Shackled Exemption

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CHAPTER 18

The preparations of wedding were in full swing. Only three days left until the rituals began. Three days until Dua made her next move. She knew the impact Ismael’s death left on his companions. They were shook bad. Their worlds were turned upside down. It was not entirely but Dua took part of their peace. She rattled them and left them hanging to the point where even the slightest rustling set their panic alight. They knew which direction to look but had nothing to state their doubts.

They won’t have it easy. Their deaths won’t come easy. They will suffer every moment to it.

Dua completely forgot about Asfand with everything that was going around her. She won’t deny the warning alarm his actions and words set within her. Dua knew he was trying to scare her. If he wanted, he would have done something already.

Why wait this long?

But Dua couldn’t dissipate her wariness against him. Asfandyar was a twisted man. He indulged in the fear and pain of his prey. But she couldn’t make anything of his intentions towards her. She could just hope.

“Ms. Sahi?” An amused smile crept to her lips when she saw the intruder to her private time. Though she appeared placid, her hands were fisted beneath the table, her nails digging deep within her tender flesh. “May I?”

“Sure” she stirred the spoon in her coffee when Yusuf sat opposite her. “I presume you were also present at my engagement. Mr.?”

“Yusuf Khan” Yusuf wiped his forehead while looking at her. “I wasn’t intending to disturb you. I just-”

“I am not here on business. Just for leisure time. Haider selected this hotel for my mehndi.” His eyes gleamed at this. “What brings you here? Not that you shouldn’t be. It is a fine hotel down to the very coffee it serves.”

“I own this” Dua merely raised one brow while sipping her coffee. “I established this branch three months ago. It’s fourth and I am thinking of extending my chain globally.”

“I am sure many investors will be already lined up. Its profit we are talking about and from every direction.” Yusuf relaxed further at her words.

Maybe they were wrong. Yusuf was cussing Azfar and Afroz for being so vigilant against her. Maybe she really forgot everything. They should be grabbing this golden opportunity. Unlike them, he was not going to pass it up just like that. He had enough with Sherzai. If he could get D. Sahi to invest in his hotel business, he would make hundred times more than those fuckers.

“I am here to meet an associate of mine. He knows some potential investors worldwide.” Yusuf didn’t know how to kick start the discussion about investing in his business. He knew he won’t be getting a chance like this again. “Have you ever thought about investing in hotels?”

“It’s all about interest Mr. Khan” Dua looked up when Xian approached them. He gave Khan a heedful glare and stood behind Dua after handing her the file. “No need to be so cautious of him. In our world, we cannot even trust our own shadows.” She passed it back after signing. “As for your previous question, I never thought before but seeing your hotel and the ambiance it gives, I think I might in future.”

“Sir?” Yusuf glared at his assistant for interrupting such an important moment of his life. “Mr. Sherzai and Mr. Romano are here.”

“Asfandyar?” Yusuf affirmed and Dua fisted her hand upon hearing his name. Her heart started thundering in her chest and she cast a hesitant glance around the entire deck.

Xian noticed her desolation at the mention of Asfandyar’s name. Something felt off about her reaction this time as well. He and Haider had been noticing but Dua kept her lips sealed. Something occurred on the day of her outfit trial. Amber told Haider as well about seeing Asfandyar when she was on her way to see Dua and the perturbation she saw on her face. They were keeping a strong lookout for things but Asfandyar was no ordinary player. He could understand Dua’s fear of him. But the more she let him on, the more he was going to feed off it.

“Very well” Yusuf got up and faced Dua. “I am looking forward to have more meaningful meetings with you Ms. Sahi. If I can be of any help, let me know.” Dua just smiled in response. “And congratulations for your marriage. I wish you a prosperous life. Don’t worry about the preparations. I will give special commands to make your day exceptional. After all, you are no ordinary person.”

“You are a generous man Mr. Khan.” She nodded at Xian and he handed an exclusive invite to Khan’s assistant. “You seem like man of wisdom. I am sure I can learn a lot from you. Do grace us with your presence.” If Yusuf was blithe before, he was soaring on cloud nine now.

“I will be honored Ms. Sahi.” Dua leaned back in her seat. “If you excuse me, I have a meeting to attend.” Giving a polite nod her way, Yusuf left for the private floor at top of his seven-star hotel.

“Yusuf Khan” Dua twisted the ring on her middle finger. “Looks like we caught a nasty bug in the web.”

**********

Dua rubbed her henna clad hands restlessly. Her mehndi with Sarim was in few hours. It was bound to happen. And this thought only added to her wrecking nerves. She was not getting a good vibe out of this.

The more she thought about her marriage to Sarim, the erroneous it felt in every way.

Dua was still in nikah of Asfandyar. He never divorced her. He couldn’t because she ran away from him. She also remember how profoundly her mother and aunt Rabail used to speak of its sacredness and importance in one’s life.

“Dee?” Dua looked at Amber through reflection. “You look slightly pale. And you have been fidgeting too much.” Amber sat next to her and smiled genuinely. “MashaAllah! You have so much glow on your face. You are looking very beautiful. And look at the color of your mehndi” Amber grabbed her dainty dark tainted palms gaily. “Your husband loves you a lot.” Her heart constricted painfully and Dua watched her palms in agony.

What love? He was going to sell me after one night.

Amber frowned at her tormented expressions. She could tell something was wrong. Dua was not telling but she was in too much pain. Especially after that day when they went for her bridal trial. Amber saw that man Asfandyar as well. She may not know it but she knew enough to piece it together. There was some connection between them. A bitter connection. Whenever Dua saw Asfandyar, a different kind of pain took over her eyes.

It pained Amber to watch Dua hurt. She really loved Dua as her own sister and she wanted her happy in every way possible.

“Dee!” They turned when Haider came to their suite. He was dressed in eastern outfit as well. White salwar kameez with navy velvet embroidered shawl thrown back over his shoulders. Dua smiled upon seeing Amber blushing furiously. “Amber!” Haider frowned at her flustered face and looked towards Dua questioningly but she just shrugged. “Are you okay?” Amber stiffened in her seat when Haider leaned over and palmed her forehead. “Your face is so warm. Do you have fever?”

“Love fever maybe?” Amber’s face turned ten shades of red. Haider finally caught on Dua’s words and turned to Amber mischievously. Poor girl looked on the verge of passing out and the siblings were so enjoying it.

“Is that so?” Haider hummed and leaned further close to Amber which forced Dua to look away with a cough.

“Haider!” Amber squealed in embarrassment and rushed out of his embrace. “Have some shame. Your sister is sitting here and is getting married.”

“So?” Haider stood up as well and crossed his arms over his broad chest. “You have a problem Dee?” Dua just shook her head in amusement.

“Dee!” They chuckled when Amber flailed in shyness. “This is not fair.” She buried her face in Haider’s chest when he hugged her. “You are so mean Haider.”

“And you are so adorable” Haider placed a chaste kiss on her forehead which warmed Dua’s heart.

“And I am getting married” Dua turned her palms towards them and drew in a sharp breath when they helped her stand. She looked towards Haider in silent inquisition.

“Nothing is wrong.” Haider knew her dilemma but he promised himself. He was not going to let even the shadow of that man in her life. Asfandyar was past. A mistake buried years ago and Haider intended to keep him that way. “I got your back. Always. You have nothing to fear. Okay?” Dua nodded. They guided her out of the suite and towards the ceremonial hall.

Everything was so beautiful and looked straight out of fairy-tale. A fairy-tale Haider created for his little brat. She deserved it. Every bit of it and he was going to make sure she never felt pain in her life ever again.

Haider passed her hand to Sarim when they reached the swing designed for the couple. The ceremony proceeded after the blessings from elders. It was such a jovial night yet Dua couldn’t dissipate the trepidation her heart was feeling.

“Dua?” She looked at Sarim when he leaned towards her ear. “Beautiful” Her eyes closed when his breath fanned her face.

Beautiful

Cold green poked her closed eyelids, shooting her heart wild. She gasped inaudibly and turned but found brown eyes looking at her.

“Everything okay?” She forced a small smile toward Sarim to dissipate the questions his frown was indicating to.

“Yes. Thank you” Dua looked away before he could say anymore. Her eyes scanned the gathering around them. For second time, her breath got caught in her throat when her hazel eyes clashed with forest green under the dim light. She was not imagining them. Her heart thundered against her rib-cage when she saw that promising glint in his eyes.

“Dee?” She turned to Haider startled when he shook her shoulder a little roughly. He looked the way she was looking but nothing was there. “What?”

“Khan?” Haider and Dua turned simultaneously when Yusuf approached them with a smile. Dua seethed inwardly, watching him act all intimate with them. How easy it was for him to come here all proud when he murdered her family so brutally. “What are you doing here?” Jahangir stepped in between when he tried reaching Dua.

“I invited him” Dua spoke before Jahangir could say anymore. “He owns this hotel and I only considered it a polite gesture in return for his extraordinary service.” Dua looked at Yusuf with a poisonously sweet smile. “I appreciate you making time in your busy schedule.”

Yusuf fidgeted under the watchful eyes of Jahangir. The man hadn’t forgotten anything and wasn’t making it any less obvious. And judging from her obliviousness, his suspicion only became concrete. Shah didn’t tell Dua about that dark period of her past. Good that she forgot. Yusuf knew he couldn’t let his sins come to light before her. She was his ticket out and to the top.

“Can I have a word with you Mir Shah?”

“Haider!” Jahangir raised his hand when Haider tried to intervene. “It’s a happy moment. Don’t let any evil eye ruin it.” Jahangir walked away with Yusuf hot on his tail. Dua signaled to Xian who left immediately to keep check of things.

They can never be too careful with enemies who loved to stab in the back.

“Planning to trap that innocent life in your vicious cycle again?” Jahangir faced Yusuf once they were out of hearing range. He didn’t hide the hostility he bore towards Yusuf Khan. “You vultures don’t know when to give up, do you? This greed will become your grave one day.”

“I am not here to scuff old wounds Mir Shah.” Jahangir gnashed his teeth at his remark. “I never wanted that to happen. I know you won’t believe me but I was never in favor of what Sherzai did.”

“Yet you made no effort to stop them from claiming six innocent lives.” Not a single crease appeared on Khan’s forehead. “Don’t think you fool me. I won’t let you play this child again. Not that she will let anyone. She is not that naive girl anymore.” Jahangir slapped his cane hard on ground and walked away. “Even if she doesn’t remember her past, she will have your head before you even dared to raise it against her.”

**********

The celebrations were at its peak. Everyone was exuberant but it was incomplete for Dua. She watched Sarim being dragged away by his cousins. He wanted to take her along but Dua refused. She was not very fond of these closures and she preferred to keep her distance.

“Ms. Sahi?” Yusuf approached her again. “You look wonderful.” The smile on her lips never vanished. “I know it might not be the right time to discuss such things but I have a proposition for you.”

“I am listening” Dua twisted the ring on her index finger which Yusuf failed to notice. He misunderstood her smile. He was satisfied by the interest she was showing. But who to tell the prey it is just phantasmagoria.

“What were you saying?” Xian stood by her side silently.

“I-” Khan’s happiness was short-lived when his assistant approached him at restless pace. Yusuf fumed at his interruption once again. But before he could admonish him for his irresponsible attitude, the bomb was dropped.

“You hotel in Lahore was raided and an explosion occurred in Karachi at fifteenth floor.” Khan stood up abruptly. “Things are in chaos sir. You need to leave immediately.” The news was a call of devastation for Khan and he wasted no time in hurrying out of the venue.

“Did you guide him which direction to land his suspicion?” Xian merely nodded. “Tell Mikhailov to be ready and Aya to plant the seed.” He nodded again and left. Dua reached for her dupatta in agitation. It was irritating her to no extent. She looked for Amber and once she located her, she motioned for her to come.

“What?” Amber helped her up and saw her reaching for her head repeatedly.

“I think the pins need to be fixed again.” Amber nodded and looked around the hall.

“I will get the keys from Haider.” Dua waited for her to come back. “Let’s go” Amber waved the card while coming and they left the venue.

“When is it going to end?” Dua fixed the bangles on her wrists when they rode elevator to their floor. Her brows creased when Amber laughed merrily at her expressions. “It’s not funny Amber. These traditions are pain.”

“Don’t be so crude Dee. You only get wed once.” Dua clutched her lehnga at this. “You are going to remember these memories for the rest of your life.” Maybe not. They stepped out once they reached their floor and went straight to her suite. Dua sighed in relief when Amber readjusted the dupatta.

“I don’t want to go back.” She slumped on the bed and rested against the headboard. “Tell Hadi to wrap everything. I don’t have any more stamina.” Amber just shook her head and poured her a glass of water. Dua took it gratefully and drank it in one go.

“Hey!” Dua sat up startled when Amber tried to massage her calves. A genuinely warm smile was on her face when she sat next to her. “What do you think you were doing Amber? Don’t ever do something like this ever again, okay?” Amber just held her hands. “What?”

“I always wanted to experience something like this” Dua frowned at her words. “A sister’s wedding. To run back and forth for the preparations. Tease her. Sit with her like this and talk about life ahead.” Her eyes glistened and she looked towards their hands. “But fate didn’t even give me a sister. So, I am just-” A single tear fell from her eye. “I want to do what I can for you Dee. For what you did for me. I can’t thank you enough for the times you stood up for me. I just want to-” Dua wiped her cheek with a smile.

“No tears, only smiles. Remember?” Amber nodded when Dua held her hands firmly. “I am grateful to you. For everything you brought. Don’t ever let go of your goodness. Ever. Because Haider needs it. Dar-jee needs it. That home needs it.”

“You have to promise me something too. That you will take care of yourself. You won’t do anything that will hurt Haider and Dar-jee.” Amber gripped her hands pleadingly. “I may not know Dee but I see the pain in your eyes. I feel the hurt in your silence. I know I may not be trustworthy enough but I want to do whatever I can to keep you happy.” Dua patted her cheek gently.

“Take care of my family always.” Amber was about to say something but her phone interrupted her.

“It’s Haider” She placed it against her ear. “Yeah? No, we came to the suite. We will be down shortly. Okay.” Amber disconnected the call and got up. “They are calling us down.”

“I don’t want to go.” Amber was about to counter but Dua stopped her. “You know what, you just go. I’ll come in ten minutes. I really need a break Amber.”

“Are you sure?” Amber was not sure. “I mean-”

“Please! Am. It’s a request.” Amber didn’t cajole her further. She left the card by the bedside and left. Dua huffed tiredly and got up after sometime. She fixed herself and stepped away from the mirror to look at her reflection. Dua looked very different even to herself. There was something vulnerable about this attire which she didn’t like. Her eyes went to her hands and she watched the dark color coating her palms.

“Looking for my name?” her heart stopped when his hauntingly deep voice whispered right behind her. Her head shot up and she saw him smirking at her through the reflection. “Dua”

Dua whipped around and crashed against the dressing. Her hands fisted behind her back and she glared at Asfand murderously when he invaded her personal space. Asfand smirked at the fire raging in her ambers. His tigress was angry. But for what, that was debatable. After all, their history go way back.

“Get out” Dua hissed through gritted teeth. “Do you even bear any conscience towards your actions?”

“I do. That’s why I am here” He grabbed her wrists forcefully and raised them to watch the intricate patterns covering her delicate hands. “Would you look at the color? Your husband loves you.”

“Of course, he does” Dua snatched her hand away rather roughly. “Sarim loves me a lot.” Asfand’s eyes turned dark within seconds and Dua hissed in pain when he grabbed a fistful of her hair. A wave of déjà vu hit them both and their glares intensified towards each other. It reminded them of their wedding night. This moment.

“I dare you to say his name again love” Asfand loomed over her and growled lowly against her lips. “The number of times it escaped your kissable lips, that’s how many pieces I am going to chop that fucker in.” It was a promise he conveyed through actions.

Dua pushed at his chest but he caught hold of her delicate wrists and twisted them behind her back painfully. Dua raged when he pushed her into him. The bangles broke under his grip and pierced her flesh but Dua showed no reaction to pain he was giving her. That was the only thing he was capable to give.

“I told you, didn’t I?” Asfand increased the pressure in his grip. “That I will come back with everything to claim my stake. Well sweetheart, here I am” He let go of her and pulled a paper out of his inner suit pocket. “Rings a bell?” Her frame shook when Asfand turned the endorsement of their nikah.

“How do I have it?” Asfand voiced her thoughts out loud. Dua stepped back when he reached for her again. “You do know you cannot have a nikah upon nikah, right? How do you intend to marry Sarim when you have my name?”

“I am not your wife” Dua made a dash past Asfand but he caught hold of her waist. She was thrashing in his arms like a dying fish and it was appeasing Asfand. Her fists collided with his chest when Asfand turned her roughly. Her tantrums were doing nothing but arousing him more. Her beautiful eyes were spitting fire at him and her small hands tried their best to hurt him. All this was amusing Asfand to no extent.

“You are going to tire yourself love” Asfand chuckled and tucked her hair back that fell out of place. “Who will take you away from me now, my Dua?”

“I am not your Dua. Do you hear me? I am not yours.” Asfand mused at her little outburst. “Stop deluding yourself and leave me, you monster.” Why his presence always overpower me? Be it physically or emotionally, this man took hold of her like no one else and this scared Dua. She gasped when he let go with a jerk and Dua wasted no time in running from there.

This was what she feared. This was what she dreaded.

He was going to ruin everything for her.

“Dua!” Haider grabbed hold of her in time when she crashed into him “What-”

“Hadi!” Dua clutched to him for dear life and hid her face in his chest. “I don’t want to go with him. Hadi! please.”

“Who-”

“Asfandyar” Haider pulled away from her and she wasted no time in telling him everything. “He will take me away. He will take me back.” Haider scowled when he saw her bloody wrists. His head shot towards her suite and rage consumed him like fire. Bloody fucker. How did he get in here? Haider tried to walk past her but she held tight. “Hadi!”

“Nothing is going to happen” he cupped her face. “As long as I am alive, he won’t be able to get his ways with you. I promise.” Dua nodded when Haider hugged her again. He knew what trauma her marriage to that man left on her soul. She couldn’t get out of it and he knew how much she was sacrificing to get through with such painful experience again.

“Asfandyar Sherzai” Haider muttered inaudibly while consoling her shaking frame. “I won’t let you ruin our lives. I will do whatever it takes.”

Even if it means your death.

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