fingers laced together.
“Did Sanam have the same conversation with you that she had with me?” Aahil asked, a smile playing at the corners of his mouth.
“Yep,” Asad said ruefully. “She pointed out that hating my daughter’s husband wasn’t sustainable in the long term. She apparently loves you, and my distance hurts her.” He sighed heavily, a brief frown playing across his features before he forced himself to relax. “I thought I’d speak with you first. I’ll speak with Rehan afterwards. His situation . . . the trauma of our past can’t be so easily forgotten.”
“But Seher needs for you to forget,” Aahil interjected.
“Rehan’s mother was evil, but I’ve seen him. I know that he isn’t like her,” Asad admitted. “She didn’t even raise him. It’s my heart I have to convince. It’s taking a while getting there.”
Aahil sat back, so shocked to hear Asad speaking so frankly to him. Why was the man speaking to him this way? “You can’t just have changed all of a sudden,” Aahil said suddenly, the light turning on in his mind.
Asad raised a silent eyebrow.
“You had us investigated, didn’t you? That’s why everything seems to have changed. You couldn’t stand to be in the same room as either of us when the truth came out.” Aahil blurted out. “Not only do you know exactly how the both of us have lived our lives up until now, you know more than that. There is no way you would be talking to me this way, not unless. . .”
Asad nodded, a small smile beginning to play across her face.
“What did you find out?” Aahil challenged, straightening in his chair and raising his chin in quick challenge. He wouldn’t back away from anything that Asad Ahmed Khan threw at him today.
Asad sat back, an eyebrow raised and a small smirk playing across his lips. “Everything.”
Aahil blanched at that disclosure. “You mean . . .” he began, unsure of how to continue.
“I mean everything,” Asad affirmed. “I didn’t find anything that I believe should be kept hidden. So, my only question is when are you going to tell my daughter?”
Aahil sat in the living room, to where he had escaped from Sanam. She was everywhere. This morning she had jumped in the shower while he was brushing his teeth. The thought of her on the other side of that thin curtain, the view of her silhouette through that almost transparent shower curtain had been too much. He’d grabbed his brush and run for another bathroom in just his boxers.
That had certainly given Lateef moments of joy.
Rubbing a tired hand over his eyes, he wondered how much of this torture he could stand.
She had slept in his arms again last night. After that first night, he’d tried to pull back, but he wasn’t winning. Or was he? He’d gently rolled her away, putting some much needed distance between himself and her delectable body, but he had then awakened this morning in her arms instead. Too afraid to meet her eyes, he’d sprung out of bed and raced for the bathroom. She had followed him in there.
He was loving her more and more every day. He thought he’d loved her before they’d gotten married, but seeing her everyday . . .seeing her taking care of him, loving him to the utmost of her ability melted his heart in every which way. Every moment they spent together in their home brought him one step closer to becoming like her. She was so sure and so courageous. She’d grabbed on and wouldn’t let go. He heaved a sigh, running a hand over his face. She made him want to be like her. Just as courageous. Just as loving. He was tired of being a coward. Tired of thinking and doing nothing. He was tired of who he had become.
She chose you. She left behind that job with minimal regrets. She’s ignoring what her beloved father is asking of her. She doesn’t care about our family reputation. And believe me, we’ve been getting some calls from her aunts and uncles, asking whether she’s thought things through. She doesn’t care. She wants you. She only wants you.
Zoya Auntie’s words rang through his mind.
“Now, my only question is when are you going to tell my daughter?”
And her father’s grudging acceptance.
The events of the nikah came to mind, as well. The reason he had actually gone through with the wedding, despite seeing how much her family was against her marrying him.
But could he explain something so dark to Sanam, who was wholly a creature of the light? Would it change her view of him? He took a deep breath, and got up to pace around the living room. Staring up at their wedding picture, he allowed a little bit of hope to seep through his heart. A nervous energy was running through his body now. Maybe the past didn’t matter. It shouldn’t matter. Why am I holding onto it so hard?
She accepted me when she thought I was an orphan and had no one else in the world. When she thought he had been Rehan Imran Qureshi.
She’d accepted him when she suspected him of being an abused child, trusting that he had rebuilt himself enough to be capable of love. She’d trusted her heart to him, and how had he repaid her?
Even when the truth came out . . . she’d accepted him when she found out that he had lied to her. He’d revealed that betrayal to her in front of the entire world, not even giving her the courtesy of telling her in private. He closed his eyes in remorse. She’d accepted him when he outed himself as a convicted killer. Not only that, she’d proudly and happily married him in front of the entire world.
What hadn’t Sanam Ahmed Kh– Sanam Aahil Raza Ibrahim done for the man she loved?
Could he do any less for the woman he loved? Those promises that he had made so long ago, to himself . . . to others. . . really how much were they worth in the face of all he was losing if he didn’t open up now? And the truth was, her father already knew. Chances were, her entire family already knew. The truth was coming out, and it had freed him. So why not share it with her? Why not give her the chance to decide if she could be with him?
Aahil jerked up, abruptly pulled from his thoughts by the slamming of the front door. Getting up, he walked towards the entrance, his face breaking into a smile when he saw Sanam standing there. She was home.
She strode into the room and jerked to a stop in front of him.
His happy eyes searched her face, and a feeling of dread grew in his heart when he saw the anger in her eyes. Looking up to the ceiling for a moment, he returned his gaze to Sanam’s face. What was wrong now?
“How dare you?’ She asked quietly, crossing her arms across her chest. Her hands cupped at her elbows, desperately trying to hold onto something . . . anything. She knew that if she let go, she could fly apart into a million pieces.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Do you want to share with me why you suddenly agreed to the marriage?” she asked suddenly, seeming to change tack. “Why, when you were dragging your feet, you suddenly said ‘qubool hai’?”
“The rumors . . ,” he began.
“The rumors would have died down, Aahil. I’m no fragile flower that needed a knight in shining armor to come and save her. Why did you suddenly stop walking down the path of noble idiocy? Why the sudden change to marriage?”
“It was for the best,” he murmured, reaching out a hand to caress her cheek. “I realized one very important thing as the wedding grew closer. It pushed me into that decision. In fact, I l-”
“I was so afraid,” Sanam interrupted him, pulling away from him. “I was so afraid that you had been trapped in this marriage due to your own sense of honor. Through no fault of your own you’d been caught in this web. Every night, every dam*ed night, I felt so guilty that I couldn’t go to sleep. When you went through with the marriage, I decided that I would do my best to make sure that you didn’t regret your decision.” Her eyes were haunted, her voice revealing the pain that she had so carefully hidden up until now.
Where was this coming from? Aahil hadn’t suspected any of this.
“I was grateful,” Sanam admitted with difficulty.
“Grateful?” he asked in a choked tone of voice, falling back from her. He turned his back on her, repudiating her words. His skin crawled at that word. Just when he was ready to confess his readiness to be all in, she said this? What the hell did she think of him? An abused child to be pitied? A man to whom she was grateful. When would it be just simply love? Rubbing at his forehead, trying to control the pain that had begun to pound at his temples, he wondered if there could ever be simple love between the two of them.
“You said yes, and I was so happy,” Sanam said bleakly. “I was going to make this house into a home. Us into a family. And make it so you would never regret it.”
“And I don’t regret it,” Aahil muttered, turning back to look at her.
“Of course you don’t regret it,” Sanam shot back, a bitter note entering her voice. “After all, you had to get married to somebody, right?”
Aahil’s eyes widened at the cynicism in her eyes. Nothing he had done had affected her in this way. But something had changed.
“You had to protect your money, right? Your wealth. You had to protect the lifestyle to which you have grown accustomed.” She shook her head, taking a ragged breath. “At least now I know I don’t have to feel guilty anymore.”
“What are you talking about, Sanam?” Aahil growled at her, striding over to grab at her shoulders.
“I’m talking about your father’s will, Mr. Aahil Raza Ibrahim,” Sanam said, jerking away from him. She moved away from him, as if unable to stand their proximity. “The will that said you had to marry before your 30th birthday or you would lose everything. You must’ve thanked your lucky stars when I insisted on getting married.”