EY: Chapter 16 – End

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Chapter 16: Ae Humnava
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Sanam spun away, pacing across the room to put some more distance them. Her steps were agitated, her mind in turmoil. She hadn’t wanted to believe it, but she had to face the truth. He had married her for a will, for money. And, here she had been feeling sorry . . . almost desperately so, for trapping this man. She ran her fingers through her hair, pulling at it. Her conscience had eaten away at her for taking away his choice.

That guilty conscience had prevented her from pushing Aahil too fast. She’d wanted to be his wife in every way, but she’d held back. When he’d run off on their wedding night, she’d let him go. When he hadn’t called her for three weeks, she hadn’t reacted. When he awakened every morning and ran from their marital bed, she didn’t complain. This marriage was supposed to be a new beginning for the both of them. She loved him so, so much. And out of that love came the driving need to save him. To heal him. To become a part of him, so much so that he wouldn’t know where he ended and she began. She’d wanted him to need her as much as she had come to need him.

Her stomach lurched sickly, as she remembered the truth she’d discovered at Aahil’s office. Aahil had had a meeting offsite, and she knew that he would be coming directly home afterwards. Taking the chance, she’d gone to meet Rehan. Things were stagnating between them, and she’d hoped to brainstorm some solutions with Rehan. While waiting in Rehan’s office, she’d seen the documents on his desk. A letter to some attorney about their marriage. Documents acknowledging the will and its terms. Their nikahnama, showing the proof that they were married. Affidavits from Aahil that their marriage was real and not entered into for the benefit of the will. An affidavit from Rehan as a witness.

She’d sat there, numb, her mind struggling to process that reality until Rehan had returned. Those moments had felt like hours, but they couldn’t have been. The sun was still high in the sky while her world had been crashing down around her. When Rehan had entered the office, he’d seen the papers on the table. He’d seen the stricken look on her face. Rehan had tried to explain, but she hadn’t stuck around to listen. After all, what else was there to say? Aahil Raza Ibrahim had only married her for money. She rubbed at her stomach, the thought  still making her feel physical ill. She wanted to pretend as if she’d never found out, but she had never been any good at pretending, had she?

“Is this why you married me?” she repeated, stalking back to glare at Aahil from inches away. She grabbed his collar and jerked his face closer to hers, giving him no way to hide the truth. She stared at his beloved face, her eyes tracing the sweep of his brows. The arch of his cheeks. The sensual lines of his lips. For a moment, she was mesmerized by him . . . by his beauty . . . inside and out, before reality came crashing down. He was a lot darker inside than she had believed.

“You did this for money? Is that why we don’t have a real relationship?” The questions were like bullets shot at him, giving him no time to answer. “Is that why you won’t touch me? Because you knew that you were going to end this farce as soon as you met the requirements of that damned will?” She pushed him away. He’d never loved her. A trembling hand came up to cover her lips, as she fought the tide of emotions rising inside of her. She would not cry in front of him!

“No!” Aahil protested, gripping her shoulders, trying to soothe her with his touch. His heart was beating rapidly, as he fought to find the right words. He had broken her today, and he couldn’t bear that. “Sanam, I know it looks bad. But don’t ever think that I married you for money,” he beseeched her, hoping that she would believe him. He saw the fire light up in her eyes, and knew that making her believe him wasn’t going to be easy.

“What were you going to do, Aahil? What was your master plan?” Sanam cried out, jerking away from his touch in rejection. Her hands flailed for a moment in the air, before going to tug at the dupatta wrapped around her neck, loosening it to find the air she needed to clear her head. “Were you going to keep me happy for a year and then just nullify our marriage, pretending that we were never married at all?” She stopped and swallowed the lump in her throat. “Would it have been so easy,” she asked in a bleak tone, “To erase me from your life?”

Aahil stared at the pain in her eyes, wanting to wrap her in his arms. But would it help? He curled his hands into fists, irritated with himself. He was hesitating again. Hadn’t he said there would  be no more hesitation? Sanam deserved so much more than him, but she had chosen him. The least he could do was give her all of himself. He pulled her into his arms, and murmured soothingly, “It’ll be okay.”

“It won’t be okay!” she burst out, trying to push him away. “Because you’re going to divorce me. And it’s going to be as if we never were. As if I was never a part of your life.” She stopped fighting. She stopped moving, as if the reality of those words had just settled into her heart. She hadn’t thought the pain she was feeling could get any worse, but it could. It so could. Burying her face in the hollow at the base of his throat, she began to sob. Her pain was like an acid eating away at every bit of hope she had held so close to her heart. There was nothing left.

Aahil clutched her close, his hand cradling her head to rest against him. His other arm wrapped low around her waist, his hold leaving not even a breath of air between their bodies . . . between their hearts. She was crying, and he wanted her to stop hurting. He ran a soothing hand up her back, pulling her even closer.

Sanam’s fingers clutched at the shirt at his waist, her nails digging into his back. Her sobs were loud in the silent room, and they beat at him.

“Sanam, please don’t,” Aahil murmured, kissing the top of her head. Placing his hands on either side of her head, he gently raised her face to his, forcing her eyes to meet his. He carefully wiped her tears away, striving to rid her face of all traces of her pain.

“But what ab–?” she began.

Placing a finger against her lips, he silently told her to hush.

“But!” Sanam began. When he leaned closer, she jerked back, her heart beating rapidly at his proximity . . . her body begging to yield to his heat. She struggled to pull away, knowing that the longer she was in his hold, the more she would want to yield. “Don’t think that you can just use your animal magnetism to keep me under control!” she told him fiercely. “How could you get married for money? Who does that?”

“I didn’t,” Aahil shot back, resting his forehead against hers, holding her in place by a hand on her neck when she tried to jerk back. They stood there for a moment, both breathing hard, their hearts beating almost in unison. “But if you’re in the mood to talk,” he said speculatively, smiling lightly at her, “Why don’t we talk about something else?”

She raised an eyebrow at him silently.

“Tell me, Mrs. Sanam Aahil Raza Ibrahim,” he said, pulling back just a little. “Why don’t we talk about the rumors that were spread all over Bhopal just a few months ago?”

She blinked at him, taken aback by his questions. “What . . . rumors?” she began uncertainly, momentarily sidetracked.

“You know. The rumors that forced us to get married,” Aahil prompted.

“Oh! Those rumors,” Sanam murmured, frantically looking around, trying to avoid his gaze. Did he have to bring those up now, just when she was justifiably angry at him? “What about those rumors?”

“Haven’t you wanted to find out who spread them?” he asked, watching her try to get out of his arms once more. It was a futile effort. He was never letting her go.

“Nope, not really,” Sanam replied, continuing to struggle in his hold. “Will you let me go?!” she yelped when his arms became just a little too tight.

“Nope,” he replied. “I wondered. I really thought about it. Who would have seen us that morning? Who hated you . . . or me enough to spread something poisonous like that. Who would try to ruin your life that much? I really wondered. Didn’t you ever think about it?”

Sanam shook her head, staring up at the ceiling, the floor, the wall behind his head, before giving up and stealing a glance at his face. “I don’t think it’s fair that you’re just changing the subject,” Sanam threw at him. “We were talking about the will. And suddenly you pulled up ancient history.”

“It’s related,” Aahil replied, pulling her over to the sofa and forcing her take a seat when she remained stubbornly standing. Grunting in satisfaction, he sat down beside her. “But I can understand why you wouldn’t have wasted your time thinking about this,” he said, placing an arm across her shoulders to hold her in place.

The vibration of the phone distracted him from his full blown intent to leave the stage, this home, maybe to leave Bhopal and prevent Sanam Ahmed Khan from making the biggest mistake of her life. After all, if he didn’t do it, then who would?

Frowning slightly, he took out the phone. All of Bhopal knew he was getting married today, so who would have the temerity to call him at this hour? Raising an eyebrow at the name that appeared on the screen, he answered the call brusquely, “What’s so important that it couldn’t wait until tomorrow?”

“I’m sorry, Mr. Ibrahim. I know that today is your nikah, but you really need to hear this. I’ve found out about the person who spread the rumors,” the private investigator explained on the other end.

“What is it?” Aahil asked, after a pause.

“I’d like to tell you in person,” the man said apologetically. “There is proof that I must show you.”

“I’m already sitting down for the nikah,” Aahil replied.

“Sir, you paid me to find out a very important thing. I’m afraid that I would fail in my duty if I didn’t tell you what I discovered before you say ‘qubool hai’. I’m outside the Ahmed Khan residence. Please allow me to come in.”

That had been the first hint. Before that, he hadn’t suspected anything. He’d only wanted to know who should be punished for perpetrating this farce in their lives. Acquiescing, he had called Lateef over, asking her to go and get the man outside. She’d gone and come back with the investigator quickly enough.

“Sir, I did the research. Starting with the newspapers  . . to their sources . . . back to the beginning of this entire thread. I did just as you asked. Here is the evidence to back up my findings.” The man held out a stack of papers.

“Just what did you find, Amjad?” Aahil barked impatiently at the man, his eyes lowered behind the sehra. His hands were clenched into fists in his lap, his heart beating furiously in his chest. “Just tell me where all of this started.”

“Sir, I’m sorry to tell you this, but it was your bride,” the other man explained apologetically. “Ms. Sanam Ahmed Khan began the rumors. I double and then triple-checked my sources. She was the one who began everything. She was the one who fanned the flames and watched the scandal spread.”

“What?” Aahil yelped, turning to glare questioningly at the man, one hand coming up to push aside the flowers covering his face.

The other man nodded, shrugging apologetically.

Taking a deep breath, Aahil stiffly nodded and gestured for the man to leave.  Turning back from watching the PI leave, his gaze was caught by Sanam coming down the steps. Her face was covered in a ghoongat, her eyes hidden from him.

He believed what Amjad had discovered. The man was a good PI. He would never have disclosed this unless he was sure of his facts. Sanam had spread those rumors. The only mystery now was why. Why had she done it? He couldn’t even ask her that question, since she was already sitting across from him, ready to be married.

Rehan was there, a worried expression on his face. Aahil ignored his questions, his mind still pondering the reasons. As the maulvi sahib came over and began to make dua before the nikah, he sat there quietly, unsure of his next action. Should he leave? He had been so close to just getting up and running just five minutes ago. Deep in his heart, he knew that her family wasn’t happy with her actions. He feared that there would come a day that she would also come to regret her decision.

He clenched his fingers into fists, his body tensing to move, to get up. His heart stopped him, wanting him to stay.

“Janab Aahil Raza Ibrahim, wald Raza Ibrahim, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”

He knew he had to respond, but he couldn’t find the right answer as the seconds ticked by. Say yes or say no?

“Aahil bhai?” Rehan again, pulling at him.

“Hmm?” Aahil asked, turning to gaze at him from under the flowers.

“The maulvi sahib is asking you a very important question.”.

“Janab Aahil Raza Ibrahim, wald Raza Ibrahim, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”

He opened his lips, but hesitated before a sound could pass those lips. Sanam had made it so they had to get married. Did that mean that she had voluntarily chosen him?

If he said no now, he would lose her forever. He knew it. He’d already let her down by lying to her about his identity. Strike one. He hadn’t told her about his criminal past. Strike two. If he left her at the altar, it would be strike three. Would she even give him another chance? Honestly, would he deserve another chance?

If he said yes, then he could give them time to work this out. He would find out her true motivations. Maybe, just maybe, he could tell her about his past. He could save Ibrahim Corporation and the thousands of jobs that hung in the balance by meeting the terms of the will. He could . . . who was he kidding? He didn’t want to lose her. That was the only thing that mattered right now.

Aahil relaxed his body, raising his head, and spoke the words that would tie them together. “Qubool Hai.”

“Janab Aahil Raza Ibrahim, wald Raza Ibrahim, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”

“Qubool Hai.”

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

“Qubool Hai.”

Glancing down, he met her eyes, his eyes trying to tell her something she couldn’t understand. If she got it wrong, it would break her just a little more. She didn’t know how much more she could take. She looked away, and then back at him. “Why are we even talking about this?” she asked petulantly.

“It was you who spread the rumors,” Aahil stated, confirming that he knew.

Her eyes widened. Had he known this entire time? “When . . .,” she cleared her throat. “When did you find out what I had done?”

“Right before the nikah,” he responded.

“You knew,” she murmured. “You knew, and you still said yes.” Sanam began to smile, her heart filling with joy at the thought that he had known this dark secret about her . . . had known what she had done, and still accepted her into his life. He hadn’t blamed her. He hadn’t ascribed nefarious motives to her actions. He had knowingly accepted her. But seconds later, the smile disappeared. “You knew, and you still yes. That’s how intent you were on fulfilling the terms of the will.” She began to struggle once more, wanting to get away from him. This up and down was too much to bear.

Turning on the sofa, he place a knee on the cushions and braced his other foot on the floor. Pulling her in, so that she sat between his legs, her folded legs resting on his, he stilled her struggles by holding her hands in his. “Sanam, I never suspected that you would be the one who forced us into this marriage,” he began speaking fiercely, his hands moving up to land on her shoulders, gripping them carefully. “I had to find the person who had spread these rumors and took away your choices. You think I would have ever let it go, Sanam? When I finally learned the truth, I had seconds to make a decision. Imagine my surprise and shock after all this to find that it was you.” He hold loosened, his thumbs almost caressing the skin over her collar bones. “My joy that you had chosen me. That you wanted me so much that you would risk losing everything for me.”

She raised her arms, and knocked his hands off her shoulders. “Aahil,” she began, unable to meet his eyes, “How can I believe anything that you’re saying right now? I just found out about the will, and the fact that you hid all of this from me. All I can wonder is . . . did you really love your wealth that much?”

“Sanam!” Aahil said softly, “On the day of the nikah, I went against my better judgment and what my brain was telling me was the right thing to do. I went against everything that I have learned about myself and the world till now. And it wasn’t because I wanted that bastard’s money. Believe me, nothing . . . nothing would have convinced me to dance to his tune. You know enough about the psychology of an abused child to know that.”

Sanam raised her head abruptly, her eyes meeting his. This was the first time that he had ever openly referred to himself with that designation. Her heart melted a little at the desperation in his eyes.

“So, work it out. Understand that if I said yes that day, it was because I loved you that much,” Aahil whispered, bringing her hands up to his lips and kissing them lovingly. “And after I found out about the rumors, I knew that you wanted me, too. My only fear was that you would come to regret your decision. I also knew that if I stayed with you on our wedding night, I would end up making this marriage all too real. Before you had the chance to really think about it.”

“I didn’t just want you, Aahil, I loved you. I still love you,” Sanam whispered, her eyes focused on his downbent head.

“After I stopped running, I came back to you. Where else could I go? I saw how you made my house into a home,” Aahil continued, raising his head and leaning in to inhale her scent. “I realized one thing. You are my home, Sanam Aahil Raza Ibrahim.” He needed to tell her his emotions, deciding that everything else could wait until he got her to believe that his heart was true.

“But, how can I believe you truly love me, that you’re ready to make that jump, when you haven’t even touched me. Not voluntarily, anyways.”  She looked at him beseechingly, her heart in her throat.

His thumb passed over her wrist, feeling the quick beat of her pulse under his touch. He closed his eyes, reveling in her touch as she reached up with her other hand and cradled his cheek. “Do you remember that night?”

She tilted her head in silent question.

“The night we first met.”

She nodded her head. “I have never forgotten that night. You made quite an impression.”

“I was a little boy and you were just this tiny, little girl. We didn’t see each other, or just bits of each other. We talked for mere minutes, that was it, Sanam,” he stated, finally opening his eyes and meeting her open gaze. “But you were so affected. Me being in your life for minutes changed you on the most basic level. It set you on the path you are on today. How do you think that made me feel when I found out?”

She stared at him, listening and wondering. He was finally talking to her. He was finally opening up, but she wasn’t sure what he meant to say. Had that knowledge been too much pressure?

“When I met you again, I’d already taken on Rehan’s identity.” He lightly caressed her cheek, cupping it gently. “It was hard enough coming back to this place, with its horrible memories, and to come back as that abused boy . . . I couldn’t do it. Rehan took on that burden. And I was coward enough to let him do it.”

“You were never a coward,” she said, interrupting him.

He looked at her.

“Well, you’re not,” she muttered. “I will sit here, and I will listen to you. I am happy that you are finally sharing this with me, but I will not have you disparaging the man I love.”

He nodded, conceding that point to her. “And then I met you, and knew immediately you were that little girl. Because, regardless of how much I wonder at the impact I had on you, you had the same impact on me. I remembered you as the innocent little girl who had made me want to believe. I couldn’t tell that girl who I was. I liked the wall between my past and you. In your eyes, I was Rehan Imran Qureshi. The man you fell in love with wasn’t a man who had been abused. I wasn’t a victim. I wasn’t someone to be pitied.”

“Aahil, I never. . .,” she began to protest.

He placed a finger over her lips, silencing her.

“I’m sorry,” she murmured, once he removed his finger. “Please go on.”

“When I had to reveal the truth, it was because my history was hurting Rehan. I kept the truth a secret for as long as I did because of one reason. You. And when the truth came out about me being the Aahil Raza Ibrahim, everything changed. I became that victim again. That hasn’t changed, it can never change. But I’m also the perpetrator. I’m a criminal now, too. What a prize, huh?” He laughed bitterly. “And so I couldn’t trust what you said. I couldn’t trust what you did. I couldn’t trust anything, until everything you did . . . said . . . all piled together and broke through the wall I had built around myself. I’m just sorry it’s taken me so long to begin to talk about all of this.”

She heard that same disgust and self-loathing in his voice that she’d heard quite often before. There was anger, clearly directed at himself and his past. And she spoke up, her voice hoarse with suppressed emotion, “You are not a victim, Aahil Raza Ibrahim. You’re a survivor. There’s a difference. You suffered through something very horrible, but you survived. You flourished.” She gripped at his fingers, squeezing them in an effort to make him understand. “You went to school. You became something. You came back and saved this company. You . . . you did all of this. But because of that past, the past that made you so strong,” she said, thrusting her index finger into the air, “it has also caused you to distrust. But I don’t mind. I will wait. You will tell me the truth when you’re ready.” Taking his hand, Sanam softly kissed the center of his palm.

“I’m sorry for not telling you before everyone else. I’m sorry for hiding the truth for so long. I’m sorry for thinking I knew better about what you wanted.” Aahil pulled her closer, his lips coming to rest against hers.

She gasped softly, her lips opening at his touch.

He smiled against her mouth, tilting his head and kissing her lips once more. He shared her breath, his tongue tasting her, lightly dueling with hers. Pulling away, he began to nibble at her ear, groaning as her hands came up, her fingers raking through his hair.

There was an uncomfortable cough, breaking the sensual moment. He groaned again, his disappointment clear to Sanam.

She laughed softly, and pushed him away.

“I’m sorry, bhai,” Rehan said from the door. “I was worried about what Sanam bhabi saw at the office.”

“It’s alright, Rehan,” Sanam murmured, staring intently into Aahil’s eyes. “We’ve figured it out. We’re good.”

“We’re good,” Aahil agreed with a secret smile.

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“Goodnight, Rehan,” Aahil murmured before heading into his room. It was late night, and Sanam had already headed in to sleep, leaving the two brothers to talk.

Rehan had been incredibly embarrassed at intruding on the couple. He’d been ready to move out that night, wanting to give the newly-weds their privacy.

Sanam had been quick to talk him out of any such notions. She’d quickly prepared a meal for the three of them with Lateef’s help, and the trio had sat down to dinner. Casual conversation, good food, and the happiness on Aahil’s and Sanam’s faces had finally allowed Rehan to relax.

Wishing Rehan a quiet good night, Sanam had left the two brothers to speak. After telling Rehan the gist of his conversation with Sanam, Aahil had been able to alleviate some of his brother’s guilt over Sanam finding out about the will. And that, in return, had made Aahil feel much better. He should never have put Rehan in that position. He knew that the burden of keeping his secrets had worn on Rehan.

Shutting the door behind him, he leaned against the wood. The room was dark, Sanam apparently already asleep. He sighed heavily. He had to admit that a part of him was disappointed. Shrugging his shoulders, he made to move away from the doors and towards the bathroom. He grunted softly in surprise when a soft weight landed against him, pressing him to the door. His arms came up, automatically cradling her close, relishing how her soft curves fit against him. “Sanam?”

“Who else would it be?” she asked against his lips. She kissed him softly, tilting her head to the side and kissed him again. “Although, I did have to kick Lateef out of here when I came in.”

He laughed softly, his body shuddering slightly at that thought.

She pulled back and posed for him. “How do I look?”

He shuddered again, only this time it was due to her delectable appearance in the moonlight.  His eyes carefully moved over her body, clad in a sheer negligee that revealed almost everything to his eyes. “Mmph,” he muttered, unable to get any words out.

“Was that a compliment?” she asked cheekily, seeing the fire that had erupted in his eyes. He was breathing heavily, as was she, and she could feel the electricity rising between them.

Saying nothing, he moved away from the door and pulled her into his arms. Holding her close, he began to kiss her. Once. Twice. Thrice. He knew that he would never stop. Cupping her cheeks, he tilted her head to the side and slipped his tongue past the barrier of her lips. He tasted her, knowing that he would never get enough of her taste. His arms picked her up, silently urging her to wrap her legs around his waist. Supporting her body with his arms under her hips when she complied, he began to move forward.

Sanam’s arms wrapped around his neck, as she took a turn at devouring him. Her tongue slipped inside his mouth, tasting him and rubbing against his tongue. She pressed her lips against his, nibbling at them as he moved them deeper into the room.

He grunted softly when his knees found the bed, and giving her a silent warning, he dropped her on the bed, following her down soon after. She held him close, cradling him between her legs. Placing one hand over her shoulder, trying to keep most of his weight off of her body, he asked, “Are you sure?”

She paused for a moment in consideration, and then silently pushed at his shoulders until he rolled off of her and sat to the side. Getting up, she knelt before him, her legs tucked underneath her hips.

Aahil was disappointed. His heart was still beating rapidly inside of his chest, but he forced himself to take deep breaths, hoping that this would help him to relax. He understood her need for time. Turning, he mirrored her position, his eyes completely focused on her. He blinked rapidly when she reached out and grasped the hem of his T-shirt. “What?” he began, but zipped his lips when she shook her head at him.

Pulling the shirt over his head, she dropped it to the side. Her hands began to trace the muscles of his arms and shoulders. He inhaled sharply as her hands went down over his chest and over his abdomen, relishing the satiny smooth skin and the scent that was uniquely Aahil. Putting her hands behind his neck, she threaded her fingers together and brought his head down to hers, meeting his lips with hers.

She kissed him. Once. Twice. And many more times. She nipped sharply at his bottom lip, before pushing him back.

He stared at her, dazed, before his eyes locked in on her with a searing hunger. His fingers came out, ready to grasp and take.

She shook her head and quickly pushed those hands away.

Only this time, he knew she wasn’t saying no. Sitting back, his hands braced behind him, he gazed at her intently. His body clenched, when he saw her delicate fingers going to the hem of her negligee. He watched her bite her bottom lip, before she pulled the sheer cloth over her head and cast it aside. He swallowed with difficulty as his eyes moved over what she had revealed. Her skin gleamed in the moonlight. Pulling her over to straddle his lap, he began to run his hands over that tantalizing skin. “Sanam,” he breathed, almost drunk on the feel of her satin smooth skin. Leaning forward, he kissed her shoulder, licking it lightly.

She moaned softly at his touch.

Her arms linked around his neck as he began to move his lips across her collarbones and lower down her body. She arched her back as his lips traveled over every inch of her body. He slipped his fingers inside the straps of her underwear and pulled it off, throwing it to the side.

Sanam kissed his shoulder, biting him, when she felt his fingers delve between her legs. “Aahil,” she moaned, her body clenching as she felt him at the entrance of her body before he slipped a finger inside. His fingers rubbed against the knot of nerves at the top of that entrance until she could no longer find the air she needed to breathe. He wound her tighter and tighter until she exploded in his arms, seeing stars in that moonlit room.

Suckling softly at the tip of one breast, eliciting another moan from her lips, he laid her on the bed. She curled her arms under her head, arching her back to open her entire body to him. Her eyes were glued to him as he got up off the bed.

Aahil smiled at her as he swiftly pulled off his sweats and reaching to the side table, pulled out protection to cover himself.

Sanam licked her swollen lips, her eyes entranced by his body’s movements and the root of him that stood proud in the moonlit room. When he got on the bed, mere inches from her, she reached out, wanting to feel.

Grasping her hand, he shook his head. “Not right now,” he implored, lying down beside her.

“Why not?” she asked with a pout.

“Because if you touched me now,” he said softly against her lips, “It would all be over.”

She opened herself to him, reaching up to pull his head down for another kiss.

And was it moments . . . hours later that he stopped touching her? Hours before he stopped pushing her to the peak and catching her when she fell. Hours before he positioned himself at her opening and thrust inside. She didn’t know. She didn’t care. In that moment, it was just Aahil and her. His body a complete part of hers, her body receiving him at the core of her being. His hands came up to grasp hers, holding them above her head, threading his fingers through hers. She felt him reach his orgasm, and this time, it was her turn to catch him when he fell.

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

Sanam lay in bed, her arm draped over Aahil’s waist, her breasts resting against his side. His hand was moving over her back, his caresses making her slumbering body awaken once more. She sighed deeply, burying her face in his neck.

She smiled, remembering the first moment they had met as adults. She had landed in his arms, burying her face in his neck. And they were back where they had started, in each other’s arms. She laced her fingers with his, their fingers touching once more. Bringing his hand up to her lips, she kissed it softly.

“I love you,” he murmured, his body almost shuddering at the relief those words brought to his body. He didn’t have to hide it any longer. “I love you.” He loved her, and he would say it over and over again. “I love you.” She was loved, and she would know it. Reaching down, he kissed her on the forehead, hugging her close to his side.

“I had a dream,” she murmured softly, kissing the base of his throat, feeling his pulse jump at her touch. She smiled sleepily, snuggling back into his arms. “It felt like a dream. Before all of this, I felt that it would never come true.” She kissed his shoulder. “But now, I know it’ll be our future.”

Turning to face her, he brushed the hair away from her face. “I’ll make every one of your dreams come true.”

“It’s simple,” Sanam murmured. “I dream about us. As a family. You and me. And our children. Lots and lots of children. And we’ll make their lives beautiful. And I’ll be back at work. You’ll be keeping  most of Bhopal employed. I want . . . I want to replace your nightmares with that dream.”

Aahil lay there, his body frozen by her revelation.

She noticed the difference immediately. “What’s wrong? You don’t want that?”

He sat up in bed, his heart stuttering at the thoughts that she had placed in his head. The dreams that could never be. His first instinct was to get up and leave. To get far away and regroup. Even as his body tensed to move, he felt her hold his naked arm. Her vulnerable body pressing close to his. He looked down into her eyes, and  stared at the hope in her eyes. “My first instinct even now,” he said with difficulty, “is to get away from the hard issues. It’s to run away from you and from any emotion that weakens me.”

She stared at him, her arms stealing around his waist. “What about my dream is hard? What is so difficult, Aahil?”

He moved back, slipping out of her arms. Getting out of the bed, he slipped on a pair of sweats before turning back to look at her.

She sat there silently, the bedsheet held to her chest, confusion writ across her face.

Coming back to the bed, he slowly brushed the hair away from her face. “I won’t run away from you ever again,” he promised. “Not from you. Just now . . . I can’t get into too much detail, but believe me when I say that we can’t have kids. We can’t have a family.”

She gripped at his wrist, her nails digging into him.

“For some things the past doesn’t matter anymore. But here  . . . to have children . . . I swear, Sanam, it matters. My past matters.”

She opened her mouth, ready to protest.

“It matters to me,” Aahil said, riding over any objections that she might raise. “And it should  matter to you.” He took a deep breath, hoping to expel some of the tension that was building up inside of him. “I hurt you again today. Look at me. At us. I hurt you without even trying because of my damned past. For the longest time, the past was holding me back. And now, now it’s this impossible future that’s affecting us. That only goes to show,” Aahil stopped, swallowing with difficulty.

“Show what?” she demanded.

“I haven’t even,” he stopped, his voice choking on the words, “Begun to tell you the depths to which the Ibrahims can sink. There’s madness there. That’s the only thing that can explain why we do what we do.” His voice trailed off, sounding lost.

She stared up at him, wanting to comfort him, but she stopped herself, knowing that he still had to share things about his past. She was tired of going in circles. Every time she thought they had reached a place of hope, there would be another setback. Another thing to make her question herself, and him to question himself. When would this cycle end?

“The Ibrahims are vindictive people,” Aahil continued. “We hurt everything we touch. My father. My grandmother. Even the littlest things that come so naturally to you, we can’t even comprehend as a part of everyday life. My sisters have trouble connecting. And I . . . I can’t help but hurt you. How can I pass that legacy on to any innocent child? What if I do to them what my family did to me? I can’t . . . I can’t even think of ever having a family that includes children. You have to understand.” His tone was desperate, his fear of her reaction clear in his eyes. He was ready for her rejection, and her heart hurt at the pain she saw in his eyes.

“I don’t understand, Aahil,” Sanam murmured disjointedly. Her hands cradled his face. “This is you not letting go of your past once more. You are not your family. You are not your father!”

“I’m not running away,” he murmured, “but I do need time to think. Please give me that time.”

She nodded, her eyes focused on him as he retreated from her after one final kiss, one final shared breath. Reaching up, she clutched at her hair in frustration, wondering what more could be left now. “What was it? What are you worried about?” Closing her eyes, she took a deep breath. She relaxed her body, forcing the stress out of her body. Maybe . . . it was time to stop waiting. Why not make this a little easier for Aahil? She would do what she did best; she would do her research and find out what else Aahil was hiding. Once she found out, she would prove to Aahil that her love would never be affected by his past.

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

“The meeting ran late,” Aahil relayed over the phone, disappointment apparent in his tone. “I’ve begun the drive home, but it’ll take a while. We met at Kohinoor.”

“Don’t worry about it, Aahil. I’m at Ammi and Abu’s right now. We just had dinner. I’ll see you in an hour,” Sanam murmured into the phone.

“Love you, Sanam,” he murmured on the other end.

Sanam closed her eyes, joy welling up inside of her once more. Despite the secrets he was still keeping from her, she loved how open he was being with his emotions. She didn’t doubt that he loved her. “Love you, too, Aahil.” Hanging up, she turned back to her family with a smile.

Ammi and Abu were arguing over something at the dining room table. Seher was sitting with Badi Ammi, the two watching their nightly round of dramas.

Sanam came and sat down beside them. Her eyes were on the characters onscreen, but her mind was focused on the investigation she had undetaken a week ago. Since Aahil had been a juvenile when he was incarcerated, his records had been sealed. It had taken longer than she had thought to get any information regarding his conviction. Now, she was just waiting for a call back from the private investigator she had hired to look into her husband’s background.

Initially, she had felt guilty for not waiting. For not giving Aahil the chance to tell her himself, but this secret was only hurting him. Nightly, she would see the struggle on his face as he began to tell her. And, nightly, she saw the sick defeat as he turned away, unable to relay whatever else was left. She wouldn’t let him turn his back on her, not for much longer. She wanted this to end, and it would. Soon. She was expecting a call tonight, and she would finally know.

“Seher, we want to talk to you,” Zoya stated, coming over and sitting across from the twins and their grandmother.

“Can’t this wait, mom?” Seher asked, her eyes glued to the screen. “The male lead just confessed his love to the wrong girl and the heroine overheard!”

“We want to talk about setting a date for you and Rehan,” Zoya responded, a spark lighting up in her eyes.

Asad came and sat beside his wife, his expression calm.

“Date for what?” Seher asked blankly, looking at her parents.

“Your wedding, of course!” Zoya cried out.

Sanam looked at her father in surprise. “When did this happen? Abu, have you accepted Rehan?”

Her father shrugged, his eyes trained on Seher’s face. “When have I ever been the master of this home? Your grandmother decreed, your mother agreed, and I guess I have to just fall in line.”

Seher’s expression grew dark at her father’s words. “Rehan respects you two,” she burst out. “He doesn’t want me to be without a family since he knows how hard that is in this world. Your grudging acceptance is not enough, dad. You have to accept him wholeheartedly. He’s a wonderful and caring man! He has a great job. He’s loyal to those he loves. He loves me! What more could you want?” She got up and began to pace around the living room area, her anger apparent in her body’s movements.

Zoya nudged at Asad, silently ordering him to make this right.

He nodded and got up with a sigh. Walking over to his irate daughter, he stood in her path, forcing her to stop or risk running him over. He gazed down into her defiant face, wondering silently when his daughters had grown up. He’d already lost one to marriage, and now he was going to lose the other one, too. He wondered if this was why he had taken so long to accept Rehan? “I like Rehan,” Asad finally said, his hands coming up to grasp Seher by the shoulders. “He has given us no reason to doubt him or his love for you.” He squeezed her shoulders gently. “He is a good man. But I’m your father, and you know how hard it is for me to accept that I was wrong. But I was wrong. I was afraid, but that fear was baseless. He has only ever put your happiness first, and I know that he will do that for the rest of his life.”

“Dad,” Seher said, tears misting her vision. Reaching up, she wrapped her arms around her father’s neck in an exuberant hug. “I knew that you would see how great he was.”

“He knows how it is to be alone,” Zoya stated, coming over to wrap her arms around her husband and her daughter “Let’s show him how it is to be part of a family. I can’t wait to plan this wedding. We’re going to have a big function! I’m going to do all the rituals we couldn’t do for Sanam’s wedding. We’re going to invite everyone we couldn’t invite. It’s going to be so much fun!”

“Just one small problem before you all get too ahead of yourselves,” Sanam said from the side, her tongue firmly in cheek.

The trio turned to glance at her.

“Rehan hasn’t even proposed yet. Ammi, I’d be careful about this big wedding you plan on having. What if Rehan finds out and ends up running away?” Sanam began to giggle when Seher lunged at her, ruffling her hair in reprisal.

Sanam pushed Seher off of her, and looked down at her ringing cellphone. Seeing the identity of the caller, she realized that it had been the call she had been waiting for. Picking up, she moved up the steps to stand by the pool for some quiet. “Yes. You have everything? You sent it to my email?” Sanam nodded, her heart beginning to beat rapidly. “Thank you. Your final payment will be deposited into your account.”

Calling out a quick goodbye to her surprised family, Sanam raced home. She sat down at her computer, taking a deep breath before she signed in and clicked on the email. She stared at the words on the screen, trying to understand. Leaning back in her chair, she breathed a wondering sigh. That certainly wasn’t what she had expected.

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

Night had fallen. Sanam still sat at her computer desk, her eyes now turned towards the door. She saw him come in, tugging at his tie. One hand put down his briefcase, while the other pressed something on his phone before putting it to his ear. She saw him jerk in surprise when her ringtone went off in the room, and saw him turn towards the corner of the room where she was sitting.

“You’re here. Sitting in the . . . dark,” Aahil called out, striding over to their home office and turning on the lights. “I thought you’d still be over there celebrating.”

“Celebrating?” Sanam asked, staring at his back as he opened the window, letting in some fresh air. His hair was in disarray, his clothes slightly rumpled. The lines on his face were evidence of his fatigue. It had been a long day.

“Rehan called me,” Aahil explained, pulling his tie over his head and dropping it on the desk. Turning, he flashed a happy grin at her. Coming to sit down beside her, he grabbed hold of her hand. “He was so happy. It seems Seher called him over. They had the champagne ready to toast the two of them as the happy couple. He wasn’t quite sure,” Aahil said, placing a kiss on her hand, “but he thinks that he’s engaged now. He’s not sure how it happened.”

“Maybe Seher proposed to him,” Sanam suggested, running a loving hand over Aahil’s head.

He glanced up with a twinkle in his eyes. He shook his head. “I think he said that Zoya auntie proposed to him and Seher. When they took too long to answer, she accepted for the two of them, as well.”

Sanam burst out laughing, a touch of hysteria in her laughter.

His smile disappeared as he saw her laughter turn into tears.  “What’s wrong, Sanam?” he demanded, standing up and pulling her out of her chair. Carefully wiping away the tears that were falling from her eyes, he gazed into those warm depths. “Tell me.”

“We need to talk,” Sanam uttered, caressing his cheek.

“About what?” he asked, a sinking feeling in his stomach. Something had happened while he was gone. What now?

“I couldn’t wait any longer,” she explained, going on the offensive. She sank into his arms, wrapping her own around him.

“Wait for what?” he asked, impatience growing. He needed to know and she was taking too long. Her silence made him afraid.

“About your past,” she explained.

He stiffened.

She gripped him even more tightly. He wouldn’t escape her now. “All this time,” she began, “I bought the picture you were painting for us. When that first shock came, when I learned that you were Aahil Raza Ibrahim, everything else . . . just fell by the wayside. I stopped thinking and accepted everything you said at face value.” Pulling back, she cupped his face in her hands and gazed intently into his eyes. “We all found out that you were a convicted criminal. And if one thing was true, then the other thing must be true.”

Aahil stared down at her, wondering at the look he saw there. She had caught him in another lie, something else that he had kept from her. Then why was she so calm now?

“I thou-ght,” her voice breaking on the words, “That you had taken your father’s life. And I understood it. It was self-defense. You had to protect yourself and you had to protect your sisters. Whatever your reasons were, I understood even without you telling me.”

He opened his mouth, but he still wasn’t sure of what to say.

“Shut it,” she murmured, placing a finger against his lips. Moving away, her hands dropping away from his face, she turned to stare at the sleeping screen of her computer, “The truth is always more complicated than you think it, isn’t it? Imagine my surprise when I found out that attorneys in California, where you were licensed, have to go through a moral character application process. They cleared you. There was nothing in your background that they considered immoral. Nothing.”

She took a deep breath and turned back to look at him.

“You didn’t kill your dad, Aahil.” She smiled tremulously at him, before her shoulders slumped in defeat. “You aren’t a convicted criminal. So, what are you still hiding from me?”

 ~*~*~*~*~*~*~
Chapter 17 – Sahara
~*~*~*~*~*~*~

She’d sat there for hours, in their home, in front of the computer screen, compulsively reading the email on auto-repeat.

. . . In California, where Mr. Raza Ibrahim was licensed, attorneys have to pass a moral character application. After looking into what he had claimed on the application, I went to look at his criminal record. Because he was a juvenile at the time of the incident, his records had been sealed. While that can make things difficult, it does not make them impossible. But I found it impossible to find your husband’s file. Deeper digging lead to the discovery that there was no file. His record had been cleared, the file destroyed. Mr. Raza Ibrahim is not a convict. He was found to be innocent of all charges, and his record cleared.

“Has anyone . . . have you ever thought to ask why he did any of this? Doesn’t he deserve a chance to tell his side of things?”

She remembered Rehan’s question that evening so long ago. She’d thought he had been talking about Aahil’s revelation of his criminal past that day. Her breath stuck in her throat, wondering now as she hadn’t thought to wonder before. She wryly acknowledged that Aahil shook the foundation of her world whenever he came into her life.

The small smile that had begun to play across her lips fell away. When he had revealed the truth at the party, he had simultaneously dared the world to question him about it. And no one had dared.

Not even her.

She clenched her fingers into fists, wondering what she should feel right now. Should she be angry with herself? She’d accepted that he had killed his father without question. She’d been heartsick and struggling with that reality, but she had accepted it. She had accepted that he had spent the time in jail for it. She had accepted everything at face value. She should have known better. She’d worked with domestic violence survivors. And yet, she’d never questioned any part of what he had threw out that day.

Her shoulders slumped, as her mind continued to struggle with this new revelation. Could she be . . . angry at him? He was hiding something else, telling her just enough to cause worry, and not enough to give her peace. They were married, and she still had to beg for answers.

But more than anger at him, she felt an aching hurt. Why didn’t he trust her enough to share? She felt anxiety. Could Aahil ever let go of his past? She felt elation. The death of another human being, no matter how evil that man had been, had not stained her husband’s soul. He hadn’t committed an act that could have led to an endless stream of nightmares . . . sleepless nights . . . another burden. Another reason for soul-crushing guilt.

Sitting back in her chair, she ran an agitated hand through her hair. He had been guilty of nothing, but he had still paid. By suffering abuse over the formative years of his life. By being locked up in jail for the rest of his youth. By being isolated . . . forced to be alone . . . to keep secrets from everyone he came into contact with. He had learned to be afraid . . . to be wary. He had done nothing, and been punished for so much.

Tears welled up in her eyes . . . beginning to fall in earnest as she remembered the pained expression on his face when she talked about their future family. Her heart hurt for him, but it also hurt for her. She wiped those tears away, determination growing inside of her to make him tell her the truth today.

Hearing light footsteps coming into the room, she turned to look at hallway. She saw him turning on the lights, standing there alone. She saw him notice her presence, a smile growing across his weary face. He walked towards her, turning on the lights in the office space, his eyes tracing her features almost compulsively even as he moved around the room.

She wondered if he knew how he looked at her. She began to speak, tamping down the anxiety that was welling up inside of her. She saw his confusion . . . his wariness . . . the anxiety . . .

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

“So, what are you still hiding from me?” she finished softly.

He stepped back, her words a slap in the face. He hadn’t expected her to make this demand tonight. He struggled to catch his breath. Stepping back further, he almost stumbled as he backed down the steps and into the living room.

She followed him, reaching out to grab his arms when he almost fell over the back of the sofa. “Tell me, Aahil,” she begged.

She saw the instinctive rejection in his eyes.

Her nails bit into his skin, clutching at him. She had the irrational fear that if she let him go now, he would never turn back to her. That he would never be truly hers. “Tell me!” that final entreaty ended on an almost shout, the surge of emotions washing away all of the hope that had built up inside of her. . . . and she saw his acceptance. She saw him take a deep breath, and something unclenched deep inside of her, relief coursing through her body.

“The only thing that I’m hiding. . .” he began, his voice shaking slightly.

“Only?” she mouthed near silently.

“Is that I didn’t kill my father,” Aahil finally uttered, his body shuddering as he said those words. He jerked away from her soft hold, too afraid to remain close. “I didn’t kill him.”

Aahil stepped into the visiting area, his steps hesitant. When the guards had told him that someone had come to see him, he’d been surprised. He was four years into his sentence, the days running into each other with an increasing degree of monotony. He wouldn’t have even known what day it was if it wasn’t for the marks he had made on the walls. Rationally, he knew it could have been much worse. He could have been tried as an adult. He could have been put into a maximum security prison, forced to mix with the adult population, vulnerable to their perversions. But he had been placed in juvenile hall instead. He tried to be grateful for the little things in life, but it ate at him that he was in here when he had done nothing.

Sitting down across from the only other person in the room, his eyes widened in surprised recognition. It was Marta, their old housekeeper. He hadn’t seen the woman for years.

She gestured for him to pick up the phone on his side of the glass so that they could speak.

Picking up the receiver, he began to speak. “What,” he stopped, coughing to clear his throat and beginning again, “What are you doing here?” He hadn’t spoken for the past couple of days, his vocal cords rusty from the lack of use. His eyes took in her appearance, once the first flash of surprise had passed. She looked thinner, almost fragile. He knew this woman had attempted in her own small way to be kind, his mind flashing back to the times she had come in to tend to his injuries. It was another thing that more often than not he had rejected her overtures.

“Mr. Ibrahim,” she began, her voice shaking lightly, “I’m here to apologize to you.”

He looked at her silently, confused.

“I was recently diagnosed with a fatal illness; the doctors give me 6 months to live,” she admitted, seemingly going off on a tangent.

“I’m sorry to hear that,” Aahil replied, increasingly confused. He felt sorry for her diagnosis, but he wondered why the woman felt the need to share this with him.

She nodded perfunctorily at his condolences. “The reason that matters is that the diagnosis has brought to mind my mortality and the fact that I am going to meet my maker far sooner than I planned.” She clenched her fingers around the receiver, her skin turning white from the force of her hold. “And that diagnosis has also reminded me of the people that I may have done wrong.” She paused, as if unable to go any further.

“What do you need to say?” Aahil prompted, glancing at the clock on the wall. “We only have five minutes left, Marta,” he said when she remained silent. “Whatever you’re here to say, just say it.”

“It’s about what happened four years ago,” Marta stated.

Aahil nodded. “You mean when my father died.”

“I don’t know if you know this, but I was the one who found the body. And the bottle of pills with his name on it,” she admitted in a rush.

Aahil leaned forward, his heartbeat picking up. No one had ever told him what had happened that night. No one had mentioned the circumstances of finding that man . . . what had been near him . . . how he had really died.

“I made the call to your grandmother. I told her about the bottle,” Marta admitted, seeing the confusion on his face.

“What do you mean?” Aahil demanded.

“To my surprise your grandmother offered me a lot of money to dispose of that bottle,” Marta continued with some difficulty.

Aahil sat back in the chair. “What do you mean?” he repeated, trying to understand where this was going.  

“I was desperate,” Marta began. “I was going to lose my job. I had to support my children,” she burst out on a short gasp. “I knew it wasn’t right. But I didn’t want to think about it. It’s only been over the past few months, as I have been dealing with my illness that I’ve allowed myself to think. That bottle was proof those pills were prescribed to him.”  

“And you destroyed it? You destroyed any evidence that might have proven my innocence,” Aahil concluded hoarsely, his eyes flashing fire. “And you’re telling me my grandmother was the one who told you to do it?”

“Visiting time is over, Ibrahim,” a guard barked from the corner. “Get back to your cell!”

Aahil nodded and got up, turning towards the door. His movements were stiff, indicative of the fury churning inside of him.

“I didn’t destroy the bottle!” she called out behind him. “I didn’t destroy the prescriptions he got from the doctor.”

He stopped, his back to her.

“I’ve left them in a package for you with the prison guards here. Do with it what you will.”

Sanam fell onto the sofa, her knees giving out. She had known that he was still hiding something, but to hear him actually say the words was still like a slap in the face. She buried her face in her hands for a moment, trying to fill her lungs with air.

“So, what reason would I have to hide the truth?” he asked softly, staring at her downbent head. “The only reason could be . . .,” he stopped, swallowing with difficulty, “The actual reason that I ended up in jail despite the fact that I was innocent.”

“What happened, Aahil?” she asked, gazing up at him, reaching out to grab his hand. “What reason?” Getting up, she rested her hand against his cheek, gently caressing him as she spoke.

Pulling her hand from his face, he kissed the center of her palm, closing his eyes for a moment. Looking around the empty living room, he silently pulled her down the hallway and into their bedroom.

“What?” she began, even as she allowed him to guide her to the sofa.

Moving away from her, he sat on the floor at the foot of the bed, his elbows resting on his knees. He stared at the floor, before making himself look into her eyes. “It all began the day I stood up to my father . . .”

“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.”

“I told him that if he laid another hand on me or my sisters, I would kill him. I didn’t though,” he admitted, some emotion flashing across his eyes. “I hadn’t even thought that far ahead, but then he was found dead. I didn’t kill him, but in the darkness of the night, when I lay in that prison cell, on that tiny bed, I damn well wished that I had. I wished that I had killed him. That I was the one who had stopped the abuse. If I was being punished anyways. . .” He looked away as he made that admission, unable to meet her eyes.

She realized that the emotion had been shame. He was ashamed of his inaction. Sanam sprang up, moving to his side without hesitation. She sat down beside him on the floor, wrapping her arms around his shoulders. His body had curled in on itself, as if he strived to hide himself from her eyes. Slowly, so very slowly, she turned his face back to hers. She cupped his cheeks, forcing him to meet her gaze. “You have nothing to be ashamed of, Aahil Raza Ibrahim. It was a matter of survival. Yours. And your sisters. I would never judge you for surviving. I never judged you.” She hugged him fiercely, yearning to make all of his pain go away. But she knew that she had no control over that. It was only him that could let his past and his pain go.

“When Marta came to the prison, it spurred me to investigate. I started looking into how I had ended up there. Why, despite all my claims to the contrary, no one had questioned me any further or told me about what had happened that night. I talked to the attorney that had represented me in court.”

“That woman just came to me with this evidence, and you’re telling me you didn’t even bother interviewing the staff that was in the home at the time of his death?! When any one of them could have been the murderer?” Aahil asked in an incredulous tone.

“Your grandmother didn’t want us to raise any defenses, Aahil,” the other man said, sitting back in his chair. “We were told not to investigate.”

“But I was your client!” he protested vehemently. “You owed me the duty as your client. Not my grandmother, even if she was paying your bills.”

“She said you were guilty,” the attorney responded, tugging at his tie in discomfort. “She said she had proof. I saw the proof,” he said, when he saw Aahil open his mouth. “I talked to your doctors, who told me about your history of mental breakdowns and having hallucinations. She said delving any deeper would only hurt you. That you had already suffered enough. I thought I was doing the right thing. I thought I was protecting you. You were my client, and I thought to get you the best deal.”

He saw the regret in the other man’s eyes for the part he had played. Aahil fell back in his chair, despair growing inside of him. As hard as it was to understand, his own grandmother had put him in here.

“You were heard having an argument with your father the night before he died,” the attorney began, doggedly explaining his reasons. “You threatened him. And he suddenly died of an overdose, but there was no pill bottle. No prescription that could link the drugs found during the autopsy to him. You were a victim of abuse. That truth did come out. It only made sense that you would have lashed out and protected yourself. In fact, your abuse was a mitigating factor,” the attorney stated. “You were a minor. We pushed to have you tried as a minor, and no one pushed back. You got the best deal; you’re going to get out next year.”

“But I hadn’t done anything,” Aahil said bleakly. “I was innocent.”

“I didn’t know that,” the other man responded. He paused before speaking once more. “If I had gotten you into court, I could’ve played on the jury’s sympathies and maybe gotten you off on a much lesser charge. Your grandmother didn’t want that. She said that if you were put on the stand, then the truth would come out. The jury would hit back harder because you were, in their eyes, a spoiled rich kid trying to get away with murder.”

“You listened to a businesswoman about legal strategy,” Aahil retorted. “And you didn’t see anything wrong with that?”

“My grandmother manipulated things, and they ended up exactly the way she wanted them to be. I’d figured out that much, but I still didn’t know why she had done it,” Aahil related, his cold hands gripping Sanam’s. He leaned his head against her shoulder, closing his eyes. Years had gone by, but the shock of her betrayal still stung today.

“When I left that meeting, I began calling her. Each week, we would get a total of five calls, and I used up every one of those for two months, trying to reach her, but she refused all of my calls,” he began anew after a small pause. His voice cracked, and he stopped talking.

Sanam’s heart clenched at the pain she could hear in his voice, but she said nothing.

“That was when I realized that I hadn’t spoken to my own grandmother in two years. I felt so stupid, but time loses all meaning when you’re in prison.”

“What kind of woman doesn’t contact her own grandson?” Sanam asked, her hand smoothing through his hair. Leaning forward, she planted a kiss against his forehead, her heart aching for the little boy that had been betrayed and abandoned by everyone that he loved. “No woman who loves would ever do that to one of her own,” she said softly. “I would never have done that to you, Aahil,” she murmured, her voice breaking on the words. “I would never have abandoned you.”

“I started doing my own research,” Aahil continued, clearing his throat harshly. “About what my rights were. Whether I could appeal due to the new evidence. My old attorney helped me to file the appeal on a pro bono basis, since he felt guilt for the role he had played in my imprisonment. The case made its way through the courts. And you know the ironic thing?” Aahil asked with a small smile.

She shook her head.

“I got out a few months early for good behavior. I got out before they declared me innocent, clearing me of any wrongdoing in my own father’s death. It was laughably easy,” he uttered in a sardonic tone. “The prosecutors had built their case on purely circumstantial evidence. The new evidence showed the bottle in his name. The prescription for the pills was in his name. He’d been given some serious drugs. Ultimately, the court found that he just mixed pills with alcohol one too many times, and didn’t wake up the next day.” He shook his head.

“How can you sound so blasé?” Sanam demanded, leaning over to gaze at his face. Her eyes traced his relaxed features, wondering why he wasn’t angrier. “You were punished for something you didn’t do. You paid when there was no reason to pay.”

“I’ve been punished in one way or another since birth,” he replied, his tone accepting of his past. He sat up and gazed into her eyes, his hands reaching out to hold her by the shoulders. “What that man did no longer matters. To live like that, and to also die like that? It’s sad, but it’s not something I need to stress about. And do you know why?”

She shook her head silently.

His hands gently cupped her cheeks. “Because I’m finally telling you the truth. I’m finally letting that burden go by sharing it with my wife. You are the reason that none of it matters any longer, Sanam Ahmed Khan.”

“So why did your grandmother do it?” she burst out. “You can be accepting of all of it, but why did that crazy witch do this to her own grandson?”

“It took me a long time to find the answers,” he admitted, his thumbs tracing her cheekbones before he forced himself to let go. Leaning back against the bed, he rested his head on the bed, his eyes gazing unseeing up at the ceiling.

Sanam tensed up, knowing that he was avoiding her gaze again. For the next few minutes there was silence in the room, the only sound the whirring of the air conditioner pushing cool air into the room. She remained quiet, giving him the time he needed to find the right words.

“When I was wrongfully convicted,” he continued, “I blamed myself in some ways. I knew that I hadn’t killed him, but I was still being punished. I felt ashamed that I hadn’t found a way out of this. I was afraid that I was now trapped with actual criminals. And I was angry because I was afraid. But every day, I held on to the truth that my grandmother believed in me even when no one else did. Even if the justice system had let me down, my grandmother believed in me. But it was becoming more and more apparent that she didn’t. She thought I was guilty of something, and that made me actually feel that I was guilty of everything,” he uttered on a deep sigh. “What it was, I didn’t know.”

“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 juvenile hall. Just behave,” she urged tearfully. “Do your time and come out.”

“That woman sat there after I was sentenced and lied to me. When I got out, I had almost nothing. There was an old account that had been created in my name for my allowance. There was a small amount of money in there, earning interest for the past 4+ years. I didn’t worry about how I would survive. I didn’t worry about where I would sleep or how I would eat. I thought only of finding out her reasons. When I learned that she was on the east coast for business reasons, I used those funds to go and confront her. When I got to her hotel, I threatened my way into her room. That was one time my “criminal” past came in handy.”

“Just tell me why you did it!” he demanded, standing over her. The two were alone in the room, and the woman was sitting down, gazing up at him. He noted her eyes flitting nervously to the left and then to the right. There would be no help, especially since she had barked at her employees to leave them alone. No one would dare flout her orders. “What did I ever do,” he practically spat out the words, “that made me deserving of five years in prison? I put up with the hell that was being his son for all of my life, and you punished me for what?!”

“Son,” she uttered bitterly. “You’re not his son!”

The words were stark, a blow to him in a way that he had never expected. Aahil fell back, dropping into a chair as his knees gave out from beneath him.

“Your mother . . . that woman,” she bit out the words, as if she had stopped herself from saying something much worse, “was already pregnant when she married my son. No one knew except the two of them, but I found out. I’m sure that he planned to have another son with her and denounce you. How could he not? How could he bear the thought of having someone not of his blood become the next Nawab of Bhopal?” The disgust was evident on her face. “But years passed, and she didn’t get pregnant. When she got pregnant, he was so happy. I was happy. But then she died giving birth to those cursed girls. And he . . . he loved that hussy so much that he became immersed in grief, drinking his life away when he could’ve been thinking about our family. You’re the reason he died,” she yelled at him, her hands clenched into fists on her lap.  

“She didn’t believe that I was his blood,” Aahil explained to Sanam.

Her eyes widened.

“I didn’t kill him!” Aahil shot back. “I didn’t force him to start drinking! I didn’t force him to abuse me on an almost daily basis!” He slammed a hand against his chest.

Her eyes flickered at that, evidence of some sort of humanity in her.

“I did not kill him!” he repeated through gritted teeth.

“You might as well have,” the old woman shot back bitterly. “The fact that you exist is reason enough. You caused him to drink. My son virtually committed suicide because of you!” She raised her fists, as if wanting to strike at him, but she stopped herself. She struck at him with her words instead. “I heard about how you embarrassed him in front of his staff. You dared to threaten him? You? And then you wonder why he killed himself? You needed to be punished, and I made sure you were!”

“He didn’t kill himself!” Aahil shouted, jumping up to glare down at her. Incredulity was plainly writ across his face. “He was a drunkard. Your son was a drunk. And started mixing that with pills. He overdosed after doing it one too many times.”

“He was not an addict! He was smarter than that,” she protested, her features twisting in rejection at his words. “You can tell yourself whatever you want. But he killed himself because the thought of you being his heir ate away at him.”

Aahil snorted. “He was too selfish to kill himself and make anything easier on any of us. I did the research. He was sick. He was dying. He took pills to block the pain. And one day he took too many. He would not have voluntarily done anything to make us happy. And believe me, when he died, I was damn happy.”

“How dare you?” she began.

He interrupted her. “What exactly did you know about our household? You apparently didn’t know about the abuse. So, how could you know that your son was sick? He barely even talked to you.”

“I knew nothing about the abuse, if it ever existed,” she retorted. “And what did he do wrong? You needed discipline. He disciplined you.”

Sanam gasped softly, her rounded eyes looking at him. “She actually said those words?”

Aahil nodded silently.

“But you claim to know your son’s alcohol and narcotics habits?” Aahil asked sardonically. “Get real, Badi Ammi.” He ignored her when she protested at that. “You blinded yourself to the reality of what happened in that home. You blinded yourself to who your son really was.” He moved away, wanting to put some distance between himself and that noxious woman. “You had me jailed because of your own willful delusions. You had me punished for merely existing, when you should have blamed your son for his own weaknesses. He was the one who brought me into this world. He was the one who decided that I should be punished for the smallest infractions or nothing at all. And nothing you tell yourself could ever justify his treatment of me. And no rationale you make could ever justify your treatment of me,” he finished softly.

“You weren’t his son,” she repeated stubbornly. “You’re not my blood. You think I would have done that to my own grandson? If you had been my grandson, there would have been no problems. My son would never have become what he did.” She shook her head vehemently, rejecting his words with the entirety of her being.

Aahil sighed in frustration. “But that’s exactly what you did, Badi Ammi.” He took a deep breath. “One time your dear departed son went too far with his . . . disciplining. He had to take me to the hospital. I had lost so much blood that I needed a transfusion. You know that your son has a rare blood type.”

She froze, a horrified grimace appearing on her face.

“I have that same rare blood type. We can have it tested if you don’t believe me.”

She shook her head, one sharp refusal.

“He never doubted, not for a moment, that I was his son. He immediately offered his blood. Of course the hospital staff tested him to be sure, but I got a blood transfusion from him.” He gazed at her expectantly, but she remained stubbornly silent. “I am a Raza Ibrahim. The blood of the Nawab of Bhopal runs through my veins. I wish it didn’t. I truly wish that I hadn’t been his son. At least then . . .,” he swallowed with difficulty, his voice cracking for a moment. He stopped and cleared his throat, striving to find his equilibrium. He would not cry in front of this woman. “I would have had a reason for his hatred. At least then, I could comfort myself with the fact that he wasn’t my father. That his blood didn’t run through my veins. That if I had children, I would never do to them what he did to me. But I was his son. Just as I am your grandson.”

She continued her silence, but the color had leached from her face.

“You decided what my punishment would me and had me locked up for something I never did,” he noted bleakly. “And I’ll decide now on what you deserve. You’re going to spend the rest of your life with the knowledge that Bhopal won’t get another Nawab. I’m going to be the last. Your legacy will be at an end. Make damn sure you make arrangements for your company before you die. If it comes into my hands, I’m going to do my utmost best to destroy every trace of it. That’s the least I can do with the legacy you and your beloved son have given me.”

She opened her mouth to protest.

“If you . . . do anything to force me to your will, remember I can open my mouth at anytime and destroy your precious son’s reputation. No matter where he ended up, he always made sure to keep up the façade for the most part. If you want that reputation to remain untouched, leave me alone. Or I will tell the world about the abusive Nawab, a man who was so addicted to drugs and alcohol that he died of an overdose. I also won’t remain silent about the fact that the brilliant CEO of Ibrahim Corporation put her own grandson in prison.”

“How dare you try to blackmail me?” she yelped in rising fury, unrepentant to the last about any of her own actions.

“I’m not trying,” he replied, shaking his head at her temerity. There would be no apologies. No admissions of fault. Like son, like mother. He smirked slightly, getting up and moving closer, getting into her personal space to make her feel uncomfortable. “I’m going to be living here, and you’re going back to India. You’re going to release the funds that my mother left to me. And you will leave me alone. If you leave me alone, no one will even know that I was exonerated.”

“I softened my stance a little as time passed,” Aahil continued, turning to gaze at her. “After a while, the company executives began to send me any business that they needed taken care of in the US. I’m sure it was at her behest.” He tilted his head to the side as he mused out loud, “Maybe she hoped that I would change my mind. At the time, I needed an excuse to employ Rehan, so I yielded.”

It was Sanam’s turn to lay her head on his shoulder, her hands encircling one of his. She stared down at their linked hands, knowing that she never wanted to let him go. She would be the one constant in his life, along with Rehan. They would build a family together, and he would learn to trust little by little that no one else would ever abandon him. Her heart ached for him, but her respect was growing for him by the moment. Aahil had been through so much, and yet, he had still had the strength to open his heart to her.

Tears began to fall, and she buried her face in his shoulder, wanting to hide her pain from him. She could guess now why he had run away when she talked about family. She struggled with the reality that he might never be ready to have a family because of the blood that ran in his veins.

“I wanted nothing to do with her,” Aahil said on a heavy sigh, resting his cheek against hers. He seemed to have missed the small hitch in her breath, the fact that she still had her face buried in his neck. “Nothing. When there is abuse, there is an abuser. A victim. And witnesses. She was a witness, and she did nothing when he was abusing us. And, then, she chose her dead son over me, over us. She decided that I would rot in jail as punishment for that bastard’s death. And his blood . . . her blood runs in my veins. That’s my legacy, Sanam. How could here be nothing wrong with me? How could I ever make a child carry that legacy?”

“There is nothing wrong with you,” Sanam said implacably. “He was an evil man. She was a vindictive woman, but you . . . you are you, Aahil. You made yourself who you are today. Despite the betrayals by those who should have protected you above all else, you had it in you to be the bigger person. When you inherited this company, did you destroy it the way you’d threatened to do so as an angry youth? No. You saved it instead. You have helped it to grow. How can you say that you’re just like them?” she asked  in a watery tone. “One thing I don’t get,” she said after a small pause. “Why do you still hide the truth?”

Aahil released a heavy sigh. “When I got my hands on my mom’s trust fund, I tried to leave the past behind me. I completed undergraduate studies, and then went on to law school. And I did that across the country from where all of this had played out. It was hard. Even though I was declared innocent, I had been labeled a murderer by society. In people’s eyes, I was ever the criminal. The fact that my conviction had been overturned meant nothing, because most of them believed that my money had bought that. It just became a habit to not talk about my past. I guess, I just wanted to forget everything.”

“But that’s not why you still hide the truth,” she pointed out.

“It isn’t?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

“It’s because you promised her,” she stated with confidence. “You made a deal, and that’s why you’ve never trumpeted the truth behind his death.”

He shook his head. “Be that as it may,” he said, “But I didn’t help my cause, either. When the “truth” came out here, just when I had begun to hope. I was so pissed,” he confessed softly, his hand coming up to cradle her cheeks. His fingers gently wiped away her tears, evidence that he had known of them. She had hidden nothing from him. “And when I get angry, I get self-destructive,” he admitted ruefully. “I hurt you in the process.”

She sat up straight, and looked into his eyes. Shifting closer, she wrapped her arms around his neck. “Not for long,” she whispered against his lips. “I got angry and took my revenge, didn’t I?”

“You never let me go, Sanam Ahmed Khan,” Aahil said with a soft chuckle. “You only ever loved me without reservation. You wanted me to be yours, even when I questioned if that was the right path for you. Even when I knew that I was so completely yours, I fought it. But you never stopped, and I had to give in.”

“It took you long enough,” she said acerbically. “Now you know,” she said.

“Know what?”

“That I always know what I’m doing. Never question me.” She squeezed him close, giggling softly as he placed noisy kisses down her face, leaving a trail of fire behind. “Tell me, weren’t you a little scared when you found out the lengths I went to trap you?” she asked with a hint of uncertainty. “I’ll know if you lie to me.”

“The fact that I married you immediately after I found out should tell you something,” he shot back, running a hand down her back. “I was deeply touched.”

She shifted closer, reveling in his touch. “But . . . I still can’t believe that there was a will involved with our marriage,” she said on a wail. “How draconian is that? It’s a lot of money, but still what woman wants it bandied about that her husband married her for the money she would bring? The world will think that you had to be trapped into marriage!”

He flushed, stiffening for a moment, his gaze flitting away from hers.

Since she was in his arms, she felt the slightest change. “What is it? What are you hiding?” she  asked, pouncing.

“That will was a joke,” Aahil finally admitted with a snort “Initially when I found out, the fact that he was trying to control me from beyond the grave made me see red  I wouldn’t let anyone mention anything else to me. I lost all ability to reason.”

“What do you mean?” she demanded, watching him squirm. Getting up on her knees, she straddled his lap, seating herself so that he couldn’t escape. “Aahil Raza Ibrahim,” she said, pinching his cheeks, “Stop being so mysterious.”

“Did you ever wonder about the validity of a will written before he’d ever inherited anything?” he asked, pulling her fingers away from his face.

Her eyes widened.

Aahil nodded. “He wrote it when he thought he would outlive his own mother. He wrote it when he thought he would have control over all of the Nawab’s properties.”

“What did he have?” Sanam asked. “What did you get by marrying me?”

“The majority of what he disposed of in the will wasn’t his to give away. It was his mother’s, who outlived him. And she left it all to me.”

“Aahil, what did that man leave you?” Sanam asked in a disgruntled tone.

“Nothing much. He never worked a day in his life, choosing to spend the Ibrahim wealth rather than worry about earning it. He had a few properties that generated some income, a tiny little chawl in his name. That’s it. Those documents you saw in Rehan’s office were for those items. I was able to claim the chawl and put it in the tenants’ names. I gave the other properties to LSB to build shelters and other facilities.” He laughed softly. “The only people who knew about the will were Rehan, myself and the attorney. No one else knows.”

She punched him on the shoulder, ignoring his yelp of pain. “You couldn’t start with that when I was yelling at you for marrying me for a will?!” she yelled in his face.

“I did do that!” he protested, rubbing at his shoulder. When she tried to get up, he pulled her back down onto his lap, wrapping his arms around her squirming body. “Sit still.”

“You didn’t!”

“Yes, I did!” he shot back, planting a kiss against her lips. His hands came up to grab her cheeks gently, his thumbs brushing across the softness of her skin, reveling in the feel of her. He looked meaningfully into her eyes. “I said I didn’t want the bastard’s money. Would it have mattered how much money it actually was? Would you have felt better if I said his property was worth a few lakhs and not the billions you were thinking?”

She shook her head, a smile growing across her face. “How ridiculous,” she said on a giggle. Leaning forward, she wrapped her arms around his neck and hugged him close. Her cheek came to rest against his. She shivered slightly at the feel of his five o’clock shadow.

Getting up, his hands at her hips, her legs wrapped around his waist, he walked to the side of the bed and gently laid her down. She moved up, as he followed up onto the bed, and lay down beside her, the two sharing a pillow. The air from the AC blew across their heated bodies. Aahil entwined his legs with hers, placing an arm across her waist. She reached up and gently brushed his hair away from his face, gazing questioningly into his eyes.

“Even now,” he said with difficulty, the levity of moments ago falling away from his face, “I can’t help but thing that my blood is tainted. I come from evil, and that is what I’ll pass on to my children.”

“But you’re not evil,” Sanam reminded him softly.  “You’re not. No matter what they were, you are not.”

“How do you know?” Aahil asked, wanting to desperately believe.

“You learned by their example. I know the man you are today,” she said, tugging at  his hair to bring him closer. She placed a soft kiss against his lips, before pushing him away to look into his eyes. “A warm, kind, and caring man. The man who loves me so completely. Who gives all he can of himself. Who wants to save the world. You’ve done good up until now, even with all the suffering you went through. You’re not suddenly going to change at the 11th hour. You know yourself better than that.”

“But Sanam . . .,” his voice trailed off. Her love shone through her eyes, and he couldn’t fight against the belief he saw there. She believed in him . . . knew him to be a good man.

He had two options, he could question her belief and separate himself from her . . . he could stop living, and stay stuck in the past, where he would have nothing but his bitter memories. Or he could believe in her, and believe in himself. He could believe in their future together, and know that anything he didn’t know, she would teach him. He would live with Sanam, and build a life together.

There was no question about what path he would pick. A weight lifted from his soul, leaving him feeling lighter . . . happier. After weeks of worrying over what she would think when she learned about his crazy grandmother, now that she knew all of his secrets, he truly had nothing left to hide. With her, he was ready to take on the world. He would no longer be alone.

Sanam continued softly, his own little cheerleader. “You’re innocent in all of this. You have to accept that truth, and internalize it. Apne liye, Aahil aur mere liye.” (For yourself and me.)

“I don’t know how to be part of a family,” he warned her softly, his hand beginning to move up from her waist.

“I’ll teach you,” she promised.

“Or to be a father,” he continued, his fingers beginning to play with the ends of her hair.

“You’ll be the best father, you just have to remember to do one thing,” she urged him.

“What’s that?” he asked.

“Do everything the opposite of your father,” she said with a giggle, finally noticing the softness in his gaze. She could see that the desperation was gone, leaving behind only acceptance.

“You have the answer to everything, don’t you?” he asked, leaning down to nuzzle at the pulse beating at the base of her throat.

“Yes. We’ll do this right,” she whispered, her lips tracing a path from his ear down to his lips when he looked up at her. “For ourselves and . . . our child,” she said, placing a hand on her womb.

His eyes widened in surprise, his breath catching in his throat. “Child?”

“We’ll be the best parents together, Aahil. You’ll have me, and I’ll have you as we begin this new adventure. You won’t be alone. Ever.” She kissed him once more, heartened to see joy replacing the fear in his eyes.

“Together,” he promised.

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

In the hours before dawn, Aahil walked out to look at the night sky. Staring up, he caught the twinkle of a falling star. It was a streak of bright light in the field of stars before his eyes. Smiling, he called out softly, “I got my wish, Ammi. I finally got my wish.”

~*~*~*~*~*~
Epilogue
~*~*~*~*~*~

“Lateef! Where are you?!” a cranky male voice called out. Hearing no response, he began to pace back and forth across the room. His movements were jerky, revealing the nervous energy running through his body. He couldn’t seem to settle down, the anxiety within burning away any peaceful thoughts. The flower petals on the bed, the golden streamers and garlands dangling from the ceiling, did nothing to soothe. He strode to the one end of the room and then back, but all attempts to expend that energy did nothing to calm him down either.

Kahan mar gaye sab ke sab?” he yelled out to the seemingly empty house.

“I’m coming, Aahil ba–. Haye Allah, I thought it was Aahil baba calling me,” Lateef murmured, fluttering into the room. She gazed at the rattled man and moved over to pat him on the shoulder. “It’s okay Rehan Ji. Why are you so unsettled?”

“I’m getting married today, Lateef. How can I not be nervous?” Rehan responded morosely. “I can’t find my sehra. I can’t get my scarf to look anywhere near normal on my clothes. Does this shervani even look good on me?” He tugged at the collar, irritated. “Why did I pick this damn color?”

“Because Seher Ji said she liked it,” Lateef replied soothingly. “And you look very dashing. Haye Allah, if Aahil baba hadn’t already taken over my heart, I would have spent some sleepless nights over you.”

“Lateef!” a voice barked at her, interrupting any further attempts at flirtation.

Lateef jumped, turning around to stare at Aahil standing in the doorway. “Aahil baba, when did you come in?” Lateef asked, eyes flitting from side to side, chuckling nervously.

“Stop flirting with Rehan and go make sure everything is ready. The baraat will be leaving soon, and we can’t come back to a plain house.” He sighed heavily. “You’re so easily distracted. Sanam left so many instructions. Go.” Aahil moved to the side of the doorway, pointing outside.

Lateef chuckled. “Aapko to pata hai,” she said, walking towards the door.

“What?’ he threw at her, crossing his arms and leaning against the doorway.

Main to hoon chui mui.” Guffawing, Lateef raced out the door, her figure bedecked in sparkly clothes.

Shaking his head at her retreating figure, he turned to look at Rehan pacing in front of the closet. The other man muttered something to himself, as he continued to walk a rut into the poor carpet. The baraat was minutes from leaving, but it looked as if the pressure had gotten to Rehan. The late afternoon sun peeked in from the windows, highlighting the worry etched across his face.

Shaking his head, Aahil walked over to the other man. “Rehan, relax,” Aahil ordered, blocking his way when Rehan made to go around him. Forcing him to stop, Aahil instructed in a soothing tone, “Take a deep breath. Smell the scent of the flowers in the air, the very orchids that your wife-to-be loves. Think about how carefully you and Sanam prepared this home, prepared you to welcome Seher into your life today. Your sehra is on the bed. Your scarf right next to it. Seher raved over this color for weeks. And the shervani looks damn good on you. In fact, I’d say you look almost as good as me.” He smiled as he said those words, the teasing smile growing wider when Rehan glared at him, an affronted look on his face.

“Well, I should hope so, Aahil bhai,” he shot back. “Since I am the groom and all.”

Chuckling softly, Aahil picked up the leftover articles of clothing and brought them over to Rehan. Nudging the other man to stand in front of the mirror, he placed the sehra on his head. Turning him to face the mirror he was so studiously avoiding, Aahil carefully draped the scarf around his shoulders, placing it just so in the crook of his arm. “There. Now you look just a little bit better than me. As it should be.”

He stared at the man who had become his family. As that lost little boy, betrayed by everyone around him, he would never have thought that someone like Rehan would come into his life. He had never dreamed that he, Aahil Raza Ibrahim, would one day have such a close friend . . . a brother of his heart. And now his brother was becoming his brother-in-law. He punched Rehan’s shoulder lightly, trying to dissipate the heavy silence that had fallen between them.

A smile broke out across Rehan’s face, the tightness of his features relaxing for a moment.

“What is going on, Rehan?” Aahil asked, staring at the shadows the smile failed to cover. “Up until yesterday you were so excited that you couldn’t stop smiling. In fact, you were the more excitable one during your haldi ceremony. The one who urged the guests to keep on signing at the sangeet ceremony. What happened?”

“That damn 3 o’clock came around like it does every night. And it brought with it insecurity. Feelings of inadequacy,” Rehan admitted with difficulty, the smile falling away. He turned his head, unable to meet Aahil’s gaze.

“Insecure? Inadequate? About what?” Aahil asked, surprise flashing across his face. “You’re Rehan Imran Qureshi.”

“Yes. Rehan Imran Qureshi,” Rehan said bitterly. “The son of a murderer. The boy who grew up in an orphanage. I’m marrying a daughter of the Ahmed Khan family, one of the premier families of Bhopal. How can I measure up to them? To their legacy?” Once the floodgates opened, the words began to pour out. “What am I doing even thinking about mar–”

“Rehan! Stop thinking like that.” Aahil’s face darkened. Grabbing Rehan’s face, he forced the other man to meet his eyes. “Seher and that family don’t hold your past against you. You know that. But you’re not just Rehan Imran Qureshi, the son of a murderer. You’re also Haya’s brother. You’re my brother. Your father may not have accepted you, but he has recognized you as a Qureshi. In Bhopal’s eyes, you’re also one of those Qureshis.”

Pain flashed in Rehan’s eyes, his expression clouding at the reminder of Imran Qureshi’s refusal to have a relationship with his son. In his eyes, Rehan Imran Qureshi was Tanveer’s son and Tanveer’s son only. At Haya’s urging, the man had accepted Rehan, giving him his name, but there had been no other interactions. That complete rejection still got to him.

“Rehan? Listen to me. It’s too bad for him that he’ll miss out on knowing such an amazing man.” He clasped Rehan by the shoulders and gently shook him. “But most importantly of all? You’re Rehan. You’re a smart, compassionate man who never fails to put everyone else and their well-being above yours. You’ve never let your past hold you back. You made yourself into the man you are today, and no one can take that away from you. And no one,” he proclaimed, shaking him for emphasis, “No one that you care about questions your right to get married to the woman you love, even if she is one of the Ahmed Khans. And aren’t our opinions the ones that truly matter?”

Rehan grudgingly nodded, turning to stare at himself in the mirror. He straightened his shoulders, forcing himself to dawn the appearance of confidence, even if a part of him still doubted the validity of Aahil’s words.

“And who would say no to this face?” Aahil quipped jokingly, pinching Rehan’s cheek.

“I sure wouldn’t,” a voice murmured on a dreamy sigh.

The two turned to stare at Lateef standing in the doorway, her hands folded under her chin. “You both look very handsome,” she murmured, stars in her eyes.

“Lateef!” two voices cried to in unison.

“Just joking, Aahil baba,” Lateef said hurriedly. “I wanted to tell you that the arrangements are all done. The house is decorated. I’ve followed Begum Sahiba’s final instructions down to a T. The guests have gathered and are ready to head out the door. We’re just waiting for the groom and the best man. You can’t get any more handsome Rehan Ji. And I must tell you,” she relayed in a conspiratorial whisper, “No one really looks at the groom.”

“Lateef!” two voices growled simultaneously.

She jumped, startled, and raced out the door. “Hurry up you two!” she threw over her shoulder. “Seher Ji’s probably frothing at the mouth to get married!”

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

Seher paced from one end of the room to the other, her movements jerky. Reaching the wall, she sighed heavily before turning back to trek across the room once more. This was her umpteenth trip across the room, but it sure didn’t make the time go any faster.

Turning her head from yet another blank wall, she caught sight of her figure in the mirror. A red, heavily-embroidered bridal suit in covered her body, makeup on her face, and jewelry for all the spaces in between. Under the lehenga, her feet had been forced into uncomfortably high heels, golden payals adorning her ankles. Impatiently twitching the slipping dupatta back onto her head, she frowned heavily at the wall in front of her. She was ready to go, but couldn’t really go anywhere because her groom hadn’t come over from next door! What was taking so long? Well, if he was taking his sweet time, she was going to take these uncomfortable shoes off.

“Seher Ahmed Khan!” Sanam yelped from the doorway.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Haya asked.

Seher stopped, her shoulders drooping in guilt before she casually sidled over to the chair to sit back down. “What?” she asked, turning an innocent gaze to her pregnant sister. Her eyes met Sanam’s before flitting away to catch the accusing gleam in Haya’s eyes. “What are you two harping on about? I didn’t do anything,” Seher said petulantly, kicking at the foot of her vanity. She gazed down at her hands, her fingers entwined together. Intricate designs covered them front and back, with very special R’s hidden in the designs.

“The makeup artist just finished with you!” Haya muttered, coming to stand beside her cousin. “It took forever because you wouldn’t sit still long enough for her to draw a straight line and now this. If you move around too much, you’ll be the messiest bride in the history of weddings!”

“What is that gleam in your eyes?” Sanam asked in an aggrieved tone. “What are you planning now?”

“Well, what do you expect me to do?” Seher cried out. “You dressed me up, plastered makeup on my face and just abandoned me an hour ago. You both left, telling me to sit in my corner until the groom came. And you,” Seher accused, glaring at Sanam, “even took my phone away!”

“You were calling Rehan too much!”

“I was bored!” Seher justified herself. “It’s not like my talking on the phone or texting would have gotten in the way of the makeup artist.”

“It so did,” Haya argued.

“Do you know how many preparations still had to be completed for the wedding?” Sanam queried in exasperation. “We couldn’t just sit here entertaining you.”

Seher raised an eyebrow. “I do have an idea,” she replied sarcastically, alluding to the work she had done for both Sanam’s and Haya’s weddings.

“Were we as hyper as you?” Haya asked musingly, tapping a finger to her pursed lips. “I’m sure I wasn’t this bad.”

Seher snorted darkly. “You were worse. Weren’t you the one who just had to sneak out an hour before your nikah to tell Rahat some very important thing?” She shook her head, refusing to be distracted from a more important point. “Why isn’t Rehan here yet?!” Seher shot back. “I feel like I’ve been waiting forever!”

“The nikah time is in half an hour,” Haya retorted. “My brother is not late. You, my dear cousin and bhabi-to-be are just overly impatient.”

“But . . . who even picked this time? Why didn’t we just have the nikah in the morning?” Seher asked grumpily. “At least that way everything would have been over and done with by now.”

“You picked the time. You didn’t want to wake up that early,” Sanam shot back, coming over to stand by Seher. Placing a hand on Seher’s shoulder, she pushed her twin back down when Seher tried to get up. “Allah miyah, what am I going to do with you? You’re getting married today, be a bit more sedate.”

“Leave her alone, you two!” Zoya called out from the doorway, a twinkle in her eyes. “My little girl is getting married to the love of her life. Who are we to stand in the way of her excitement? Seher, the baraat is here. The wait is over.” She smiled broadly at her daughter, feeling a pang at the thought that she would be losing her other daughter today.

“Don’t think of it that way. Think of it as you’re gaining a new son today. Both Rehan and Aahil are orphans. They don’t know what it means to have parents who love and care for them. That will be your and Asad’s job from now on.”

Badi Ammi’s words came to mind. Her daughters would be right next door. And her brand new sons? Well, they needed a mother’s love, too, didn’t they?

Feeling an arm come around her shoulders, she turned and gazed into Asad’s eyes. He understood that aching sadness inside of her, but he also looked forward to having a new little person enter their lives.

After Tanveer’s murderous rampage, the damage she had done to Zoya’s body had prevented the conception of any more children. That, more than anything else that woman had done to her, had hurt the most. But now, she still couldn’t believe that they were going to become grandparents. She smiled at the thought of holding a little baby in her arms, and how that child would change everything once more. He or she, since Aahil and Sanam did not want to know the sex before the birth, would be the first of many. She was ready for the changes. Just, as it seemed, were both her daughters.

Seher squealed in joy at the news, jumping up and hurriedly setting herself to rights. She couldn’t wait to get out there. A smile grew across her face, hinting at the joy that filled her heart.

“What are you waiting for?” she asked Sanam, catching the matching smiles on Haya’s and Sanam’s faces.

“I’ll see you out there,” Asad murmured in Zoya’s ears before heading out.

“Take a deep breath,” Zoya murmured, heading over to stand next to Seher. “He’s out there, waiting for you, but, now that it’s time, I’m finding it so hard to let you go.” She kissed Seher on the forehead, and pulled back. “But I have to. Now, you two,” she said, turning to gaze at Sanam and Haya, “Take care of her.”

The three watched Zoya walk out of the room. It was then, as she watched her parents leave one after the other, that Seher realized she would be leaving this home today. She would be leaving her parents behind. She would no longer be an Ahmed Khan, she would be Rehan’s Seher.

“Let’s go,” Sanam murmured, her hands gentle as they gripped Seher’s arm.

Straightening her shoulders, Seher brought that smile back to her face. Even if she was getting married today, family would always be family. The only difference now was that Rehan would  be an official part of that family.

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

Aahil turned away from yet another guest who had wanted a moment of his time, seeking to congratulate him on his brother’s wedding. He shook his head at how quickly things had changed. The same people that had avoided his eyes and whispered behind his back were now eager to associate with him.

Months ago he had been the most reviled man in Bhopal. In society’s eyes, he was a murderer, and he dared to be an unrepentant one at that. He was repugnant for blackmailing Bhopal’s citizenry by holding their livelihoods over their heads.

At Sanam’s urging, he’d allowed his PR team to go into action, releasing the truth through such sources that no one would doubt its veracity. It had taken months, but those details had eventually begun to spread like wildfire.

All of Bhopal now knew that he wasn’t a criminal. They knew that he wasn’t a murderer. In fact, there hadn’t been a murder at all. As his reputation had improved, his father’s had darkened, the reality of the kind of man he had been coming out. He was now known as the misunderstood Nawab of Bhopal. The public’s sympathy was completely with him.

But none of it really mattered to him. It didn’t matter that he was finally seen as their savior. And it didn’t matter because of the very reason he’d told Rehan. The ones that he loved and cared for? They had loved him despite what they believed to be the truth. Sanam had loved him despite what she thought she knew of him.

His eyes moved over the Ahmed Khan home, where the nikah was being held. Seher had been adamant. No wedding hall, no big party. This was a nikah of two people who loved each other, and she wanted only their family around them when she and Rehan were joined in marriage. She hadn’t gotten that wish, her home was filled to the gills with guests. But her parents had given in on holding the nikah at their home instead of a big hotel.

Seher’s entire extended family were in attendance. Her uncles and aunts, cousins, and even little nieces and nephews had come. They were more welcoming of both Rehan and Aahil this time around, showing that whatever reservations they had had were gone. While it didn’t matter to Aahil, their acceptance had made Sanam so happy. And it made Badi Ammi and Sanam’s parents happy.

He moved over to stand next to Rehan. Absently patting Rehan’s shoulder, who seemed to have calmed down somewhat, he gazed around the room. Every wall, every surface was covered with decorations, bright, silvery and gold. Flowers adorned the walls in straight columns and spiraled down the pillars throughout the room. They floated lazily in the pool, and rested in bowls strategically placed on the various surfaces of the furniture. Music played loudly in the background, the beat fast enough for the guests to dance to, if they so desired.

Guests, friends and family, all arrayed in their colorful finery, moved around the living room, socializing and eagerly awaiting the bride’s arrival. A wooden frame, colored in gold had been set up between the groom’s and bride’s sides. Rose pink material had been fastened to the frame, the material thin enough so that Rehan could peek at his bride if the desire arose.

Hearing a sudden increase in volume, Aahil turned his head to catch sight of the bride coming down the steps. There were exclamations of joy and sighs of awe at seeing the bride in resplendent red, but the smile of joy on his face was for the woman at her side.

Sanam Ahmed Khan was his reason for being. She was his junoon. He knew that she loved him beyond all reason and doubt. The fact that she had loved the victim, the murderer, and the convict proved that. He placed a hand on his chest, rubbing at the ache in his heart. Knowing all of that, how could anyone ever doubt the love she had for him?

Over the past few months, Sanam’s life had changed along with his. Or rather, it had gotten back on track after her connection to him had derailed it.

When people who sought LSB services discovered, with the help of Aahil’s PR team, that the nonprofit organization had fired their own employee for being married to a victim of domestic violence, it had created distrust between the organization and the population it served. The furor had been loud, the condemnation real. LSB had lost all credibility with its clients. The management had then stepped up, taking the blame and inviting Sanam back to the fold.

Sanam had immediately agreed.

“But what about the fact that they fired you without a second thought? How can you trust them again? What’s to say they won’t fire you again without giving you the benefit of the doubt if another such situation arose in the future?”

“I don’t care about that, Aahil. They did what they thought was the best for the public they served. And my going back? That’s the best for the people I want to help. That’s all I really care about. . . . And do you really think that I’m going to let your sacrifice go to waste?”

“What sacrifice?”

“Labels are important to you. You never wanted to be labeled a victim. But you did it so that I could do this work. That, more than any benefit to you, was your reason for releasing all of this information. You wanted to protect me. I’m not going to let your sacrifice be in vain, Aahil Raza Ibrahim.”

Sanam had begun working with LSB once more. Her good works, at LSB and for other charitable causes, had led to the public lovingly calling her the Begum Sahiba of Bhopal. He had to remind her on daily basis that her new moniker wasn’t because she was his wife, it was because she had won their hearts through her own goodness.

Just as she had laid claim to his. His eyes remained on her, carefully taking in the vision of her in a rose pink anarkali, her dress covered with delicate silver embroidery. She was laughing, looking so happy to be at the side of her twin on her important day.

He closely watched as she carefully came down the steps, her advanced pregnancy making quick movement difficult. It hadn’t stopped her from making sure their home was beautifully prepared for her sister though. Sanam had spent the past few weeks planning and then overseeing the decorations. She had run everyone ragged in her quest to make everything perfect, down to the orchids and streamers in the bridal suite.

And right now, she was glowing, the joy in her face enough to light up a room. That light inside of her changed the world around her. And that light was enough to burn away any leftover darkness in his heart.

He had spent the past six months, since finding out about her pregnancy, obsessing over her and their child. Worries ate away at him, but his prayers for her safety kept him sane. His growing faith helped him to hope that nothing would go wrong. Nightly, he prayed for himself. For their family. For Rehan and Seher. He prayed that his sisters would come back into his life someday. He prayed that he could be the best father for his children.

And every moment, he prayed for their continued happiness.

Her laughter rippled through the air.

He prayed for her continuing laughter. He knew that his happiness was inextricably tied to hers, and if she ever lost her laughter, there would only be darkness in his world. His eyes lovingly traced her delicate features, an instinct growing inside of him to caress her face, to hold her in his arms. It was only when he held her in his arms, that he found true peace.

A small smile played across his features, as he thought about how desperately he had prayed for this very happiness every time he had seen a star as an abused child. And now . . . he prayed that there would be enough stars in his life to light their way and to make all of her wishes come true. He curled his fingers into fists, fighting the urge to go over to her. He had everything he could have ever hoped for, now his life would only be about making her dreams come true. Even if she did tell him on a nightly basis that she needed nothing more.

More laughter rang out. It was Sanam again, soon joined by Zoya, Haya and then Seher. The two younger women silenced Seher, admonishing her to be a more demure bride. He saw the irritable shrug of Seher’s shoulders, as she chose to ignore them.

Sanam rolled her eyes and turned to face the groom’s side, her eyes meeting his. She flashed him a cheeky grin as she moved towards the dais set up on the other side of the screen.

He knew that her grin matched the one on his face. The two shared a secret smile, as she indicated Rehan with a movement of her head, silently asking him how he was doing.

He shook his head, the look in his eyes hinting at the nerves that had been eating away at the man the entire day.

Sanam nodded her head in understanding, and then rolled her eyes, her way of telling him that Seher had not been like that at all. A smile grew across her face, and she mimed tying a rope around her sister.

The two shook their head at the silliness of the two.

“Will you stop with the telepathy?” Rehan muttered from under the sehra. His eyes were downcast, focused on his restless hands. “I know you’re talking about me.” He had watched the two wiggling their eyebrows at each other out of the corner of his eye. And it hadn’t failed to annoy him, just as it had done the many other times when they had done this in front of him, their growing bond aiding this silent form of communication.

“Sanam says,” Aahil began.

“Not says,” Rehan shot back, “She said nothing. Now, tell me Aahil bhai, what did she tell about Seher?” As annoyed as he was, he really did want to know.

“Seher was nothing like you,” Aahil informed Rehan, unperturbed by Rehan’s crankiness. “She had none of your nerves. In fact, she was raring to go,” he continued, sitting down beside the other man. “And you know why? She knew you would be here. She never had a thing to worry about, did she?”

Rehan smiled suddenly, his face openly expressing the joy he felt at being here. The anxiety was falling away, the nerves dying a silent death, and he knew he only had to remember one thing. The woman he loved was sitting across that fragile material, and in only a few minutes, she was going to become his. Just as he would become completely hers. “We had nothing to worry about.”

Aahil patted his shoulder, as the maulvi sahib got up and came to stand in the middle of the two, beginning the nikah with a prayer for the couple and their future happiness.

“Rehan Imran Qureshi, wald Imran Qureshi, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”

Aahil tilted his head at Sanam, silently asking her if would accept him once more if given the chance.

“Qubool hai.”

She nodded yes, tilting her head to ask him why he even felt the need to ask.

“Rehan Imran Qureshi, wald Imran Qureshi, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”

“Qubool hai . . . Qubool hai.”

“Always,” she mouthed the words to him. She raised a silent eyebrow at him, asking him the same question. Would he say “Qubool Hai” her to once more?

“Seher Ahmed Khan wald Asad Ahmed Khan, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”

“I’m all yours.” He smiled at her, the love shining clearly in his eyes. “There will never be anyone else.”

“Qubool hai.”

She began to laugh softly. “For eternity,” she told him with a gentle blink of her eyelashes.

“Seher Ahmed Khan wald Asad Ahmed Khan, kya aapko yeh nikah qubool hai?”

Placing a hand over her womb, feeling the baby kick, she silently mouthed to him, “I promise. You are, after all, my air.”

“Qubool hai . . . Qubool hai.”

His lips quirked in a big smile, shaking his head at her. “And I’ll be eternally yours,” he murmured softly, knowing that she read the sentiment in his eyes. “Both of yours.”

“Aahil bhai! Pay attention!” Rehan barked at his distracted brother. “Newly married man here! Congratulate me!”

Aahil turned to gaze at his smiling brother and pulled him into a hug. “I wish you the joy that I have found. Mubarak ho, mere bhai,” he murmured in Rehan’s ear. “You have found your true partner. Never let her go.”

“Never,” Rehan responded, moving back to grin at Aahil. “Did you ever think that when we moved into this home that we would each meet our destiny living right next door?”

Aahil shook his head. “I’d h—”

“Oh ho, Aahil baba, out of the way!” Lateef urged, pushing him aside with her hip. “Rehan Ji, mubarak ho! Mubarak ho!”

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

“I like it,” Rehan said, looking around the living room and kitchen area. The floor plan of the home was open. It would prevent anyone from feeling too claustrophobic. The building was sturdy, and didn’t require a lot of work. It would be easy to move in and settle without much work.

“That’s a relief, Nawab Sahib,” the realtor stated, “After all, this is the sixth property we’ve seen in the past week. I worried that we would never find anything to your liking.”

“Would seeing more homes be a problem?” Rehan asked, raising an eyebrow in question. “I would think that my happiness was more important than the number of homes we see. After all, I’ll be stuck for a long time with any home I chose.”

“Of course, of course!” the realtor cried out, worried that he would lose his commission. “It is an honor to show you these homes. I just hope that you find something that you will like. If this home doesn’t suit your tastes, I have tens more on my list.”

“Aahil baba, I love this home. I love the kitchen. It’s fully equipped,” Lateef squealed from the kitchen. “Now, please tell me that you like it so that we don’t have to see any more homes,” she pleaded from the kitchen.

“What is with the pool inside the home?” Rehan asked incredulously, stopping abruptly to gaze down at the empty trench in the area between the living room and bedrooms. He gazed up, seeing the blue sky above.

Aahil, who had been walking around the empty home, wandered over to gaze down at the empty pool, as well. He raised an eyebrow.

“Imagine waking up at night for a midnight snack and landing in the pool while you’re half asleep,” Rehan quipped.

“The pool is a signature piece of one of Bhopal’s most famous architects,” the realtor hurriedly explained. “All of the mansions on this street have a pool situated within the home.”

“What do you think?” Rehan asked again, gazing at the quite man beside him.

Aahil had rejected every home, refusing to say yes to any of the ones he had seen thus far. Since his return to Bhopal, Aahil had been looking for some way to find peace being back in a place that held so many bad memories for him. Rehan knew that he was finding that peace hard to find. And that was why Rehan hadn’t balked, letting Aahil take the time he needed to find that perfect home. Maybe, if he found the right home, peace would be a lot easier in coming.

Rrriinnnnggg. Rrriinnnnggg. Rrriinnnnggg.

“Excuse me, I have to take this,” the realtor said apologetically, moving a little distance away.

“Sunita, what is it? I can’t take that on right now,” he muttered desperately into the phone. “I’m with the Nawab right now. No. No. Because it’s all the way across town.”

Aahil looked up impatiently. “I don t think this is it,” he said abruptly. “I’m not . . . ” He stopped, unable to find the words he needed to express how this home didn’t feel right.

“That’s fine,” Rehan stated. “Whatever you need.”

“No! I’m at the mansion next to the Khan Mansion. Yes. Ahmed Khan. That Asad Ahmed Khan’s house,” he said in a driven tone. “So you see, it won’t work. I can’t leave here and make it there. The client would be . . .”

Aahil jerked his head around, wondering.

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

Ahmed Khan?

“Are you okay?”

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

“Please don’t go! Please.”

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

“Don’t go, just because I’m here. I’m leaving soon.”

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

“I’m not a kid! I’m seven years old. My name is Sanam. My name is Sanam Ahmed Khan. S.A.K. Ha!”

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

“Do you have to go? Can’t you just sit there and talk to me?”

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

“I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’m sorry!”

He’d frozen at the memory of that young voice calling out to him. Running a hand through his hair, his thoughts ran through his entire encounter with that little girl, remembering the youthful exuberance, the put upon tone that only a young girl knew how to use, the dawning horror, the grief as she had finally realized his reality.

Sanam Ahmed Khan. He shook his head. Asad Ahmed Khan couldn’t be related to her. What were the chances that she would be a part of this family? And even is if she was, what did he think was going to happen?

He shook his head again, a bitter smile playing across his face. Any relation was highly unlikely, but it gave him a reason to stay. A reason that he could live with.

Sanam Ahmed Khan had made quite an impression, and he found that he wanted to meet the woman she was today.

Had that compassion survived?

“Bhai?” Rehan asked softly.

“I’ll take it,” Aahil murmured. “Let’s buy this home, Rehan, and make it our own.”

And maybe, while he was making his home in a city to which he had never wanted to return, he would come across that woman.

Maybe.