One More Glance – Bonnie R. Paulson

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. War. 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 giganticprideful-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.

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