THE night before Benazir Bhutto's tragic assassination, her husband, Asif Ali Zardari, had begged her on the phone to stop holding election rallies and let him take her place.
"She had just addressed this public meeting in Peshawar where they'd caught this suicide bomber," he said. "I told her, for God's sake be careful, but she said, 'What can I do? I have to go and meet my people.' I pleaded with her: you stay home and I'll go do the rallies. You're the mother.
"I always used to tell her that as long as the queen bee is alive we workers will always live . . . but I guess it wasn't so . . ."
His voice trailed off. That telephone call was to be the couple's last conversation.
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"It was such a shock," he said. "After she survived the Karachi bus bombing [on her return from eight years in exile last October], we were all of the opinion that she was Superwoman and could survive anything, but it turns out she wasn't."
Zardari was speaking at Bhutto's ancestral home in Naudero, in rural Sindh province, where he flew with her body nine days ago to bury her in the mausoleum that she had built for her father and brothers, all of whom have been killed.
Every day since then, thousands of people have arrived by truck, by donkey cart or on foot to pray and toss fresh rose petals on the mounds covering the tombs.
On the dusty streets outside, colourful banners still hang from October proclaiming "Welcome Benazir". Many mourners make their way to the Bhutto house, where, from 10 in the morning until 10 at night, Zardari receives condolences, as he will do for 40 days.
Some are from Bhutto's long-term associates or friends; others say they saw her as a mother or a sister. Often the women collapse wailing, an outpouring of emotion that has led to comparisons with the death of Diana, Princess of Wales.
Shuffled in and out of meetings by three attractive female handlers who previously worked for Bhutto, Zardari said that he had yet to come to terms with what had happened.
Not only has he lost a wife but, by taking over her Pakistan People's party (PPP), he has also become the country's number one assassination target.
"I don't know how I feel," he said. "Numb, lost, all of the above."
The couple were married for 20 years, although less than half that time was spent together because of his years in jail on charges ranging from corruption to conspiracy to murder her brother.
Zardari, 51, had been at home in Dubai with their three teenage children on the evening of December 27 when he heard the news that his 54-year-old wife had been shot while leaving a rally in Rawalpindi.
"I'd been watching TV with my son when I got the call from the car to say something had happened to her," he recalled. "I said, rush her to hospital, and called my contacts to arrange a plane for me and the kids to leave. But while I was doing that, the kids had turned on the news and saw she was dead, before I could tell them anything.
"Of course we had discussed the risks, but it was never a reality. It was only when I saw her will that it really brought it home."
He explained that the document read last Sunday to the central committee of the PPP, naming him as her successor, was only her political will.
"There's this whole hand-written document in which she even says who to give her clothes and shoes to - which servant to give what to - the trust she wanted set up and how it should be run."
Zardari had been unaware that she had drawn it up. "The day her remains came to Naudero a person came from Dubai and said, 'I have this document that madam left with me'."
The will was dated October 16, two days before Bhutto had returned to Pakistan. "That was the day she'd been warned not to go back and she wrote that letter to President [Pervez] Musharraf showing her apprehensions about certain people."
The message that she left for the party asked for the leadership to pass to Zardari until it can be run by their son Bilawal. Aged only 19, Bilawal will return to Christ Church, Oxford, this week for his second term as an undergraduate and has freely admitted that he was more interested in Facebook and movies than politics. It is his youngest sister Asifa, 14, who has always said that she wants to follow in her mother's footsteps to be prime minister.
As the Bhutto mausoleum highlights, it is a mantle that comes with a high risk. "It's very hard as a father," said Zardari.
"But how can you stop a tradition where so many people have knowingly given their lives as she did?
"Of course I worry about him," he said of Bilawal. "But we'll be careful with him, keep him safe. And he is of a stronger DNA than I am."
He is convinced that Bilawal will grow into the job as Benazir - known as Bibi - did after her father, the former prime minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, was ousted in a military coup in 1977 and hanged two years later.
While Bilawal finishes his studies and reaches the age of 25 (as he must to contest elections in Pakistan), Zardari will run the PPP. "I could have just said: sorry, I need to go back to Dubai with my children and can't take any more chances," he said. "But I accepted because she thought I had the heart and courage to stand against this tragedy - not my intellect, I don't think she was impressed by that."
He admits that he is a controversial figure clouded by corruption allegations that often see him referred to as "Mr Ten Percent". But he points out that he has spent 11 years in jail on charges of which he was never convicted and insists that he is the victim of a long-term smear campaign.
"The day I got engaged to her was when they planned this move. They didn't want to give the PPP two leaders so they planned this negative image. Look, this is a country where the chief justice gets arrested, gets criminal charges put on him, gets reinstated, then gets arrested again. Now after Benazir's death, the world knows the lengths [to which] the establishment of Pakistan will go."
Asked if he denied ever taking kickbacks on government contracts, he retorted: "Why would I do it? If one was to do that then one would stay with them because then there wouldn't be any inquisitions or accountability processes. They were always offering me deals. If money was what I was interested in, all I had to do was say: thank you Bibi, I'm off. And I could have had whatever I wanted."
He insists that if the party wins a majority in next month's elections, he will not take a cabinet post. Instead, he says he sees himself as "a Sonia Gandhi advisory figure but without the seat in parliament" - a reference to the behind-the-scenes influence of the widow of Rajiv Gandhi, the former Indian prime minister, as head of the ruling Congress party.
Once known as a polo-loving womaniser, Zardari seems a changed man to PPP members, sobered by his loss and eager to listen to advice. When his best friend took him to the mausoleum late last Thursday night after the crowds had gone, he wept floods of tears.
"One has to go on with her mission," he said. "She was too dear and too close - we can't let her life be wasted in vain."
Zardari has no doubt who he thinks is behind his wife's assassination. He referred to an e-mail she sent to Mark Siegel, a Wash-ington lobbyist, which was to be read in the event of her death and which pointed the finger directly at Musharraf. "We've taken that as her last message. She talks about it from her grave and it's up to the world to listen."
He believes that Britain and the United States should shoulder the blame because of their role in mediating the deal between Bhutto and Musharraf by which she returned to Pakistan.
"She came back here on sovereign guarantees," he said. "There were other countries involved; they should take responsibility for leading her back into this without proper protection."
Zardari is convinced that Musharraf was never serious about working with Bhutto. "I think that was proven the first day she landed," he said.
"Our party security wing saved her that day, not the police. It was the same with the man in Peshawar.
"Benazir wrote to Musharraf before the first bomb attack," he added. "Why didn't he act on that? She'd written endless letters asking for better security. Where was the response?"
Bhutto would summon her closest aides into the garden to inform them of her following day's programme because she was convinced that the government was bugging her house.
It is Zardari who must now oversee the PPP campaign for elections which have been delayed from this Tuesday to February 18. This is no easy task from a remote house in a dusty village with no internet and sporadic electricity. Newspapers arrive a day late.
The nationwide anger makes it likely that the PPP will win a big majority and for that reason Zardari fears the regime will rig the elections or come up with another excuse for a delay. "We don't have any faith that there will be elections," he said. "They might make another huge incident. Anyone could be a target."
For a moment he looks terrified.