One More Glance
book 4, Mistletoe Matchmakers of Clearwater County
One More Glance
With Christmas riding in on Santa’s sleigh, and Kali’s home up for sale, there’s a chance Mistletoe will lose one of its darlings… Unless one of its princes can ride to the rescue.
Kali Standfords has a family legacy wrapped up in taking care of the horses of Mistletoe, Montana. She loves the animals, the simplicity of the life, and the land. In essence, she’s home. Unfortunately, there’s a very real possibility she’s in danger of losing all three when Flynne Wilson decides to put his hat in for the land up for sale.
No matter what happens, Kali can’t lose the land to him. Anyone but him.
Kali has to raise money for a down payment and she already has a tight budget. Add to that the fact that Flynne is rolling in billions and nothing looks good for her plans of keeping her home.
Except… well, except Kali seems to have a Secret Santa who keeps sponsoring the fundraising activities she’s doing. As the deadline gets nearer, Kali starts to fall for the benevolent stranger and she’s willing to walk away from everything to be with him.
Flynne and Kali have been at odds since they were little. Something about each one irritates the other like a fierce flame. As if they’re on an addicting bronco ride, they can’t walk away from the conflict, though, and that isn’t healthy.
He’s determined to do the right thing, but Flynne knows Kali will never let him help her. Kali can never know he’s the money behind her success. If she does, she’s just prideful enough to leave everything behind. Flynne wouldn’t care, except the one thing he wants just happens to be the one woman who wants nothing to do with him.
What if Kali’s Secret Santa is the one guy she can’t stand to be around?
What if Flynne ends up being the one man she can’t be without?
No matter what Kali did, she couldn’t lose the land. She just couldn’t.
Sitting at the small kitchen counter in her loft apartment at the boarding ranch, Kali leaned on her elbow and furrowed her brow. What would she do, if she did lose it? No. She couldn’t think like that. Losing the property wasn’t an option.
What she should be doing instead of worrying about what-if was planning out a war strategy. Because that’s what it was coming down to.
Kali sighed and narrowed her eyes. What could she do? Well, first and foremost, she needed to get her money situation figured out. Again. No matter how many times she went over the numbers, she never got the same answer twice.
She hated budgeting. Hated that she never had enough money for anything. Hated that she hated.
She wasn’t that type of person. She loved people, but more than that, she loved animals – horses, to be exact. Every horse that stayed at the stables had become her friend. She mourned when they left. If the land was sold out from under her, she wouldn’t recover the kind of loss when she’d have to leave the horses behind.
Everything Kali did leaned toward her taking over the land, buying it outright. Well, as outright as a loan would be. Her heart pounded at the thought of that not happening. What would… No. Just no.
Still resting her face on her hand, Kali turned her head to the side and glared at the one-gallon pickle jar she’d emptied and used for her piggy bank. Her spreadsheet made the numbers seem much lower than they were, even though reality wasn’t what she needed it to be.
Coins had sunk through the green dollar bills to collect at the bottom, making up the majority of the jar’s contents. No matter what she did, Kali couldn’t seem to make the bills outnumber the coins.
Manipulating the budget with her salary was fine on paper, but she couldn’t make herself count the money in the jar again. She didn’t even want to count it. The contents were nowhere near the twenty percent she needed for a down payment. Not to mention the fact that she somehow had to prove she could cover the cost of the loan.
Judging by the amount of land that came with Standfords Stables, the loan was going to be exorbitant.
Kali exhaled long and slow. Her shoulders rounded forward and she slumped fully onto the counter. Why did it have to be so hard? Her dream wasn’t hard. She wasn’t asking for anything that would hurt anyone. If anything, it would help others.
She wanted to be in the position to hire some more workers and get the stables working full time. They’d offer riding classes and tours through the abandoned town of Whistle Stop. She could have stories around a campfire and all that went along with playing on a dude ranch.
With all of the matchmakers in town and vacations coming through Mistletoe throughout the year, there had to be a market for the kind of business Kali wanted to create. There had to be something she could do to carve out her own place there in her home town.
Okay, it was too early to start getting down in the dumps. She had plenty of time to save up money.
“Come on. We can do this.” Sitting straight on the stool, she pushed her thick hair behind her shoulders and lifted her chin. Okay, she’d just had a huge fundraiser where she’d sold baked goods that her friend Cari had made for her. She opened the manila envelope and dumped the money Samantha, her best friend, had collected.
A wad of cash slid onto the counter followed by the tinkling of coins as they fell onto each other. The amount of change was starting to annoy her. For some reason she looked at the coins and saw more weight added to her dreams instead of the possibility to grow on her earnings.
Something was seriously wrong with her attitude. She shook her head, pressing her fingers to her forehead.
She picked up the rubber banded bills and fanned them, pausing as she counted one, two, three, four, all the way to fifteen one hundred-dollar bills mixed in with fives, twenties, and ones.
Kali’s chest tightened. Was this some kind of joke? There was no way she’d sold that many baked goods at the sale. Not possible. Kali loved Cari’s baking as much as the rest, but she wasn’t that disillusioned to believe that she could ask someone to pay a hundred bucks for a cupcake. It just wasn’t reality.
She picked up her phone and pressed Sam’s number.
After only two rings Sam answered. “Hey, Kali. Great job on your fundraiser. You got just over a hundred dollars. That’s amazing. Keep going. I just know you’ll get to your goal.” But Samantha’s tone lacked conviction. She had to know that a hundred dollars here and there wasn’t going to be enough to get anyone a down payment on anything – even a dream.
Kali licked her lips and blinked. Just over a hundred. Where had all the rest of the cash come from? “Thanks, Sam. Actually, I was going to ask you… Did you see the hundreds that were in the envelope?” The only person who had the envelope or had access was Sam. Not to mention the fact that the hundreds had been wrapped with a rubber band with the rest of the money.
“No. Wait, what? Wow, how did you get that much money?” Samantha sounded sincerely confused. Not that Kali blamed her. In fact, Kali would imagine Samantha was as confused as Kali was.
But Kali questioned her best-friend again anyway. “Did you put some extra cash in there? I don’t need charity, Sam.” Kali was starting to get frustrated. She didn’t want charity. She couldn’t take it. And the alternative was too out-of-this-world unlikely.
Either she got her dream on her own, or she didn’t deserve it. That would be a hard pill to swallow, but one she’d take with her shoulders back.
Standfords weren’t quitters and they weren’t charity cases. That was all there was to it.
“Um, I know how you feel about taking money from me. I wouldn’t do that. How much are we talking?” Samantha didn’t argue, she didn’t doubt Kali’s words. That made Kali feel a whole lot less like she was making things up.
Staring at the pile of money, Kali shook her head. “Over fifteen hundred dollars. I’m not sure exactly. Can you text me the total amount that you remember? I need to run some numbers.” Kali picked up the envelope and tapped the open end on the counter.
A small white piece of paper fell onto the counter with a small red Santa face drawn on one side.
“Hold on. There’s something in here.” Kali held her breath as she reached carefully for the small card. She hadn’t seen the card initially, or she would have known immediately what was going on.
“Oh, my word! Is it from him? Is it from your Secret Santa?” Samantha half squealed, her voice loud over the line. All confusion was stripped away from her end.
The only problem was, Kali’s confusion felt like it was only getting bigger. She swallowed. “How did they do this, if you had the money the whole time? I don’t understand. Are you absolutely sure you didn’t leave it unattended?” She touched the paper with a fingertip, certain she was making up the heat she felt as she touched it.
“Well, I left envelope in the truck when I ran into the store. I didn’t think it was a big deal to do that since it was my truck and it was Mistletoe’s grocery store, you know? It’s not like we have a problem with thieves here.” Samantha scoffed, cementing Kali’s own incredulity. “I mean, come on. If someone put money into your car because you left it open, people would leave their cars open all over town.” She laughed.
“You’re right. I don’t… I just don’t know how they knew it was what you kept the money in. Why wouldn’t they think I had it? All of this is so confusing.” Kali stared at the card. She pulled back her hand. She didn’t want to pick it up. She had too many conflicting emotions about her benefactor or benefactress.
Who was giving her money? Because no matter how good Cari’s No Bake cookies were, they weren’t over fifteen hundred dollars good.
“Yeah, it is confusing. I wish I could help you more, Kali. I’m just not sure what’s going on. At least the money wasn’t stolen.” Samantha always added a positive spin to the things Kali was going through. That’s what they did for each other, buoyed up their emotional disparity.
“Thanks, you’re probably right. I better get going. Talk to you later?” Kali continued staring at the card as she and Sam hung up. After a moment, she shook her head. It’s not like the card was going to come out and bite her.
Would there be more clues as to who it was than normal? She really just wanted to know what was going on. She hated surprises. Animals didn’t surprise you. Animals were upfront about who they were and what they wanted. There were no questions. If an animal wanted something, it wasn’t ambiguous. When they gave you affection, there were no strings.
So far, Secret Santa hadn’t made any demands, but who knew if that would change or not? Who could have possibly given her all that money and why?
The last time her Secret Santa had given her a donation, it had only been a couple hundred dollars. She’d shoved it into a shoe box alongside the rest of the monetary gifts he or she had given her.
Kali couldn’t include the gifts in her savings. It didn’t seem right to take money she wasn’t earning. No matter how desperate she was to keep the stables and land.
With a slight tremor in her normally unshakable hands, Kali reached for the card like it was going to jump up and sting her flesh. Picking up the card, she turned it over and inspected it.
The small square couldn’t have measured more than two inches by two inches. A circle with a Santa hat on the front was the same as all the other cards she’d gotten. How many now? Seven? Eight? Something like that.
She turned the card over and froze. She’d finally gotten a note from whoever was trying to help her out.
You can do this. Secret Santa
Kali wrinkled her nose at the swoosh with a pair of lines through it at the bottom of the handwritten note. It felt like a signature, but she couldn’t tell. There were no distinct letters and it didn’t come close to resembling any cursive she’d ever seen, but there was something confident in the way it finished the small message.
Fifteen hundred dollars. Whoever it was, they wanted her to get the land. Whoever it was knew about the land’s impending sale.
How was that possible? Only Samantha knew it was going to go up for sale.
Samantha and Flynne Wilson.
Setting the card on the counter, Kali clenched her fingers into fists. Flynne Wilson. There was something frustratingly annoying about that man and his good looks. Kali would never tell him he was good looking. She wasn’t crazy. That kind of a compliment would go straight to his already gigantic-prideful-gorgeous-cowboy-hat-wearing head.
Thankfully, her animosity was returned in kind by the renowned matchmaker. He had more money than he could possibly spend in a lifetime and he was close friends to the man Kali worked for and who she wanted to buy the land from.
All of the items listed were great reasons why her Secret Santa was not Flynne. He might know about the sale of the land, but he was the last person who would want to help Kali. It just wasn’t possible. They didn’t get along on any level.
If the only two people who knew about the sale weren’t giving Kali money, then who was? And how did they know she needed it? Was it possible Will Gibbons knew she wanted to buy it? The owner of the land had never actually met Kali in person. What would he gain by giving her money to buy a piece of land from him? That didn’t make sense either.
She needed to stop stressing out about it. Even with the money from the Secret Santa contributions, Kali had a way to go before she as in a position to go after the land.
At least she had until November before she needed the down payment. As long as she had that time, she could make it work. That wasn’t going to be hard. She could do it.
Kali glanced at her savings jar and gritted her teeth. At the rate she was going, she better get some more jars to hold more coins.
Twisting her lips to the side, Samantha stared at the phone as she lowered it to the desk in front of her. She was in the office a little later than usual and Austin had come in to pick her up and take her for dinner.
“What’s wrong?” Austin leaned forward in the seat on the other side of her desk where he read while Sam finished up some paperwork. His constant support of her never failed to amaze her.
Furrowing her brow, Samantha shook her head and then steepled her fingers in front of her. “Kali’s Secret Santa is… upping their game. If it wasn’t for those donations… Well, let’s just say she’s not doing too well otherwise.” Samantha rounded her shoulders and then pulled them back like she was stretching. “I wish I knew how I could help her that didn’t look like charity to her. Kali can be… proud sometimes.” She held up her hands and shook her head harder. “Not that that is a bad thing, but…”
“Can’t we all be a little proud? I don’t want help from other people. I know how she feels.” Austin closed the book he’d been reading and crossed his booted foot over his knee. “How much does she need? Would it be better if you approached it as a loan?”
Samantha’s slow grin at Austin was inevitable. Everything about him made her happy and she still couldn’t believe she’d been too blind to see him as anything other than her best-friend for so long. Thankfully, that had changed for the better. “Actually, it’s not a bad idea but between the down payment loan and the bank loan, Kali will already be stretched pretty thing. That’s not taking into account the huge chunk of money she’ll need for upkeep, repairs, licensing, and other things just to keep the business running like it is. All of that and we’re not even talking about the investment money she’d need for growth.”
No, Kali wasn’t in a position to turn down any Secret Santas. In fact, maybe she should put an ad in the paper to get a few more.
“How much did the Secret Santa donate this time?” Austin stood, moving to look out the window.
May winded down as Mistletoe moved into June and the warmer summer months. Samantha had been enjoying too many of the beautiful days with Austin which resulted in her having to put in a longer than normal work day for the first time in a while.
She half-shrugged. “Over fifteen hundred. Whoever did it must have added it to the envelope when I was in the store. There’s no way I wouldn’t have noticed someone putting that amount of money in if they’d done it in front of me.” She didn’t say anything about how that bugged her. Someone had been in her car while she wasn’t aware. It felt like a violation, even though they hadn’t taken anything. It was the fact that they could.
Austin turned at the amount Samantha mentioned and blinked. “Wow, they really are upping their game. What was the highest until now?”
“I think a couple hundred tops? I can’t remember.” Kali’s Secret Santa had been aiding in Kali’s cause since she started her fundraising efforts in January. At every event, Kali had worked hard and never asked anyone for anything more than what she wanted to earn, even while working full time at the stables.
“That’s impressive. And this time, they dropped over a grand? Good for them.” Austin nodded. “No one could say Kali isn’t dedicated or working hard.”
“Well, whoever it is, I hope they can drop a few hundred thousand in the next month or so. Anything less is going to leave Kali with a lot of questions and not a lot of available capital for her to work with.” Samantha picked up her pencil. She wasn’t sure who was giving Kali the money, but she wouldn’t deny her best-friend her dreams. If someone was able to get Kali the money she needed and help her do what she wanted to do, Samantha wouldn’t argue with the methods of doing it.
She’d even willingly be the carrier of the cash, if that’s what it took.
But how did she tell the Secret Santa that when she didn’t even know his or her name? She wanted to help, she just didn’t want Kali to know.
“Swing her right, Colt.” Flynne firmly prodded the new mare to the left, waiting for Colt to maneuver the roping dummy into the correct position. They’d started taking training clients for roping and barrel racing since they had the land and the space to do it.
Flynne and Colt had more time on their hands since matchmaking had become more of a family affair they shared with the Dean family. He didn’t mind lessening his work load at the matchmaking offices, not when it meant he could be outside doing more of the things he loved, like working with horses.
The mare pulled forward hard and then jerked to the right too soon. Flynne pulled her to a stop and jerked his chin up while holding tight to her reins. “She seems like she’s cramping or something. Do you know what she’s been eating?” Flynne reached forward, petting the mare’s neck as she stamped her foot in a slight stutter.
“She’s been outside a fair bit. Maybe she’s been reaching across the fence and eating the sprouting alfalfa.” Colt strode up, taking her reins as Flynne slid from the saddle.
“Okay, let’s put her in a stall after her brush down and cut out the fresh green stuff. I’ll call the vet but she might be cramping because of too many carbs. We need to get her the dry stuff for now. I don’t want her having access to anything in the fields for the immediate future. Can you set that up with Zed? I’ll run in and give Davidson a call.” The long-time Mistletoe veterinarian had become like family over time as the Wilsons had called him out for multiple visits every month since he started. There wasn’t much Davidson couldn’t fix.
“Got it.” Colt moved the horse with him as they left the running area.
Flynne readjusted his hat and removed the gloves he’d been wearing, slapping them against his upper thigh as he walked.
The sun seemed happier and brighter every day and Flynne couldn’t help hoping the summer was mild but warm. After the long winters filled with Christmas year-round, he wouldn’t mind a break in the festivities just long enough to feel like he was in a normal part of the world. Or even a normal part of Montana.
When a person grew up in a Christmas-centered town, they learned to either love the holiday with all their heart and soul or they grew to resent it and all of Santa’s green and red joviality.
Flynne hadn’t decided which one he was yet. Some days he swung toward loving it and others he wanted to douse all the mistletoe plants with weed killer.
Striding across the front drive to the house from the barn, Flynne inhaled deeply. The only reason he was getting into the holiday spirit that year centered on the one task he’d set before himself – Helping Kali Standfords take ownership of the land, stables, and Whistle Stop.
Removing his hat, Flynne sighed as he opened the front door to the family home. Cooler air greeted him, cooling the perspiration beading up along his forehead and the back of his neck. Working outside had its benefits and its drawbacks.
He held his secrets tight to his chest. No one knew he’d been walking by the laundry room when Kali and Samantha had been inside talking. The family Christmas party had been interrupted for Samantha’s surprise wedding.
While Flynne had thrown down the challenge to Kali and accepted her refusal to give up the land as a challenge for him to get it for himself, he couldn’t help feeling guilty as he overheard the way Kali spoke to Samantha about her dreams.
She’d claimed she just wanted to stay home. Flynne hadn’t known she actually considered the land her home. The more he thought about it, the more he realized he had no idea where she actually lived. For the past five months, he’d been working on figuring out where she spent her time when she wasn’t at the stables. Was it possible she actually lived somewhere on the land and he’d just missed it?
All of those thoughts distracted Flynne as he made his way toward the Wilson house. Opening the front door, he glanced around, half-expecting to hear his mom’s voice coming from one of the rooms. “Mom? You in here?” Flynne shut the front door behind him and paused as he listened for a reply. Nothing came.
Stomping his boots in the foyer to remove any excess dirt or stray pieces, Flynne moved further into the quiet home. He picked up the phone at the edge of the counter and used the speed dial to call the veterinarian number.
He glanced around at his childhood home as he waited for the phone to ring and be answered. Where had Kali grown up? How little he knew about her surprised him. What if he was missing something important? What if she actually already had someone important in her life?
Before Flynne could follow that train of thought to its disturbing conclusion, the other line picked up. “This is Dr. Lanford.” A deep voice that sounded much younger than that of Dr. Davidson answered the call.
Flynne blinked, dropping his gaze from looking at the kitchen as he focused on the granite designs of the counter. “Dr. Lanford? I’m sorry, I was trying to get ahold of Dr. Davidson.” Flynne was thoroughly confused. “This is Flynne Wilson out at the… I’m sorry, I’m not sure who you are.” He pinched the bridge of his nose. He wasn’t going to give some stranger his address when he wasn’t even sure who the man was.
“Ah, Flynne Wilson. Nice to hear from you. Dr. Davidson has been slowly transitioning his practice to me. He’s still in town, but from the sounds of it, he’s not planning on staying once the snow flies. You know how his wife is about being cold.” Dr. Lanford laughed as if he and Flynne were already old friends.
Flynne did know, but he’d been born and raised there in Mistletoe. Who was this Lanford guy that he knew that about Mrs. Davidson? And why hadn’t Flynne heard the Davidson family was moving on? That was kind of a big deal for a ranch with as many animals as they had. They’d invested in Dr. Davidson and his practice with the assumption that he was going to be there for a long time.
“What can I do for you, Flynne?” At least Dr. Lanford’s voice was friendly and didn’t bring up any suspicion.
With the situation too urgent to table until Flynne could get more information, he narrowed his eyes. “I have a new mare stutter stepping and resisting my commands. She already knows them. She’s about eighty percent trained already and shouldn’t be giving me these issues. In fact, she wasn’t giving me these issues last week. I’ve stabled her to keep her away from the greens but I wanted to see if there might be anything I missed or see if I need to get a visit.” Flynne would base everything he thought about the vet from his interaction right then. How much would Lanford listen to Flynne and how much would he discount what Flynne said?
“Hm. I think that sounds like you know your animals. That’s a good thing, Flynne. How about I come out in a couple hours and look her over just to be safe? I have a feeling you did exactly what she needed, but it never hurts to double check.” Lanford won himself points and Flynne grinned as they finished the call and hung up.
If Lanford was going to be easy to work with, then Flynne wouldn’t have any problems with the business exchange. He did know Mrs. Davidson and moving to a warmer climate was going to barely fix everything she hated about life in general. Dr. Davidson loved her, though, and that was enough for Flynne.
Moving to the sink, Flynne poured himself a glass of water. His phone buzzed in his rear pocket and he pulled it out, setting the drink to the side.
“Hey, Will, how’s it going?” Flynne’s chest tightened. Every time he spoke to Will Gibbons, Flynne was sure there was going to be something bad on the call. Not that Will had the history, but as owner of the Whistle Stop land and the stables where Kali worked, it was only a matter of time before he announced he was ready to sell the land. He’d said not until November, but the market was good. Any time could be a good time for Will.
Each time the two friends spoke, Flynne figuratively held his breath until the call ended, grateful for one more reprieve. He couldn’t wait for the sale to be over and Kali to own the land. The stress the situation was putting on his friendship with Will was getting to him.
“Flynne, it’s going. I’m ready to list that land. I’ll be up in two weeks to look things over and break the news to Kali, but I need you to talk to a realtor. I don’t care which one you use. Samantha is fine, or not. Your choice.” Will dropped the news Flynne didn’t want to hear.
Once that place went up for sale, Kali would be out of time to save up money for a down payment. For some reason, that bothered Flynne more than anything else could. She just needed a chance. He just needed time to funnel money her way.
“You’re listing it now?” Flynne turned, leaning his hip on the counter as he stared unseeingly ahead of him. His breathing shallowed. He didn’t want to think too hard about what this was going to mean to Kali.
“Yeah, the market is going crazy in Clearwater right now. If I wait too long, I’ll miss the lower interest rates, too. This fits into the fiscal plan for this year and next.” Will usually kept the calls business or friendly, he didn’t usually mix the two. “I’ve got to go. Thanks for doing this for me, Flynne. I appreciate your help.”
As Flynne ended the second revelatory call of the last ten minutes, he slowly blinked. He had to somehow figure out a way to get Kali all the money she’d need for the down payment. But what if it wasn’t enough? Flynne had no idea if she could even get a loan for the place. All of the money he was funneling toward her might be a waste, if she couldn’t get the funding she needed to purchase the land.
What was he going to do?
He set the phone down and braced his arms on the counter, hanging his head for a minute while he thought.
In all honesty, Flynne might have to do what he’d threatened Kali last Christmas. He might have to put his hat in as a contender for purchasing the property to slow the process down. If the property was listed as pending, then it wouldn’t be available to anyone else to buy. If Flynne could put in an offer before Samantha even listed it, he could hold off the listing from going public a little while longer.
Probably not long enough for Kali to come up with the down payment he needed, but maybe long enough she could come up with a different plan.
But first, he’d have to give her a chance. Maybe she had something she could figure out or maybe Samantha had an idea.
Flynne wasn’t sure how to fix things for Kali. All he knew was that he just wanted to fix things for the sassy, hard working woman Kali Standfords had proven to be. Someone Flynne admired but he’d never admit to it. Some things you kept to your chest. Others you hid down deep to protect yourself and others.
Flynne wasn’t sure what he felt for Kali, but he did know he didn’t want to lose a large piece of Mistletoe history and property to an outsider.
If anyone found out he was her Secret Santa, Flynne would just blame it on that. Because that was so much more believable than the fact that he found her likeable and sassy. There was a lot going on there he didn’t want to explore.
He’d have to save that for another day.
As it was, he had to call Samantha and break the bad news. Well, bad news for Kali, good news for Samantha. She’d get the commission and that had to be a huge boon to her business.
Flynne wasn’t stupid, though. Bad news for Kali would be bad news for Samantha. They were close and Flynne had to play things carefully. Plus, using her expertise to figure out a way to help Kali without compromising Samantha’s ethics was going to be hard.
He could do it. He just wanted to see Kali happy. That alone made his goal noble. He didn’t need to add any other reasoning to it. Certainly not that he liked her and wanted be friends.
That would never fly. He better stick to staying anonymous.