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Authors: Vanessa Len

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BOOK: Only a Monster
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Nick followed Joan's gaze. “Astrid calls him Hottie McTottie,” he said, and Joan was surprised into a laugh. To be honest,
though, she'd always thought the man in the portrait looked more cruel than anything. There was a corpse of a fox at his feet, and the tip of his shoe was on the fox's neck. The artist had painted his eyes as cold and predatory. “They say he once owned the house,” Nick said.

Joan pictured all the empty rooms around them. “Can you imagine what it must have been like when just one family lived here?” she wondered. “So much space.”

Nick looked up at the ceiling: a series of skylights, interspersed with silver stars against evening blue. “I can't imagine growing up here,” he said. “My family had a tiny place when I was small. Eight of us in a two-bedroom flat.” He sounded more relaxed as he said that—more like they were having a normal conversation.

“Eight?” Joan said, surprised. He'd spoken a little about his brothers and sisters before, but Joan hadn't realized there were so many of them.

“Three brothers and two sisters,” he said. “My brothers and I all slept in the TV room until I was seven. But we didn't mind. It was nice, you know? Cozy.”

“Yeah,” Joan said, thinking of when she stayed with Gran. She liked Dad's serene house, but she liked living with the Hunts in summer too. She always had, anyway. She wasn't sure how she felt now. She closed her eyes for a moment. The back of her throat felt tight with tears.

Nick hesitated. Joan could tell what he wanted to ask. She braced herself, dreading the question. But Nick just shifted
slightly so that they were sitting closer, their arms touching.

They sat like that while Joan collected herself. “What's your family like?” she managed.

Nick hesitated again. She could feel his eyes on her. “We didn't have much, growing up,” he said. “My parents taught us to look after each other. To be good to each other. To help people in need. I believe it—I believe we should help people if we can.” Someone else might have had a self-mocking tone—to show they knew it was hokey. But Nick just said it. Like he meant it.

Joan looked down at her hands—the hands that had stolen life yesterday. She'd always believed that too. Earnestly, like Nick. She wanted to be like that. She'd thought she
was
like that.

After that conversation with Gran, Joan had felt as if she was turning into something she didn't understand. Now, talking to Nick, she wondered if there might be a way to find herself again. To just be Joan.
Could
she, even knowing what she was?

“My dad always taught me that too,” she said.

She told Nick about Dad and her extended family in Malaysia. About how she was an only child. And then—more tentatively—about being one of three cousins the same age when she stayed with the Hunts.

They talked for a long time. The conversation meandered from family to people at the house and then to anyone that occurred to them. When the words finally petered out again, Joan was relieved to find that the awkwardness was gone. The silence felt normal. Comfortable.

“I don't usually talk about myself this much,” Nick said. He sounded uncertain, as though he was afraid he'd been boring her.

Joan leaned her head against the wall beside his. “I like talking to you,” she said. She thought about how tentative he'd been when he'd asked her out. He was
so
good-looking. Movie star good-looking. There must have been people falling all over him at home, but he seemed as new to this as she was.

“I like being with you,” Joan said. “I—Nick, I
really
wanted to go on that date. I really wanted to. I got all dressed up.” She wasn't dressed up now, she realized wryly. She'd barely thought about clothes when she'd gotten up. She'd pulled on a dress over a tank top and bike shorts.

“Yeah?” Nick smiled, a little shy. “I got dressed up too. Not like a suit, but . . . there was a nice jacket.”

Joan turned her head to look at him properly. “Yeah?” she echoed. The curators had put Nick in a Regency costume once, when one of the professional actors had been sick. The trousers had been tight around his thighs, the jacket straining around his muscled shoulders.

Joan heard the rhythm of her own breath change first. Nick touched her cheek and then Joan couldn't breathe at all. She'd never kissed anyone before. Nick's warm hand shifted to tilt up her head. She felt Nick's shaky breath—a warm puff against her mouth. He was nervous too.

Joan's breath caught as his mouth touched hers. Nick lifted up just enough to smile at her again. She smiled back. She
suddenly didn't feel nervous at all. She pushed her hands into Nick's hair and kissed him. She felt warm and shivery all over. She shifted her weight, sliding her hands down to—

She jerked away fast, shocked at herself. She couldn't touch his neck.

“Hmm?” Nick seemed dazed from the kiss. “Joan?” Then he sat up a little, frowning. “Did you hear that?”

Joan registered it too then. Tires crunching over gravel. It was a sound she'd never heard here. Cars weren't allowed this close to the house. Lights washed in through the windows.

Joan scrambled to her feet and so did Nick. The sun had started to set. How long had they been sitting here, talking?

There was a black car in the courtyard below. “I didn't know they held functions here,” Joan said. Three more cars were arriving. A distant warning bell went off in her mind. Where had she seen cars like that before?

Nick still seemed to be feeling the kiss. He took a deep breath, visibly gathered himself. His thick hair was rumpled from Joan's hands. “We should probably go.”

Joan didn't fancy gate-crashing anything either. Nick offered his hand. Joan hesitated, but took it. Touching hands was safe, she reminded herself. It felt good to touch him—an echo of the shivery feeling from the kiss.

“We can go out the back way,” Joan said. She led him up the library. “They won't even see us. They'll come in from—”

She stopped, staring through the open doorway.

In the passage outside the library, a man was stepping out
of thin air with the casual stride of someone out for a stroll. He had shoulder-length black hair and a long, vulture-like face. He was half turned away from Joan. As his back foot appeared, he brushed at his suit with finicky care.

If he turned even a little, he'd see them. Joan squeezed Nick's hand, willing him to stay silent. Willing him not to have seen what she'd seen. But Nick had. He was staring, eyes wide. The man had appeared out of thin air. Nick squeezed her hand back hard.

Those black cars. Joan remembered now where she'd seen cars like that before.

Two years ago, she'd arrived at Gran's place for the summer and found a buzz of energy in the air. And not the usual buzz of good humor among the Hunts—the house had felt alive with tension.

“The Olivers are in town this year,” Ruth had explained to Joan. “Everyone's on edge.”

“What do you mean?” Joan had said.

“The
Olivers
,” Ruth had said, as if Joan should know what that meant. When Joan had looked at her blankly, Ruth had added: “Another family of monsters. Posh gits who drive around in black Jaguars. They hate us and we hate them.”

“Another family of monsters?” Joan had said. “Monsters like us?”

“Not like us,” Ruth had said. “The Olivers are really bad. Cruel.”

Joan had seen those cars once later that summer. As she'd
walked down the street, three of them had rolled past, sleek and black. Inside the last, Joan had glimpsed a gray-suited man in the driver's seat, wearing a proper chauffeur's hat. In the back seat, a boy had sat alone. He'd been around Joan's age, golden-haired and beautiful. And as he'd passed, Joan had seen that he was sneering, as though he despised the whole world.

Cruel
, Joan thought now. What would the Olivers do if they caught Joan and Nick here?

A woman appeared beside the vulture-faced man. And then more and more people were popping into existence—in the passage and in the rooms beyond: the Yellow Drawing Room, the Gilt Room.

Joan couldn't shut the door—not without making a sound. It was old and creaky and whined when it closed. She could only step back into the library, careful not to touch the creaky floorboard. She coaxed Nick back with her, hoping their movements would be masked by all the arrivals.

As she stepped back, there was a sound behind her. A third footstep—a footstep neither she nor Nick had taken.

Joan turned slowly. Where the library had been empty, now there were people all down the long gallery. Joan heard Nick breathe in, sharp and shocked.

A man grabbed Joan's shoulder with a heavy hand. “Why is it,” he said, “that whenever we come to this time, we find the place infested with rats?”

Four

They were monsters.

If Joan had fostered any doubt about the truth, she couldn't doubt it anymore. They'd appeared out of thin air. Joan must have looked just like that yesterday when she'd traveled from morning to night.

Seven of them were standing in the long gallery, elegantly dressed in early twentieth-century suits and gowns. Joan's eyes caught on details. A white silk scarf draped over a black jacket. Silver beading on a blue dress. Black leather shoes with a mirror sheen.

“Did you see that?” Nick whispered to Joan. “Did you see them appear out of the air?”

Joan felt sick. “Yes.” She wished she could tell him what was happening. She wished she knew more herself. She couldn't stop thinking of Ruth's words.
The Olivers are really bad. Cruel.

In the silence, footsteps sounded, slow and deliberate. The vulture-faced man stepped in from the passage. His shoulder-length hair was as black as a raven's wing.

The man behind Joan gripped her shoulder tighter. “Lucien.
These two were here when we arrived. They saw us arrive.”

Joan shivered at the way he said it. She had a horrible foreboding feeling.
You must never tell anyone about monsters
, Gran had said. And now Nick had seen them. What did that mean?

“We're—we're volunteers here,” Nick said. “We clean the house. We catalog the books. We don't have anything you'd—”

The man who'd spoken struck Nick hard across the face.

“Don't!” Joan said, shocked. She flung up a hand, as if she could belatedly stop Nick from being hit. Someone gripped her shoulder and dragged her back. Joan clutched desperately at Nick's hand, but couldn't hold on as she was pulled away. There was blood on Nick's mouth: a horrible smear of red.

Joan's voice had drawn the attention of the vulture-faced man. Lucien. He closed the gap between them and grabbed her chin. There was a scuffle between Nick and two men. Lucien ignored it, forcing Joan's chin up. “This girl is one of us,” he said.

“A monster?” one of the others asked.

Nick stopped struggling and stared, his dark eyes huge. “A monster?” He sounded bewildered. “What?”

“I'm not—” Joan started to say, but Lucien squeezed her face, making her gasp.

“Don't try to deny it,” Lucien said. “I can see what you are. I have the Oliver power. You're a monster and your little friend here is human.” As he spoke, his eyes narrowed as if he'd noticed something else. Some prickling instinct made Joan follow his gaze down to her bracelet. It was a simple gold chain with a
small charm—a gold fox with a silver tongue. Gran had given it to her years ago.
The Hunt family symbol
, she'd said.

Lucien's mouth twisted. “Search them,” he said roughly.

Two men did, with efficiency. One of them found Joan's phone. Joan wrenched it away while he was still fumbling for it. She typed fast to Ruth:
Olivers at hh.
But as she tried to hit send, the man tore the phone from her. He crossed the room in a stride, opened a window, and dropped the phone out. There was a distant smash of glass in the courtyard below. Beside Joan, Nick managed to reach the corded phone on the desk, but then that was torn away too.

And then their arms were caught and they were muscled out of the library. Joan fought, the heels of her sneakers skidding and squealing against the wooden floor. “Let us go!” She could hear the rising panic in her voice. “Leave us alone! Let us go!”

They were dragged into the Gilt Room—two rooms over from the library, and the most ornate room in the house, a jewelry box of red velvet and oil paintings with gilded frames and gleaming gold leaf.

At least three dozen people had gathered, as though for a cocktail party. All of them turned to stare as Joan and Nick were hustled in. Joan was humiliatingly aware of her flushed, sweaty face. Her hair had loosened from its tie. Nick was disheveled too. There was blood on his mouth, and the struggle had rucked up his hair.

In contrast, the glamour of the Gilt Room fit the Olivers like a glove. They lounged casually on the velvet chairs and leaned against the blue-and-gold wainscoted walls as though it all belonged to them.

The most intimidating of them all was a blond man standing alone by the great marble fireplace—unlit in this warm weather. With a shock, Joan realized she'd seen him before. His portrait was in the library—the cold-eyed man in Regency-era hunting clothes. In real life, he was imposingly tall, with the same long face as Lucien. But where Lucien's face was vulture-like, this man's features were handsome and refined.

Joan looked at Nick. He hadn't recognized the man as being from the portrait—of course he hadn't. He didn't know that these people had stepped into this house from another time. Joan wished that she were still holding Nick's hand. She wanted to signal to Nick to run. But where could they run to? There were Olivers everywhere.

“Edmund,” Lucien said to the cold-eyed man.

The man beckoned to Lucien without speaking. His posture was as arrogant as a king's.

“We found them in the library,” Lucien said. He pushed Joan and Nick forward. “They say they're volunteers here. But look.” He dragged up Joan's wrist to show Edmund her bracelet with its silver-tongued fox charm. “The girl's a Hunt.”

The word
Hunt
rippled around the room in tones of distaste. As Joan followed the ripple, she saw a boy her own age, golden-haired and haughty. He was standing by one of the
arched windows.
Hunt
, he mouthed at her with contempt.

“A Hunt,” Edmund echoed. His family might have been roused, but his own voice was very cold. He examined Joan from his great height, as though examining a specimen. “Half-human, half-monster,” he said to her musingly. “If your mother were an Oliver, you'd have been voided in the womb. But the Hunts have such tolerance for abominations.”

Joan stared up at him, shaken. People had said things all her life about her being half-Chinese and half-English. But Edmund's flat tone and cold expression had somehow been as frightening as an overt threat. She had the feeling he wouldn't blink before killing her.

“What should we do with them?” Lucien said. “The boy saw us arrive.”

He'd said that in the library too. As though Nick was a problem that would have to be dealt with. Joan scanned for an escape route, trying not to be too obvious.

Edmund's heavy hand landed on her shoulder, making her jump. He bent to examine her. “You traveled for the first time,” he said to her. “Recently, I think.” He bent closer—close enough that Joan could see the color of his eyes: the light gray of clouds on a gloomy day. For a long moment, she was caught in his gaze, like prey in the sights of a predator.

In the dim light of the chandeliers, she might have been the only person close enough to see his eyes widen. “It's true, then,” he murmured. “The Hunts have been keeping secrets.”

“What do you mean?” Joan whispered. What secrets?

“Edmund?” Lucien said. “The boy.”

Edmund was still staring at Joan. He straightened slowly. To Joan's dismay, his attention turned to Nick. “You saw us arrive, boy?” he said.

“No!” Joan blurted. Edmund's expression was just like it had been in the painting: predatory. She thought about that image of the dead animal under his foot. “He didn't!” Joan said.

But Nick had already started to answer too. “I—I saw everyone appear out of the air.”

Joan felt a sick swoop in the pit of her stomach.
You must never tell anyone about monsters
, Gran had said. But what happened to humans who found out?

Exits. There were five doors leading out of the Gilt Room—two doors to the east, two to the west, and one directly ahead. But Olivers were blocking every one of them.

“Dear me,” Edmund said to Nick. “Everyone appearing from the air . . . That must have been awfully frightening.” The words were warm, but his eyes were still a predator's. “You must be wondering who we are.” He lowered his voice, as if divulging a secret. “We're monsters,” he whispered. “We steal life from humans like you.”

“Monsters?” Nick whispered back.

He was so vulnerable, and he didn't know it. A human, in a room full of people who could steal his life from him with a touch. Joan couldn't bear it.

“I know what you're thinking,” Edmund said to Nick. “You're thinking that monsters don't exist. But of course you'd
think that. Any human who learns the truth of our existence is killed.”

Cold dread washed over Joan. She threw herself toward Nick, but Lucien wrenched her back. “No!” She fought Lucien desperately. “Let him go! You can't hurt him!” This couldn't be happening. Nick shouldn't even have been here—he was only here because she'd come to see him so late. And now . . . She sucked in a panicked breath. Were they going to kill him? They
couldn't
.

Nick was struggling too, head rearing like a spooked horse as Olivers closed in on him. “Joan!” he shouted. “
Joan!
” He managed to throw off one man, but a second slammed a casual fist into his jaw.

Nick slumped, knees sagging; the blow had knocked him unconscious. Olivers grabbed his arms, preventing him from slipping to the floor. Someone shoved his head down so that it lolled, baring his pale neck.

You touched him here
, Gran had said.

“No!” Joan gasped.
No, no, no.
There was a knife in Lucien's belt. It looked ornamental; the handle was shaped like a mermaid—silver with blue enamel eyes. Without letting herself think about it, Joan threw her weight back against Lucien. He shoved her away instinctively.

Edmund made an irritated sound. “Control her,” he told Lucien.

Lucien flushed and reached for her. But it was too late. Joan had the knife. She thrust it toward Lucien and was relieved
when he backed up and Edmund did too, their hands rising. It seemed that monsters were as afraid of a blade as humans.

“Let him go!” Joan told the men holding Nick. But she couldn't fight them all. She took a step toward Edmund instead. “Let him
go
.” She was surprised by the menace in her own voice. And she meant it. If they killed Nick, she'd
hurt
them—as many of them as she could before she was overpowered.

Edmund's eyebrows went up. “Dear me,” he said dryly. “You seem fond of the human boy. I suppose that perversion must run in the family.” Joan gripped the knife tighter. Edmund looked at Lucien. “Careless of you, brother, to lose your knife to a girl.”

Lucien's gloomy face seemed to belong more to one of the wall paintings than to a living man. He took his time answering, and when he did, it was with an irritated drawl. “She's hardly a threat. One knife against forty people.”

Joan judged the distance between herself and Edmund. He'd backed away from the fireplace, too far away for Joan to lunge at. Everyone had moved away from her. Now what was she going to do? Nick was unconscious. She tried not to let panic overwhelm her, but her heart felt like a hammer in her chest. She needed to
think
.

“One knife against forty?” Edmund repeated to Lucien. “Well. That sounds rather unsporting.”

“Unsporting?” Lucien said, puzzled.

“One blade against another would be fairer, don't you think?” Edmund said.

When Edmund lifted his hand to indicate the sword above
the fireplace, Joan went light-headed with fear. She'd dusted that sword a dozen times. According to the tour guides, it was a replica of one that had belonged to the house's namesake, the first Earl of Holland. He'd been executed for his allegiance to Charles I.

“What am I to do with that?” Lucien sounded puzzled.

“Well, I suspect we can't kill
her
by touching her,” Edmund said. “I would say there's too much monster in her for that.” His eyes were bright, belying his even tone, and Joan wondered if she might be sick.

“This is tedious,” another voice said suddenly. Joan was surprised to see that it was the blond boy. The one who'd mouthed
Hunt
with disgust. He was standing alone in an arched recess. Behind him, a window rose to the full height of the arch. The recess was deep enough to hold a comfortable armchair, but the boy had avoided it. “Should we not just let them go?” the boy said to Edmund. “Half-human or not, the girl is wearing the Hunt mark. They've claimed her as one of them. It hardly seems worth escalating matters for sport.”

He wasn't alone in his objection. The other Olivers were shifting their weight, uncomfortable too—it seemed that only Edmund had a taste for blood.

“Aaron, this is a surprise,” Edmund said mildly to the boy. “Are you actually expressing an opinion?”

There was a long silence. Long enough for Joan to hope that the boy—Aaron—would help her and Nick. That he'd stop this. But in the end it was Edmund who spoke again. “
Leave.

BOOK: Only a Monster
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