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Paladin is book one in the Jericho's Boys series.
Each book follows a different couple and can be read as a standalone.
- Found Family
- Secret Identity
Arseny Lebedev lives a normal life. During the day, he’s a mechanic. At night, he livestreams a fairy tale video game called Paladin. And sometimes—only sometimes—he kills people. But they all deserve it.
Ever doesn’t know his last name. He doesn’t know much of anything. Most of his life has been torture, bought and sold by a woman who calls herself his mother. He’s resigned himself to a life of servitude, until he meets Arsen.
The moment Arsen sees Ever, they’re bonded. Ever is both fragile and feral, willing to defend himself with any tool at his disposal, even teeth. Arsen is color and light, a beacon in Ever’s darkness, as brave as the knight in the game he plays.
Arsen protects Ever fiercely, but just when he feels safe, someone attempts to drag him back to his old life, reminding him that reality isn’t fairy tales or video games. He knows staying puts Arsen in danger. But Arsen insists they’re safer together. Can Ever truly have his happily ever after or is it game over?
Warning: This book contains graphic descriptions of past physical and sexual abuse as well as gratuitous violence against bad people who totally deserve it.
LOOK INSIDE: CHAPTER ONE
LOOK INSIDE: CHAPTER ONE
Arsen Lebedev sat on the stoop of an abandoned building, watching the windows of the small home across the street. They’d been dark for a while, but he was in no hurry. He sat, playing a game on his phone, swearing as he made a fatal error that sent his character spiraling out of existence for the sixth time.
He sighed, shoving his phone back in his pocket, and nodded to a couple walking their dog. It was three in the morning, but time seemed irrelevant on this side of town. There were day people and night people. Sometimes, Arsen was both.
On nights like this—when he had to kill someone—he was a night person. Murder was just easier in the dark. And it didn’t have anything to do with anonymity. Arsen made no attempt to hide his identity. He was well known in the neighborhood, from his turquoise hair to his distinct video game tattoos. Hell, even his good looks.
People knew who he was. He was one of Jericho’s boys. That made him untouchable, even to the police. Not that they bothered with that side of town. People there took care of their own, and when they couldn’t, they called Jericho and Jericho dispatched one of his “kids” to handle things. Tonight, Arsen was that kid, and he would’ve been lying if he said he wasn’t looking forward to taking out this particular trash.
He rose and stretched as a man on a bike passed. He had a case of beer and Oreos strapped to the back. Arsen smiled. Oreos and warm beer didn’t sound in any way appealing, but who was he to yuck someone else’s yum? He ate his eggs with ketchup…and syrup.
There was no accounting for taste.
He stifled a yawn. The faster he got this done, the faster he could go home and lie in his own bed. He had an early morning at the garage, finishing the two late-day oil changes he hadn’t gotten to. He could have stayed and gotten them done to get a couple more hours of sleep in the morning, but sleep wasn’t really in the cards for him. His nightmares ensured he never slept more than a handful of hours at most.
He crossed the street, glancing at the dark, late-model BMW in the target’s driveway. He liked the sleek lines of the car and the engine was most capable. But the parts were too expensive to replace. His target didn’t worry too much about money, though nobody could really figure out where it came from. Nowhere good.
Arsen sighed. Even in the poorest neighborhoods, there was a hierarchy. There were those so poor that running water and electricity were out of their reach, and some who drove fancy cars back to their one-bedroom walk-ups where they watched cable on their wall-sized televisions. Not rich enough to survive in an upper middle-class area, but not as poor as the rest of them.
Arsen didn’t know if being the richest poor person was any real flex or if it was something akin to being a prisoner doing the least amount of time. Whether you were there for murder or jaywalking, there were bars around you either way.
Well, being the richest poor person in their neighborhood wouldn’t be a problem for Jennika Henniker much longer. She was about to learn that money couldn’t save child abusers from karma.
A chill ran through him when he approached the door and the knob turned with ease. There was something terrifying about people who didn’t lock their doors. It displayed a lack of fucks Arsen aspired to have someday. He spent a good amount of his life pretending not to care, but the truth was Arsen gave too many fucks about too many things.
His fuck bucket overflowed most days. Even now, creeping through the darkness, searching out his victim, he was thinking of the paperwork he’d left on Jericho’s desk, the game he was supposed to be playing with his friends, and the letter he’d received from his father.
Yeah, way too many fucks.
He found Jennika in her bed—not surprising given the late hour. He pointed the gun at her, letting the muzzle hover about an inch from the center of her forehead. She’d never see it coming. One minute, she was a person, the next a memory. But that wasn’t how Jericho wanted it. He needed them to know why they were being exiled from the planet.
She was much older than Arsen had imagined her to be. Not ancient by any means but mid-fifties. Her dark hair obscured part of her face, but the lines around her mouth gave him a rough estimate. She wasn’t unattractive, but who she was as a person made her ugly.
He pressed the cold steel to her skin. She flinched, shaking her head like she was trying to bat away a gnat or fly. He pressed harder until her eyes flew open. Arsen lifted a finger to his lips. “Shh,” he taunted.
To her credit, she didn’t cry or scream—didn’t look even remotely panicked about the intruder standing over her bed. “What are you doing in my bedroom?” she asked, her accent heavy. German maybe.
Her eyes widened, then narrowed. “You’re Russian?”
It was odd the things people focused on when their deaths were imminent. Arsen had killed a lot of people. She was the first to skip over the dying to discuss his accent. “Aga,” he said.
“I have money,” she said, her voice not particularly panicky.
Arsen rolled his eyes. If he had a dollar for every person who’d tried to bribe him out of their deaths, he could probably afford the new PC he’d been saving for. “I don’t want your money.”
She scoffed. “Everybody wants money.”
Arsen smiled. “Not me. I just want you to die.”
Her eyes glittered even in the darkness. She was almost…reptilian in her coldness. “Why? What could I possibly have done to you?”
“Me? Nothing. But I’m not really your target age range, am I? Unfortunately for Tenesha Copenhaver, Melody Shrier, and Zaneta King, they were.”
She bristled at the mention of those names. “Who?”
“The toddlers you brought into your home under the guise of foster care and then abused so badly they took them from you. One after the other.”
“Children need discipline,” she said, tone bored. “I will not apologize for not coddling them.”
Arsen’s stomach churned. How often had his father said something like that? Every time Arsen got a beating? Every time his mother did? Every day. “You didn’t discipline them. You tortured them. Broken bones. Bruises. Burns. Ligature marks. So, now, you have to die.”
“Get on with it then,” she said, waving a hand.
He didn’t know what he’d expected but it certainly wasn’t that. Such a cavalier attitude towards her own death. Perhaps she was a psychopath. He knew plenty of them. Or maybe she was just a narcissist who refused to die crying.
“I will not beg to be spared, if that’s what you’re waiting for.”
Arsen stiffened. That was what his mom had said. “I won’t beg.” She’d looked so defiant then. So strong. But this woman and his mother were nothing alike.
Before he could spiral down into the darkness of his thoughts, he heard a thud from behind the door to his right.
Was there someone else there? Another child? A boyfriend?
“Who’s in there?” Arsen snapped, digging the muzzle of the gun against her forehead until she hissed in pain.
“In where?” she asked, clearly enjoying playing stupid.
Arsen listened intently for another moment, never taking his eyes off the woman before him. But there was no follow-up sound. He glanced towards the door once more, able to make out a lock at the top even in the shadows.
A sick feeling slid through him. Did she have another little girl? Had they given her another child to foster? This was why Jericho had slated her to die. The system was too broken. They simply couldn’t handle the amount of kids, so they just gave them to people often far worse than those they were taken from in the first place.
Arsen had gotten a taste of the foster system first hand. It wasn’t for him. Truthfully, it wasn’t fit for any child. Luckily, he’d been able to escape to Jericho’s when things got too bad. “Who’s in there?”
She sneered at him. “Go see for yourself. Careful, though. He bites.”
He? An animal? A dog maybe? Who locked their dog in a closet? The same kind of woman who abused toddlers. He grabbed a pillow from the bed and forced it over her face, then pulled the trigger, using the pillow as a suppressor to muffle the sound.
That was when he heard it. A mewling sound and scratching on the closet door. She really had locked up an animal. Fuck. Arsen couldn’t leave a fucking dog in there. It would starve before anybody even came looking for this woman. And there was no guarantee whoever found the woman would even check on an animal.
“Careful, though. He bites.”
Arsen really didn’t want to get bitten. But if he let a dog die, Noah would never forgive him. Hell, he’d never forgive himself. Animals and children were innocent. Sacred. They deserved to be protected.
As he got closer to the door, the noise stopped. Arsen’s heart hammered against his ribs. Chyort. The lock was small, like something you’d find on a shed or storage unit. If he could have turned on the light, he would have tried to pick it, but he wasn’t risking alerting anyone to his presence.
He took a deep breath and let it out, then stepped back, slamming his booted foot into the door once, then twice. It gave on the third kick, splintering the wood holding the lock in place and sending the door flying inward.
The smell hit him like a sledgehammer, sending him reeling backward, a combination of sweat and stale air. It was…sour. He expected a dog to come running from the room, but there was nothing. Uneasiness dripped along his spine like ice water. He slid his phone from his pocket and turned on the flashlight, aiming it towards the still darkness of the closet. His eyes landed on a dirty mattress, if he could even call it that. It looked like a crib mattress or a bed for a child.
If there was a little kid in there, this job was about to get a lot more complicated. He took two steps in, shining the light around. There was a bucket in the corner and a stack of books. On the wall was a round circle, like one of those battery-operated lights people put in their kitchens and bathrooms. But nothing else.
“Hello?” he said. “You can come out. I won’t hurt you.”
There was a faint scraping sound like someone shifting behind the door, like they’d hidden in the small space there. It was the perfect size for a child.
“Hello?” he said again, keeping his voice soft, hoping he sounded friendly enough to coax them out of hiding.
He really didn’t want to have to drag them out. It would only traumatize them further. But in situations like this, time was important. While nobody would turn him in, he couldn’t refute standing in a room with a dead body, gun in hand.
The door moved and a figure stepped into the light, shielding their face from his phone. Arsen dropped it slightly so it was no longer in their eyes. He squinted. It wasn’t a child. Well, not a toddler anyway.
It was a boy. His short dark hair obscured his eyes, but Arsen could make out a heart-shaped face, chubby cheeks, and full lips. The boy huddled in on himself, eerily quiet, muscles tensed like he was prepared to fight if necessary.
Arsen didn’t want to fight him. He was small, at least a good head shorter than Arsen’s six feet. He wore a dirty white t-shirt covered in dark stains and a pair of dark-colored sweatpants. He was swimming in the fabric.
He was just so small.
“Hi,” Arsen said again, having no idea what to say. “What’s your name?”
The boy shook his head.
Did he not know his name or did he just not want to tell a total stranger? Both reasons were valid. Arsen opened his mouth to assure him it was okay to keep the information to himself, but before he could, the boy’s gaze landed on the gun in Arsen’s hand, his eyes going wide.
“No. No. No,” Arsen chanted, raising his hands to show he meant no harm but the boy was already stumbling back, shoving the door closed.
Arsen caught it with his booted foot, pushing his way inside. “It’s okay. I’m not going to hurt you.”
The boy wasn’t having it. He was fighting back with every ounce of his strength, clawing and biting at him. He hissed as blunt nails dug into his skin and twisted, then teeth latched onto his hand.
Arsen grimaced, taking him to the ground. “Ow. Ah ti malen'kiy chertyaka.”
The little demon had teeth, all right. It was only after he had him pinned beneath him that the boy stopped fighting. He just went completely limp, glazed eyes staring up at the ceiling. Something about the way the fight immediately left the boy stole Arsen’s breath, leaving him choked up. How many times had he been held down like that?
“I’m not going to hurt you,” Arsen said again. “I promise. Do you believe me?” The boy continued to stare up at the ceiling, Arsen set his phone down, flashlight up, to illuminate the small space, then placed the gun out of reach, turning the boy’s face to meet his gaze. “Do you believe me?”
The boy blinked at him, his wide brown eyes wild, pupils blown. He was breathing heavily, either from the fight or adrenaline, maybe both. He just stared at Arsen for a long moment and then reached up, touching his hair, the fear replaced with a look of curiosity. Arsen wasn’t sure how long they laid there, the boy’s hands in his hair, his bottom lip trapped between his teeth.
Arsen knew he should put a stop to it, but the way the boy was petting him, staring at him with this sort of wonder, made him loathe to move. Every soft touch sent goosebumps rolling along his skin.
When it seemed like the boy had soothed himself, Arsen finally said, “I’m Arsen. Can you tell me your name?”
The boy hesitated, worrying his bottom lip between his teeth, then pushed on Arsen’s chest, reminding him he was still holding him. He sat back, letting the boy scramble out of reach. Arsen frowned as he began to go through his stack of books, settling on what looked like a children’s book of fairy tales. He flipped to the last page and showed it to him.
And they lived happily ever after.
The boy stabbed his finger over the word ever, then pointed to himself.
“Ever?” Arsen asked. “That’s your name?”
The boy nodded, still guarded.
Could he not speak? It didn’t matter. Arsen had to get him out of there. They’d deal with everything else later. He got to his feet, leaving Ever looking up at him from his knees. “We have to go. Come with me. I’ll take you somewhere safe. Find you help.”
Arsen pulled him to his feet but, almost immediately, he began to struggle again. Arsen tried to tug him towards the door, but he dug his heels in, shaking his head vehemently. What the fuck?
“I’m sorry but we have to get out of here,” Arsen tried again, pulling once more.
“No!” the boy shouted, voice raw, then yelped when a snapping sound filled the room.
Arsen’s blood ran cold. No fucking way. Had that bitch put a shock collar around his neck? He grabbed the boy’s head and pushed it upwards. “Let me see. Let me see.”
It wasn’t a typical collar like they used on dogs. There was no buckle, nothing to easily remove it. What the fuck? Arsen pulled the knife from his pocket, flicking open the blade. “Hold still.”
Arsen’s heart twisted as Ever stopped fighting, once more limp in his arms. He worked the blade beneath the leather, then placed his fingers between Ever’s skin and the sharp edge. The collar gave in to the blade, easily falling to the ground. Arsen tried not to look horrified at the scarring where the box had been, but it was hard. Ever slapped his hands over the scar.
“Now, can we go?” Arsen said, practically begging. “Please?”
Ever looked torn, like he wanted nothing more than to say yes, expression miserable as tears sprung to his eyes. He shook his head.
“Please, little one? Let me get you out of here? Please?”
“We can’t,” he whispered.
Was his voice permanently damaged from the abuse or had it just been that long since he’d spoken? Arsen wanted to revive the bitch so he could kill her again. Slowly, this time.
“But why?” Arsen asked. “She’s not coming back. I promise. She’s very dead.”
Ever shook his head, then yanked his t-shirt up, turning around. Once more, Arsen had to fight the urge to recoil. There were hundreds of marks, all in various stages of healing. So many, in fact, that it took far longer than it should have for him to realize what Ever was actually trying to show him.
Arsen reached out without thought, tracing the outline of the object protruding slightly from between Ever’s shoulder blades. Jesus. “Is that…is that a tracking device?”
Ever bobbed his head, panicked. “If I go, they’ll find me. And you, too. Just go.”
Blya. Blya. Blya. Blya.
“Okay, we won’t leave the house just yet, but can we leave the closet?”
Ever eyed the doorway warily.
“She’s gone, I promise.”
Ever let Arsen tug him from the stench of the closet into the fresh air of the bedroom. He picked up the gun, ensuring the safety was on before stuffing it in the pocket of his hoodie.
Ever’s gaze was glued to the bed, to the body of the woman who’d held him captive for God only knew how long. Arsen wasn’t sure if the boy’s complete lack of emotion was a good or bad thing.
Arsen set him with his back to the wall, hoping it would ease some of his anxiety, then grabbed his phone and made the call he most definitely didn’t want to make.
Jericho answered on the first ring. “What’s wrong?” he asked, voice gruff from sleep.
“Who is it?” he heard his husband ask.
“Arsen,” Jericho explained, then said again, “What’s wrong?”
“Coe, I have a big problem.”
There was a long moment of silence. Arsen never had problems. “How big?” he asked, voice grim.
Arsen let out a shaky breath. “I think I need Freckles. And his medical bag.”
“Are you hurt?”
“Me? No. But someone else is. I can’t leave him here, but we can’t go until someone with some surgical training shows up. So, hurry, please.”
“What the hell happened, kid?”
Arsen shook his head, locking eyes with Ever, who blinked at him with a sort of bemused expression. “I think I found you a new stray.”
“Shit. We’ll be there soon.”
With that, he was gone. Arsen gave Ever what he hoped was a reassuring smile. The boy stared at him for so long, Arsen was afraid to blink and lose the contest. But then he crawled closer. Much closer. His fingers once more went to Arsen’s hair, picking at it like he thought it might come loose in his hands, seeming almost amused when it held firm.
“Pretty,” he said softly.
Arsen shivered. This close, he could see every detail of Ever’s face. The chapped lips, the slight scarring at the corners of his mouth. Neither of those things took away from how beautiful he was. Small and delicate looking.
Arsen sat frozen, just staring at Ever’s soft expression as he amused himself playing with Arsen’s hair. He was dissociating. Arsen recognized the symptoms and had done it a million times himself as a kid, the brain protecting itself from trauma.
What the fuck had they done to him?