- Author: Bella Forrest
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The Secret of Spellshadow Manor
Also by Bella Forrest
Copyright © 2017 by Bella Forrest
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No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without written permission from the author, except for the use of brief quotations in a book review.
“There is no exquisite beauty without some strangeness in the proportion.”
Edgar Alan Poe
A hard knot formed in Alex’s stomach as he stared at his laptop screen. He’d hoped this would be the month he finally earned enough to provide a meaningful contribution toward his mother’s bills—that all the sleep he’d sacrificed to hone his coding skills would pay off and he’d begin earning a real income.
Scrolling through his latest earnings report, disappointment swelled in him. He was on track to earn less this month than the last. Barely three hundred dollars. Most seventeen-year-olds in the sleepy town of Middledale, Iowa, would have been happy with that kind of side income, but most seventeen-year-olds in Middledale didn’t have a mother with a serious heart ailment.
Alex ran a hand over his face, tracing the lines in his furrowed brow. Then he dimmed the screen and pushed back in his chair. He was being unreasonable. He’d started looking for a way to earn money from home only five months ago, after his mother had returned from a two-week stay in the hospital barely able to walk. Coding websites had seemed like a natural fit for him because of its linear and analytical nature, but he needed to get a lot better at monetizing them. Still, five months wasn’t long in the grand scheme of things. He just had to keep working at it.
His eyes travelled to the clock on his bedroom wall which had just struck 2 a.m., then to the pile of neglected homework on the right side of his desk. He was glad that it was Friday—or Saturday, now. He’d make time to get through his school assignments over the weekend.
“Alex?” his mother’s voice called softly from her room across the hallway. “I hope you’re not still awake?”
He whispered a curse as he realized he’d forgotten to line the crack of his bedroom door with his jacket, to stifle the light from escaping under it. He’d promised his mom he’d stop staying up so late and get more sleep. She hated that he felt pressured to earn money, and worried he didn’t live enough—go out and act like other boys his age. That would have been easier for Alex if his father hadn’t left them before he was born. His mother’s health had been deteriorating for the past three years, and he didn’t like to leave her alone whenever he could help it.
He rose from his chair and moved to the door, opening it with a sigh. “No, I’m asleep,” he said wryly, making his way to her room. He pushed her door, which was always left slightly ajar, fully open and stepped inside. She was sitting up in bed against a pillow, her dark hair in a braid, the TV playing on mute in the background.
Her blue eyes looked rheumy against the flashes of the TV—as they usually did when she was in pain—and became tinged with disapproval as she took him in.
“It’s Friday night, I’ll sleep in,” he reassured her quickly, moving to the bed. Noticing that the bottle of medicine closest to her on her bedside table was pain medication, he felt a stab of worry. “Are you okay?”
She caught his hand and pulled him down to kiss his cheek. “I’m okay. Just a headache.” She cupped his face in her hands and narrowed her eyes. “But you look like death warmed over.”
Alex smirked, knowing it wasn’t much of an exaggeration. He felt exhausted. Catching his reflection in the mirror above the bed’s headboard, his eyelids looked heavy, his dark brown hair mussed, and the premature lines in his forehead deeper than usual. He’d always looked unusually old for his age—now closer to a man in his mid-twenties than late teens—which his mother worried was from stress, but tiredness made it more pronounced.
“Goodnight to you too, Mom,” he said, stooping to kiss her cheek before heading for the door.
As he left, he caught her mumbling, “Good thing Natalie’s getting a taxi here after all.”
Alex stopped in the bathroom doorway. Natalie Chevalier. He’d almost forgotten about their guest tomorrow morning. It had been his mother’s idea to volunteer as host for the French student who was supposed to be staying with his classmate Garth’s family. Garth’s parents had dropped out of the arrangement at the last minute due to a “family emergency”, leaving Natalie with tickets booked but no place to stay.
Alex had a sneaking suspicion that the bit of extra money they’d earn from hosting her wasn’t his mother’s only reason for volunteering. Certainly the idea of having someone his age hanging around the house for two weeks wouldn’t have slipped her mind—and a girl, at that…
A French girl.
As Alex brushed his teeth, he found himself pushing back his hair and glancing at his reflection again, a little more critically.
Then he shook his head and rolled his eyes at himself.
With his school and business schedule, he barely had time for the few guy friends he had. He really didn’t have time for girls.
Alex awoke to sunlight trickling through his curtains and the aroma of fresh pancakes. The sound of an unfamiliar voice drifting up from downstairs quickly oriented him. It was light and had a