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Chapter 17 - Sahara
*Flashbacks in maroon.
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 blas?" 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 faade 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 bas***d'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.
"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."
"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 bas***d'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."
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