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Caged Thorn by Naomi West Book

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Caged Thorn by Naomi West Read Book Online And Download

Ten years ago, I ran from my home.

Today, I’m running back.

The difference this time is that my son is coming with me.

We’re going back to the place I swore I’d never return to.

Back to the lies and the heartbreaks and the site of the day that changed my life forever.

There is one other difference, actually:

This time, someone is following me.

Konstantin Aminoff isn’t the kind of man who “lets go.”

He ruined my life ten years ago, then he came back to ruin it again.

He put his ring on my finger. He put his kiss on my lips.

Worst of all, he put his mark on my world.

And if he has it his way, he’ll do the same to our son.

I can’t let that happen.

So I’m running, as far and as fast as I can, to keep myself and my son away from the man who holds our hearts and our lives in his hands.

I just have to hope it’s enough.


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Caged Thorn by Naomi West Book





Caged Thorn by Naomi West Book Read Online Chapter One


KON

When you’re a boy, the idea of your father dying seems impossible.


That’s supposed to fade as you grow. You learn about the world and you realize that the people who brought you into it are not immortal or infallible. They can break, just like everything else.


But as I stand there, trying to process the fact that the man who raised me is gone, I wonder if I never really outgrew that original concept. He’d been sick for so many years, but he clung to life stubbornly. A weed. A fixture of the house I grew up in, as permanent as the walls. A figurehead that wilted and shrunk, yes, but never, ever collapsed.


Until now.


Yefim looks as stunned as I feel, though perhaps for different reasons. He’s looking at the closed bedroom door that my wife just slammed on the both of us.


My wife.


The whole reason my father is dead.


It’s a good thing I don’t believe in bad omens. If I did, this marriage would look pretty damn fucked right from the outset. It’s in rough shape as it is. No omens necessary for that.


“Did you see the body?” I ask quietly.


Yefim swallows and nods. “Yeah. I saw to him myself. But I didn’t want to bury him until…” He trails off, looking nervously around the room as though he expects the Kuzmins to bust in here at any minute. “I thought you’d want to be there to bury him, is what I’m saying.”


“Bullet?”


“Through the head,” Yefim confirms. “He wouldn’t have felt a thing.”


“What a fucking consolation.”


He reaches out toward me. “Listen, Kon—”


With a sudden roar, I turn, snatch up a lamp nearby at hand, and hurl it against the closest wall. It doesn’t even break satisfyingly. It just clunks against the concrete and then the floor.


Nothing can go right, apparently.


“He should never have gone over there!” I bellow. “What was he thinking?”


“He was thinking he could try to undo some of the damage,” Yefim explains. “Kon, brother… what did you expect?”


His words hang heavy in the dense air of the hotel room.


I don’t have an answer.


“Stay here,” I order him. I march over to the door and rip it open.


Iris is pacing back and forth in front of the bed where Max is lying, fast asleep and peacefully ignorant of the shit storm raging around him.


She stops short when she sees me, the skirt of her gorgeous gown fluttering restlessly at her feet. Her eyes are shrouded in shadow, but I can still see the hurt in them.


I gesture her toward me, but she shakes her head. So I stride right up to her. I know I’m frightening her—she tenses immediately, all sense of comfort and calm extinguished the moment I get close enough to touch her.


I don’t, though. I keep my hands at my sides because I’m not quite sure what the fuck I’ll do with them if I’m not careful right now. I just stare down at her.


She stares back up. Lots of people in this world are afraid to meet my eye, but Iris has never been one of them. Not even in the very beginning.


I can read her thoughts like they’re written there in her gaze. I don’t care about you. This means nothing. I’m not even surprised.


She’s not fooling anyone with those lies, though.


Least of all herself.


“Iris,” I whisper softly.


She closes her eyes for a moment. I watch her chest rise and fall. When she opens her eyes again, I see the steel in them.


“Not here,” she says.


She sweeps past me and through the living room. I hesitate for a moment before I follow her.


I notice Yefim lingering on the balcony as we pass, but he doesn’t make eye contact. Just stares at the horizon.


In our bedroom, the red rose petals strewn everywhere look a little more ominous than they did when we first arrived. More like a funeral than a celebration. And hell, maybe it is a funeral of sorts. The death of a marriage before it even really started. A stillborn union.


Iris stops in the center of the open space and whips around to face me. “How could you do this?”


“Iris—”


“Don’t you dare tell me I don’t understand. Don’t you fucking dare. That’s a cop-out and you know it.”


I sigh and let my fist fall to my side. “It’s the truth.”


“Explain it to me,” she orders. “Do it now.”


I take a step forward, but she backs away instantly, so I stop short. “There was an agreement made years ago. An arrangement. Between my father and—”


“Anika Kuzmin’s?” she spits. I can see how much it pains her just to say the girl’s name.


“Yes.”


“Go on.”


“We would join the two Bratvas together… through marriage.”


She’s quivering with so much fury and sadness that I wonder if her skeleton can possibly bear all that weight, all that tension. “And you agreed?”


“No one asked for my fucking opinion. It was agreed on when I was twenty-two years old,” I say. “I knew it would take at least ten years for a wedding to actually come together. It didn’t feel like a problem I would have to deal with anytime soon.”


“Ten years?” she asks. “Why ten years?”


“Nestor wanted Anika to graduate college before getting married.”


Iris’s eyes go wide with shock. “Oh, Jesus,” she gasps, clapping a hand to her mouth. “You agreed to marry a… a twelve-year-old?”


“Listen to me, Iris,” I tell her urgently. “I agreed to marry the girl, yes. At the time, you weren’t exactly in the picture. I was doing what I needed to do for my Bratva.”


She frowns. “Tell me the truth: would you have married her if you’d never found me?”


I don’t have to think, because I know the answer. And I’m not about to lie to her now. Not even if the lie feels good.


“Yes,” I say grimly. “I would have.”


Her green eyes glaze over for a moment and she looks right past me for several seconds before she snaps out of it.


“Her father killed yours,” she says.


It’s not a question, but I answer anyway. “Yes.”


“In retaliation for what you did to his daughter.”


“I won’t let anything happen to you or Max,” I tell her immediately.


A bubble of humorless laughter escapes from her lips. “How can you promise me that? Your father is dead, Kon! Who’s to say you’re not next? Or us?”


I grind my teeth together. “He should have consulted with me before meeting with Nestor,” I say. “He made a stupid decision.”


“So it was his own fault he got killed? Is that what I’m supposed to tell myself to feel better?”


“You have nothing to do with this.”


Her jaw drops, incredulous. “He was killed because you married me!” she exclaims. “How is that supposed to make me feel, Kon?”


“This is not on you, Iris,” I say again.


Tears darken the green in her eyes. Hot, angry tears, the kind that sting as they fall. “It may not be,” she murmurs. “But one day, you’re going to look at me and see your father’s death on my face.”


“That will never happen. I swear to you.”


But my words fall on deaf ears. She drifts away from me, her hand rising to her chest to tug at the soft fabric of her bodice. “Why is this dress so damn tight all of a sudden?” she mutters to herself.


She takes three huge, gasping breaths, but none of them seem to help. Then she stops suddenly, right in front of me, her eyes flaring with agitation. Her voice comes out clipped and emotionless.


“In light of everything I’ve just heard, this is probably the least important question to ask, but I can’t not ask it, either.”


“Go ahead.”


“What does she look like?”


“Iris…”


“Answer, dammit,” she insists. “What does she look like? I know she’s young. Is she pretty?”


“What does it matter? The girl has never meant anything to me.”


“How did she feel?” Iris asks. “About this whole arranged marriage thing?” When I sigh, she bursts into a dark laugh. “She was all for it, wasn’t she? She was chomping at the bit to marry you. I bet she was gung-fucking-ho about it.”


“The feeling was not mutual.”


“So her daddy killed yours as compensation for his daughter’s broken heart,” she infers. “At least she has a father who’s got her back. Must be nice.”


There’s a bite of dark resentment in her words that has nothing to do with me. “You have to believe me when I say you and Max have nothing to worry about.”


“Don’t we?” she demands. “Because the way it looks to me, we have everything in the world to worry about. You spurned a dangerous man’s daughter for me. Max is your son. Your ‘heir,’ to use a word that disgusts me. If this man is so cold-blooded that he can kill a lifelong friend for his son’s mistake, he’s not going to think twice about getting rid of Max and me.”


“He won’t ever get close enough to try.”


Again, it’s like I never even spoke. She doesn’t give a shit what I’m saying, if she’s even bothering to process the words at all. She just shakes her head like believing me is a risk she refuses to take.


“Why didn’t you tell me all this sooner?” she asks. “Or any of it?”


“Because I didn’t want the ugliness of my world to stain yours.”


“Then maybe you shouldn’t have married me!” she cackles maniacally. It’s a cruel, taunting laugh, a barb aimed at herself as much as it’s aimed at me.


But I’ll be damned if I sit her and let her torture herself over something that’s on my hands. I’ll fix this. It starts with fixing her.


I take a stride forward, and this time, when she tries to move away from me, I grab her arm and pull her into my body. She hits my chest and stills immediately.


“Of course I married you. You are mine, Iris,” I growl. “Until the end of fucking time.”


She wriggles in my grasp. “Let me go.”


In answer, I just pull her closer to me. “I will handle this. You have to trust me.”


“That ship has sailed, Kon,” she says in a miserable half-laugh, half-sob. She shakes her head. “What are you going to do now?”


“I’m going to go down to the hotel lobby and discuss a few things with Yefim,” I tell her. “We’ll be leaving first thing in the morning.”


“For your father’s funeral?” she asks.


I swallow. My father’s funeral. I still can’t believe he’s gone. I probably won’t believe it until I see his body lying in front of me. I am the don in every sense of the word now. Even the men who were loyal to my father will answer to me, and me alone.


It’s not the triumphant victory I always imagined it would be.


“Yes, Iris. For my father’s funeral.”


She must see something in my face or hear something in my voice, because she softens imperceptibly. “What was he like?”


“He was a hard bastard,” I tell her without hesitation. “Who was prepared for death for a long time. Don’t waste your energy feeling sorry for him.”


She frowns. “What about you?” she asks. “Am I allowed to feel for you?”


She glances down at my chest. Her hand is sitting over my heart, while my hand crosses over her wrist. Both our rings are visible, shining in the light.


“Don’t bother with that, either. I’m fine.”


“Bullshit.”


“This is the Bratva,” I tell her simply. “These things happen.”


She pulls away from me. Reluctantly, I let her go. She gathers up her skirt and plops onto the bed. Her green eyes are filled with a new, churning sort of sadness and a desperate sense of loss.


“I’m so tired,” she mumbles to herself. “I don’t think I’ve ever been this tired in my life.”


I know what I should do. I should go to her, fold her up in my arms, and reassure her that everything will be alright. But my legs feel wooden and my ability to offer comfort is less functional than it’s ever been.


She needs a husband, but the truth of the matter is, I have no earthly idea how to be that for her.


My whole life, women came and went. They always knew where I stood. If they got their hearts broken, that was on them. I carried no guilt.


Now, I have a wife. A son.


And the burden for them rests squarely on my shoulders.


“Try to get some rest,” I tell her. “I’ll let you know when we’re about to leave.”


She doesn’t say anything except to put her head down on a pillow with her hands just underneath it. She tucks her legs in and they disappear under her dress. A white cloud that moves every so often as a sob she can’t control ripples through her.


I grit my teeth against what that sight does to me. Then I turn and leave the room. Yefim is standing outside the door, doing that annoying clicking thing he does with his tongue when he’s impatient.


“Kon—”


I hold up my hand. “Let’s go down to the hotel bar. We can talk there. I need a drink.”


We make our way downstairs. The bar suits my mood. Dark wood and brass everywhere, dour-faced bartenders with thick mustaches who don’t ask questions.


“Whiskey,” I tell the one closest.


“Same for me,” Yefim adds.


We sit down together, but neither one of us speaks until our drinks have been set down on the bar top. I take my glass and down the whole thing in one gulp.


“Another,” I tell the bartender before he has the chance to walk away.


He refills me, then leaves with a lingering glance at the two of us. Yefim takes his first sip of whiskey and sighs. “Fuck, I needed that.”


“How did it happen?” I ask.


Yefim knows what I mean. “In the face,” he says. “At least he didn’t put him down on his knees like a dog. Stepan would have known it was coming. Gave him a chance to take it like a man.”


“He knew before he left the house,” I mutter. “Otets may have been reckless, but he was not stupid.”


“Like father, like son.”


I throw him a glare. “You may be the only man alive who can get away with saying shit like that to me right now.”


“It’s the only reason I said it,” Yefim says. “You need a truth-teller. I’m not a yes man.”


“I used to think that was a good thing.”


“You still do,” he assures me. “You’re just… reeling.”


“He’s started a war,” I growl, taking another sip of my second whiskey.


“Kon, you started the damn war,” Yefim retorts. “You started it the moment you asked Iris to marry you.”


Judgment is wafting off of him. He’s trying to suppress it for my sake, but it’s there, etched into his features, as good an accusation as any. It hurts all the more coming from him.


“I still don’t regret it.”


“Jesus, man,” Yefim says, running a hand over his head. “Your father is dead.”


“My father is dead,” I agree. “He knew the risks in what he was doing. He chose to go in spite of them. And anyway—this was coming sooner or later no matter what.”


“Meaning…?”


“Meaning that this kind of death was preferable to having his body slowly shut down on him,” I say. “He wouldn’t have been able to abide that.”


“So it’s a good thing, is that what you’re trying to say?”


I glare at him. “Careful, Yefim. You may be able to get away with a lot. But there are limits, even for you.”


He sighs and looks into his glass. “I didn’t mean any offense, sobrat.”


“Death is part of the Bratva. Violent death, even more so. I am still willing to settle the debt we owe to the Kuzmins. I have the means to do so now. But Nestor’s just complicated things. Stepan’s murder can’t just be ignored.”


I get off the barstool and throw a hundred dollar bill on the counter. “Call the men, get them ready. Increase security around my property, as well as Stepan’s. And get the jet prepared. We’re leaving the moment it’s been refueled.”


Yefim nods. “Done. And… your wife?”


“She’ll need time.”


“She’s going to need a lot more than time,” Yefim warns. “She’s not Bratva, Kon.”


I crack my neck, first one way, then the other. “She is now.”


 

* * *


I leave Yefim behind as I take the long walk upstairs. My head is full of dark thoughts and the whiskey I thought would help has done next to nothing to quiet them. At least the stairwell is silent. So is the room, when I enter it. Deadly silent, actually.


Way too fucking silent.


Something’s wrong.


Instinct flutters through my body as I take note of all the missing essentials that had previously littered the space.


Iris’s jacket.


Max’s sneakers.


Both their backpacks.


My heart stampeding in my chest, I go to the room Max was sleeping in. The bed is empty now, but the sheets still hold the warm indent of his small body. I can see the signs of a rushed exit everywhere.


My wife just took my son and ran.



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