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Authors: Vanessa Len

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BOOK: Only a Monster
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A Hunt and an Oliver cooperating. Yesterday, Joan's family would have said that was impossible.
We hate them and they hate us.
A few minutes ago, fighting against Lucien, Joan would have agreed.

But today, Joan had gone up against the Oliver family and lived. Today, Nick had saved her life. Then he'd revealed himself to be a threat beyond imagining. What was one more impossible thing?

Six

Joan walked out under the leafy archway, past the cheerful
You escaped the maze!
sign. She found herself in darkness, in a field at the edge of the grounds. Dandelion heads brushed her ankles in the long grass. She couldn't see any sign of Nick or his people.

From here, Holland House was the size of her palm. The windows glowed like candles. The house looked welcoming, even homey.

Aaron came to stand beside her, just a shape in the darkness. He looked at the house. He'd said it had been his childhood home.

It was too dark to see his face.

Joan touched his elbow. He didn't react. But when she headed for the road, he followed.

Kensington High Street was all lights and cars and people, the cheerful bustle surreal after the silent gray of the maze. Joan stood at the curb, staring at the ordinariness of it all: kebabs and burgers and black cabs.

A car started nearby, making her jump. It crawled along the road, as though the occupants were lost—or looking for
someone. Joan glanced at Aaron, and by unspoken agreement they both slid into the shadows of a doorway.

They made it to Kensington Gardens by a ragged route of back streets, avoiding any slow-rolling cars and vans. Kensington Gardens was closed for the night. Aaron gave Joan a boost over the fence, and she landed with a thud that flared the sword wound into sharp pain. She bent over and breathed.

A moment later, Aaron landed beside her, and she made herself straighten. “Do you think we were followed?” Aaron whispered.

“I don't know,” Joan whispered back. The gardens were very dark. The streetlights penetrated a little, but beyond their sphere, Joan could hardly even see trees.

“Keep an eye out,” Aaron said. “At night, police patrol the park with dogs.”

“How do you know that?”

He scowled. “Do you actually require the amusing anecdote now? Or can we continue to run for our lives?”

I don't want to be running with you at all
, Joan wanted to tell him.
You left me to die.
But he was right that they couldn't just stand here, talking, where anyone could stumble on them.

“Let's head for the Serpentine,” Joan said. The moonlight on the lake might give them enough light to navigate across the uneven ground without having to rely on phones for light.

“Dogs can track across water.”

“That's not why—” Joan started, and then cut herself off. He had a way of talking that made her want to argue with him. “Let's just go,” she said shortly.

They walked in silence. Joan's socks quickly became soaked with dew. She welcomed the discomfort. It kept her mind here, in the park, in the present. Her feet were wet and cold. Better to think about that than to think about Gran's slack mouth. About the people lying dead among the flowers. About the sound Ruth had made when the knife had punched into her. About Nick's face when he'd said:
If you ever steal time from a human again, I will kill you myself.

They followed the dull shine of the Serpentine as it wound through the park. Eventually, Aaron touched Joan's arm to stop her.

“What is it?” Joan whispered. The brush was thick here, almost wild. Joan could hear the lap of the water in the darkness. She was shivering in spite of the exercise. Had Aaron heard something nearby? She hadn't. She folded her arms around herself and felt sticky warmth at her side. She was still bleeding. It seemed like a bad idea to get themselves wet and even colder.

“You're injured,” Aaron whispered.

“What?” Joan wished she could see him better. It was so dark.

“The way you're walking. Did the attackers do it?”

Joan was incredulous. “Your
uncle
did it.”

Aaron's pause was barely perceptible. “How bad is it?”

“Can we please just keep walking.”

“Don't be a fool. How bad is it?”

Joan looked up at the dark sky, wishing she were here with
anyone else.
God, if only Bertie or Ruth—
She bit the inside of her cheek hard to stop the thought. She grabbed the base of her tank top and peeled it up.

Aaron thumbed his phone on, shielding the light with his body. There was a cut on Joan's side. It had bled—a lot. So much that it was difficult to see how deep it was.

Aaron swore under his breath. “We need to find somewhere to stay for the night.”

“You mean together?” Joan said, surprised. She'd assumed they'd part ways as soon as they left the park.

In the harsh light of the phone, Aaron seemed as surprised as she was. He recovered quickly, his face becoming a sneering mask. “Fine with me if you want to split up.”

“I didn't say that.”

“It's not like I want to hang about with you either.”

“God,” Joan said, sharper than she'd intended. “Is it hard work being such a prat all the time?”

Aaron's smile didn't get anywhere near his eyes. “Not really.”

Joan ground her teeth to keep herself from getting too loud. “Let's just sleep here in the park,” she suggested. “It's as good as anywhere.” Kensington Gardens was big enough to hide two people if they stayed quiet. “We could take turns sleeping and keeping watch.”

“I'm not sleeping on the
ground
.”

Joan couldn't help but huff a laugh. “Well, okay, Your Highness. Let's check in to the Savoy.”

Aaron took off his suit jacket. To Joan's surprise, he offered it to her. She shook her head. She was cold, but not nearly cold enough to wear Aaron Oliver's jacket.

“There's blood all over you,” he said.

Joan looked down at herself. Her tank top was a mess. And her arms. Her hands . . . It was mostly Gran's blood.

“Here.” Aaron draped the jacket around her. It was light gray wool and far too big for her. The warmth was immediate and the relief intense. Joan's first instinct was gratitude, and then she was annoyed at herself for it.

Aaron turned off his phone screen. The contrast made the night very black. “We can't go to a hotel,” he said, as if she'd been serious about the Savoy. “We're far too memorable, looking like this. They'd only have to ask around.”

Joan pictured the area around them. A vague memory came to her. There was a place north of here where Gran met people sometimes—when she didn't want it known that she was meeting them. “I might know somewhere,” she said.

“Somewhere safe?” Aaron said.

“I don't know,” Joan admitted. “But probably safer than here.”

It turned out to be a longer walk than Joan had remembered. By the time she found the right street, her teeth were chattering again, and Aaron was looking over his shoulder more than he was watching the way ahead.

The streetlights were broken here—and recently. Glass
was spattered on the ground. Aaron walked around the shards with fastidious care. “Isn't this nice,” he said. “You've managed to home in on the one piece of slum around here. Trust a Hunt.”

Joan wished she'd paid more attention when she'd come here with Gran. All the houses on the row looked the same. She went up to one of the doors with more confidence than she felt.

To her relief, the door wasn't locked, and the foyer was familiar—a tiny reception area the size of Gran's bathroom. The smell was familiar too. Ancient cigarettes and damp. The carpet stuck to Joan's socks, adding brown furry muck to the mud and grass.

Joan rang the bell at the desk. A woman emerged from the staff door. She had gray hair and cat-eye glasses, and she didn't blink at Joan and Aaron's mismatched clothes. Her name tag said
Vera
.

“Room for two, please,” Joan said.

Vera pointed at a handwritten sign taped to the counter.
Cash only. Hourly and nightly rates. Payment up front.

“That's you,” Joan said to Aaron.

Aaron looked sour. His expression was as clear as a thought bubble: he couldn't believe that he was here in this foyer, with Joan and Vera.

“Two beds,” Aaron said.


Two
beds?” Vera seemed far more surprised at that than at the contrast between Joan's muddy socks and Aaron's Savile Row suit.

Joan felt her face heating up. Aaron seemed flustered too,
for the first time since Joan had met him. “I trust you can accommodate,” he said. He pulled a wallet from his back pocket. Joan glimpsed strange banknotes. Old-fashioned notes. Transparent notes. He thumbed through them and then pulled out two recognizable twenties.

Vera shrugged. She slid a numbered key under the glass and pointed at the fire door. “Lift's broken.”

“I'd have preferred sleeping under a bridge,” Aaron told Joan as they tromped up the stairs. Cockroaches scuttered alongside them.

“Nick won't look for us here,” Joan said.

“Nick.” Aaron looked at her sideways.

“I—I knew him before tonight,” she said.

She looked away from Aaron's sharpening gaze. “We were—” She stopped at the stab of pain in her chest, harsher and sharper than the pain in her side. She'd kissed Nick just before all this. She'd wanted it so much. “I knew him,” she managed.

Aaron was still looking at her. Joan had the unsettling impression that he was seeing more than he should have. Then his eyes dropped to a yellow stain on the fraying carpet and he grimaced. “Well, of course he won't look for us here. No one would come here. Rats wouldn't. Health inspectors clearly haven't.”

He was back to his annoying superiority, but for just a second Joan had seen something underneath that careless exterior:
something more insightful and intelligent than she'd realized, and more alien. It occurred to her that he wasn't human. And that, for all that she was half-monster herself, she didn't really know what a monster was.

The stairs ended in a long corridor with peeling wallpaper that showed layers of older patterns underneath: blue paisley and sallow orange. The edges of the carpet were nibbled to threads—Aaron had been wrong about the rats.

Joan found their door number and then leaned against the wall while Aaron struggled with the stiff lock. The pain from the sword wound was starting to get to her. She touched her side underneath Aaron's jacket and found fresh blood on her fingertips.
Shit.

Aaron reached inside. There was a click. A single dim bulb illuminated the room. Two beds. A private bathroom with an uncurtained shower and a toilet. Everything they needed. Better than Joan had expected.

“Oh, this is unmitigated hell,” Aaron said. The view through the window was the dark glass of an office building. He stared at it grimly and then snapped the curtain shut.

“What's wrong with it?” Joan said.

Aaron pointed at the ceiling. There was a cloudlike brown stain on it. “What's that?”

“A fresco,” Joan said. As Aaron wandered into the bathroom, she considered their situation. The lock might have been stiff, but the door was as thin as her finger. There was a single flimsy bolt.

She shrugged off Aaron's jacket and squeezed herself between the two beds. Then she shoved the nearest one. It didn't want to go at first. She forced it, inch by grinding inch, until it was up against the door. With any luck, that would slow down anyone trying to kick the thing in. The jolt of pain hit her belatedly. She leaned on the bed and breathed.
Goddamn Lucien.

“Here,” someone said, right beside her, and Joan flinched. For a second, all she could see were Edmund's cruel gray eyes. The round muzzle of the gun.

She raised her hand instinctively to push him away.

“Fine. Do it yourself, then,” he said, and Joan's vision cleared. It was Aaron, his mouth disdainful. He dumped a first-aid kit on the bed along with a hand towel and a bowl of soapy water. “What kind of hotel has a first-aid kit in the bathroom, and no robes?” he said. “Nice place you've brought us to.”

Joan stared at him as he picked up his jacket from the bedside table. She wasn't scared of him, she told herself. She'd been afraid of his father, but she'd seen Aaron at his basest self. He was a coward. He might have been more than a head taller than her, but if it came down to a fight between them, she was sure that she could take him.

Aaron didn't seem to notice the way she was looking at him. He made a show of shaking out the jacket and walking to the wardrobe. “Really,” he said. “Clothes should be hung. Not tossed aside like wrapping paper.”

Joan pulled herself together enough to say: “Not exactly important right now, is it?”

“It's important to look respectable. We represent our families.”

Their families were dead. He seemed to remember it at the same moment she did. He stood, frozen, a hand on the open wardrobe door. “Well,” he said. He closed the wardrobe with more force than necessary. “These coat hangers are wholly inadequate.”

The first-aid kit had been raided before—it was that kind of place. Joan sat on the bed and sorted through what was left. Bandages. Tape. Antiseptic. Scissors.

BOOK: Only a Monster
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