THE WREN IN THE HOLLY LIBRARY

Chapter One

It’s now or never.

Kierse crouched low, pressing her back against the stone in the shadows.

Across the street was the largest Upper West Side brownstone she had ever seen. Every detail looked original to the Victorian house, from the wrought iron banisters to the holly bushes lining the walk and clinging to upstairs balconies. Even the intricate door knocker and the bronze sconces looked original.

Kierse slowed her breathing and crossed through the slushy brown mess that was New York City after a snowfall. Fresh powder was coming down again, and she obscured her footprints before peering through the first-floor window into an enormous shadowed study. Nothing was out of place—as if it were staged. Only a sliver of light bloomed through the crack under the door.

Her job was simple: steal a diamond ring, get paid.

“Please try to be careful,” Ethan’s voice said into her earpiece, which attached to the radio at her hip. A cell phone would have been better, but she’d never been able to afford one.

A smile hit Kierse’s features. “I’m always careful.”

“Since when?”

Never. She glanced up to Ethan on the neighboring rooftop where her lookout had binoculars trained on her. She gave him a double-finger salute and got to work. She whipped out a set of tools, flicked the lock on the window, and slid it up soundlessly. She’d investigated the nonexistent security system on one of her first reconnaissance missions, and she still didn’t understand how no alarms were present and nothing tripped. She checked her surroundings, then slipped into the study, closing the window behind her.

This was the part she had programmed in her mind. After constructing a mock interior layout of the house, she’d run through her plan again and again. She was prepared, but she’d broken into enough places to know that nothing ever went exactly to plan. Her benefactor, Gregory Amberdash, had given her all the information he had, which admittedly wasn’t much. The ring was kept in a locked box in the library. A library seemed an unusual place to keep a ring with a diamond the size of a robin’s egg. But what did she know about rich people? This guy didn’t even have a security system. A library probably made perfect sense to him.

Kierse steeled herself for what could be the first sign of trouble, but everything was as it should be. She maneuvered around a mahogany desk with a gilded lamp and sleek black leather insert, between a pair of couches, and to the silent grandfather clock that showed the time was nearly midnight. With a breath, she eased the door open and peered down the hallway illuminated by soft bracketed light. Her eyes darted everywhere at once—taking in the sitting room at the end of the hallway that she’d only ever seen through binoculars, the grand staircase to her right, the polished wood floors, the lush, filthy rich interior. On silent feet, she crept down the smooth hardwood floors and flipped the front door lock.

The first rule of thieving: always have an exit strategy.

“So far so good,” she whispered to Ethan as she stood in the empty house.

“Monster?” he asked.

She shook her head even knowing he couldn’t see her. “Not yet.”

Ethan’s investigation into the owner had been fruitless. John Smith was clearly a fake name, and it linked to a business that didn’t exist. The house was enormous and had two regular staff who showed up rain or shine. Yet not a single look at the owner. In her line of work, that meant one of two things: a wealthy human who was out of town or a monster.

A monster would be a big problem. If she was caught in a monster’s house, she’d be subject to the Monster Treaty just like anyone else. And the consequences of breaking the Treaty were typically life-threatening. Which meant she couldn’t get caught. She’d keep her fingers crossed for an out-of-town billionaire.

“Keep me updated,” Ethan said. “Gen would kill me if something happened to you.”

“Gen knows me better than that.”

Her heartbeat thudded in her ears and adrenaline fired through her veins as she snuck through the empty house. A smile lit her face. It was a wrong smile. She’d been told that too many times—because she wasn’t supposed to think that this was the fun part. Sneaking, thieving, and most of all, getting away with it.

Her devious smile grew as she hurried up the staircase and stopped before giant wooden doors. A bronze sign hung over the doorway that read The Holly Library[HL1] . Intricate whorls and swirls were carved into the frame. She could make out a string of holly vines and berries in the design, and then something almost shifted as she stared at it. It felt like a familiar language that tugged at the recesses of her memory, but she had never seen anything like it. She shook the cobwebs out of her mind and reached for the cold iron knob. She was prepared for it to be locked, but to her surprise, the handle turned.

Kierse rolled her eyes skyward. No alarms. No locks. What’s next—the jewels just sitting out in display cases?

Still, she dragged it open just far enough for her to slip into the place of secrets.

Her eyes widened. The sign over the doorway suddenly made perfect sense. Holly vines crawled up the shelves and over the top of the wood of the largest private library she had ever seen. They should have been a hazard to the collection, but none of the books seemed hindered. Everything was exceptionally well cared for. But the real beauty of what lay before her was that each and every one of the hundreds of bookshelves was packed full with book after book after book. Rows of old leather-bound volumes to brand-new hardbacks with pristine dust jackets.

All she wanted to do was pull them off the shelves just to smell them. Crack open those perfect spines and devour the contents. She wanted to live and breathe a different world. Something, anything, other than her own horrid reality. It would be easy to spend a lifetime in this room and never read every volume. But she didn’t have that time. She only had a few minutes to find a diamond ring and get the hell out.

Kierse’s gaze narrowed on the large window at the other end of the massive library between rows of bookcases. She passed a cozy sitting area with a table, couch, and set of chairs at the center of the room to the window and flipped the latch. Exits were always a priority.

“In the library,” she told Ethan. “Anything on the outside?”

“All clear here. Hurry up.”

She rolled her eyes. Leave it to Ethan, sitting comfortably on the outside, to hurry her along. She went in search of the safe. Amberdash claimed it was nestled into a bookshelf on the left side of the room. She was just realizing how little description that was in a place this size. Kierse walked the stacks, peering into corners and moving vines about to see if the safe was hidden. She was just getting frustrated with the search when she brushed aside a string of holly and revealed the safe on a shelf at eye level. She frowned at the innocuous box.

“What the hell?” she whispered into the stillness.

It was a simple safe with a hole for a tiny key. Only a two-pin tumbler. The kind of fireproof carrying case that anyone could have in their home for paperwork. It was too easy. Almost insulting. There had to be a trick to it. Who kept an enormous diamond ring in a safe with a lock a child could break?

A sensation like cold water through her veins hit her fresh. Something wasn’t right here. She’d had plenty of jobs go to shit, but the prick of nerves that raised the hair on the back of her neck wasn’t normal. She touched the silver wren tied around her neck on a black silk string to dispel the feeling. In the end, it didn’t matter why this was so easy.

She retrieved her tools out of her pocket and gently touched a rubber piece against the safe. One safe she’d broken into had been rigged with electricity. Not a pleasant feeling. But nothing happened this time. Not even a sizzle.

She fortified her nerves before inserting her tools into the lock and jiggling the two pins, clicking the safe open. She’d been able to do that since she turned seven years old. Breaking the lock had only taken her a matter of seconds. The safe released upward without a sound, revealing the contents within: a stack of folded paperwork, an unfamiliar stamped silver coin, a hunk of black metal, what appeared to be a human fingernail, and the giant diamond ring.

Well, at least Amberdash hadn’t been lying. It was here. Kierse pocketed the ring and stared at the rest of the contents. What a bizarre assortment of things. Kierse shut the lid, carefully relocked the box so that it wouldn’t look disturbed, and moved the holly vines back into place. She shivered as she righted herself. This library spooked her. There was something off about it, and she couldn’t put her finger on it.

“Well, well, well,” a cold, dark voice said from the shadows, “what do we have here?”

She stilled, a chill skating down her spine. Shit. She’d been wrong. Someone was home.

And now, she was nothing more than prey caught in a predator’s trap. She could hear it in the sound of his voice. It was the carefully precise speech that set her on edge. He had a slight British accent. Silky smooth and devoid of any emotion, just pure, unbridled male. Power lurked dark and hungry in every syllable.

Panic clawed its way into her chest where cool, calm calculation normally resided. She needed to collect herself and lean into her carefully honed instincts. Without them, she was dead. There was no alternative.

He took a step into the light, his body framed by the closed library doors. His pale face was all sharp angles, hard edges, and dark shadows. His cheekbones were high and cut out of marble, while his eyes were carefully shrouded in the dimness. He had hair as dark as pitch, so dark it nearly blended in with the surroundings.

Kierse took a slow, deep breath, shifting her weight to the balls of her feet. She was closer to the window than he was and thanking whatever god would listen that she could make it there before him. Time to employ the second rule of thieving: run.

She darted across the open length of the library. Where before the window had been a dozen long strides away, it now seemed an interminable distance. But as adrenaline kicked in and her blood pumped faster and faster through her veins, everything else slowed down to a crisp, clear picture as if in slow motion. She was still quick, moving at lightning speed that hours and hours of training had prepared her for, but this was something else. Something that Ethan always said was her unfair advantage when they were sparring. It got her out of most situations.

Kierse focused on the approaching window she’d unlatched earlier. Her gloved fingers dug into the bottom of the window and wrenched it upward. The well-oiled gears made no noise. She looked down at the two-story drop to concrete with growing dread. She’d done worse, but she hardly enjoyed it.

As she climbed onto the sill, she ground her teeth. The height was dizzying. She remembered her former mentor’s training sessions, when he’d tried to break her irrational fear of heights. It wasn’t a good look for a would-be master thief.

Jason had made her walk on every skyscraper in the city.

He’d had her jump rooftops.

He’d pushed her off of rooftops.

It wasn’t the worst thing he’d ever done to her, but it brought back the old feelings of righteous anger.

In this moment, only this moment, Kierse thanked him for allowing this drop to not completely paralyze her, and with a breath, she released.

She went weightless in midair. She was flying and braced for her landing. On concrete, it would be a bitch to roll out of. Just last year, she’d wrenched her knee on a misjudged fall and hobbled around for weeks. She couldn’t afford the same misstep tonight.

She’d just cleared the ledge, gravity pulling her down hard and fast, when a hand reached out from above and grasped her arm. She heard her shoulder pop and screamed. She prided herself on her stoicism, but she’d had no warning. No expectation. No one, no human, could move as fast as he had. It just wasn’t possible.

She dangled helplessly in his grasp, then gritted her teeth against the pain, and to her dismay, she was hauled back through the window. Even worse, he was using just one arm to lift her. Once she crossed the sill, he threw her across the room. She bounced and bumped her way down the carpet. Her earpiece was torn from her ear on the way, radio smashed under her hip, disappearing into the depths of the library—so much for radioing Ethan when she was in trouble—before she jarringly collided face-first into the back of the couch in the central seating area hard enough to see stars. She bit back a groan. Her dark hair came free of its tie and sprawled across her face. She jerked her head to get it out of the way but had to close her eyes against the pain.

Fuck. This wasn’t supposed to happen. It had all gone to shit so fast that reality was just now catching up with what her body knew from every bump and bruise.

So much strength. So much brutality.

In her world, that meant just one thing. One horrible thing—monster.

Nope, not the easy route tonight. Not even close.

Sometimes it was unfathomable to think that she lived in this world with monsters. When she was a kid, living off the south Manhattan streets, monsters had been nothing but a scary bedtime story. Men were monster enough for her.

Now, all the stories were true.

Thirteen years ago, they came into the light, as swift and furious and brutal as the stories imagined them to be. Suddenly, monsters and humans were forced to coincide. It was about as bloody as imaginable, and the world collapsed practically overnight.

Every manner of beast roamed the streets, killing humans at will. Monsters destroyed large swaths of cities. Shelter became scarce. Food even more so. Police, firefighters, healthcare—all of it became nearly impossible to navigate. Humans fled the cities in droves, heading into old bunkers and trying out rural life. But monsters weren’t confined to Manhattan, and the world quickly narrowed. Kierse’s parents were already long gone by the time the monsters appeared, and she survived by ingratiating herself into the thieving guild of her late mentor—Jason. But the population had been decimated, and if it weren’t for the recent Monster Treaty, no one would be alive today.

And she had just broken the Treaty.

“Bravo,” he said dangerously.

He clapped twice, slow and condescending. He didn’t even bother closing the window or locking it. He left it open to the frigid night air, and then he stepped casually, confidently forward.

“What a daring escape plan.”

Kierse came to all fours. Her popped shoulder protested. Her head spun. Possibly a concussion. Gen and Ethan were going to be furious. She used the couch to lift herself unsteadily to her feet. She swayed slightly, and blood trickled out of her nose. She hoped it wasn’t broken.

Then she tilted her chin up to look at him.

He just smirked. A lethally stunning killer. Now, in the light, she could see that his hair had a tinge of midnight blue. His eyes weren’t depthless dark orbs as she had believed. They were swirling gray, as temperamental as the weather and as fatal as standing in the ocean in the middle of a hurricane. He strode forward, slipping black-gloved hands into the pockets of his pitch-black suit.

She ran through the types of monsters, trying to place him. The main forms of monster were vampire, werewolf, mer, wraith, shifter, and goblin. Other manner of monsters remained but were far less common, such as nymph, phoenix, incubus/succubus, and troll. She felt none of that coldness of the vampires. Even from a distance, he was primordial fire. Werewolf was more likely considering the heat he was producing, but she had run with a wolf pack once, and he seemed ever the loner. Wraiths always gave off a slightly uncomfortable sensation of death, as if at any moment they were going to suck out your soul. He was too small for a troll. Too large for a nymph. No water nearby for the mer. A shifter, maybe?

“What is your name?” he asked as he stepped before her.

“None of your fucking business.”

“So, she does speak.” He reached forward with one hand as if he were going to assess her bloody nose, but she acted on instinct, deflecting the touch, and then leaned forward to throw a punch. The first worked. His eyes flashed in raw anger as she knocked his hand away from her face. Then he blocked her punch as if she had barely moved.

“That isn’t very nice,” he growled.

She didn’t care. She locked deep into that place within herself and moved like water. Settling into her center of gravity and using every ounce of her training to bob and weave as she tried to hit him. To find an edge to get away from him somehow.

But he hardly seemed to register her thrown punches or swept legs. He stepped and sidestepped. He dodged and countered. He moved with a grace developed from years and years even though he only looked about twenty-five, same as her.

After only a few minutes, she was huffing. A slow smirk stretched across his mouth. He was toying with her. He had no intention of letting her get a lick in edgewise. And then he stepped into her momentary blind spot and jabbed a hand into a trigger point at her shoulder. Her arm fell dead. She couldn’t pick it up.

He flipped her effortlessly and dropped her down onto her back, hard. All the air rushed out of her lungs in a big whoosh. Her head spun. She couldn’t move her arm. Her other arm throbbed from the joint displacement. She’d been training nearly her entire life, and he made her look like an amateur.

“Are you ready to behave?” he asked with that same insufferable smile.

She leaned over and spat a wad of blood onto the carpet in response.

His eyes swirled in warning. “That is an antique.”

She glared back at him. She was outmatched, but still, she couldn’t release her defiance. “Fuck you.”

He straightened, pointing to a large, velvet chair. “Sit there, answer my questions, and you will be released. I give my word.”

“And what is your word worth, monster?”

“Everything,” he said with a resonance that went straight through her bones.

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