Recap of Chapter 11: Rehashing the nightmare of her arrest, Penny’s mind was a scrambled mess. She recalled the day of her arrest and how the customers and her neighbors treated her, even though she was innocent. From listening to what her dad had said about the story going online, her worst fear could be realized: people in the new life she built would see her as someone who got away with murder.
Matthew was improving day-by-day. The bruising on his face was at the yellow stage now and the swelling was gone. He still needed the crutches, but he was getting very adept at hopping around the house. Because of feeling better, he was getting restless. He wanted to see Penny again—pick up where they left off, but he hadn’t heard from her at all, even after he spoke with Jesse. Surely, she would have to forgive his absence once she knew that he hadn’t ghosted her. Maybe what was going on between them wasn’t what he thought it was, after all. Or maybe it was something else altogether. Jesse made it sound like there was some kind of crisis going on when he shoved him out the door.
Matthew went through his email. He was thankful that his construction and cabinetry work on the big stone house could be postponed. It was mainly because the owners had extended their trip and wouldn’t be back for another six months. They also expanded the job, guaranteeing well-paid work once he was back up to speed. Then, because he was bored, Matthew looked Penny up on the internet. There she was on Facebook, smiling in front of the restaurant, inviting people in for the specials. Lots of photos of well-plated food. No bio, other than related to her restaurant experience and her philosophy on comfort food. Matthew smiled at the photos of her laughing in the bar, serving customers, and generally looking happy. There was a photo of her dad with a friendly-looking Golden Retriever. The next article associated with her came up as Esme Rodriguez Pazzano. He glanced at the headline “Five Year Anniversary of Unsolved Double Murder.” The last name was the same, but it couldn’t be Penny. Then he saw a photo—a mugshot. He looked closer. Could that be her? He began reading the article. It told the story in detail from the grisly discovery of the bodies and the history between Esme and the male victim to her eventual release. Apparently, five years later, the perpetrator was still unknown. There was one clinching sentence that made Matthew’s blood run cold. “Ms. Pazzano eventually moved to Colorado, where she began a new life and opened a restaurant.”
Penny’s dad took Barney for a walk around Evergreen Lake, indulging him the time to sniff all the curious smells and get petted from passersby. Barney typically made friends everywhere they went. As distracting an exercise as it was, he couldn’t stop thinking about Penny’s predicament. Here she was with a brand-new start and a nice little restaurant when this business from five years ago pops up. So, what was the worst that could happen? What if people in town learned about her arrest? She was exonerated in the end—charges dropped. And since she was found not guilty, she could never be tried again. Well, in a court of law, at least. In the public view, she could be found suspect, and here in this new place with everything going for her, could it ruin her? Maybe people wouldn’t care as much as she thought. So she has a few skeletons in her closet. Who doesn’t? Being a murder suspect is a pretty big thing to overlook, though. He thought of ways she might get out in front of it—head off a train wreck somehow. Maybe if she came forward with her version of the harrowing event being falsely accused of murdering her ex-husband and his lover, people would see her for the overcomer she is. He wiped his face with his hands. It was beyond frustrating that no matter how much he wanted to help his girl, come up with ways to shield her from this, it may be that nothing would work. Well, if it all fell apart, she could always come home with him to his cabin in Maine. Lord knows it could use a woman’s touch.
Penny wore herself out scrubbing the kitchen. She sweated a streak down her back and between her breasts, her hair sticking to her face. It was therapeutic, even though her mind kept conjuring up images of that terrible time. At least the scrubbing was physical enough to ground her in the present. Jesse stayed clear of her until she emerged from the kitchen, drying her chapped hands.
“Is it safe to talk to you now?” he asked, hands in surrender.
“Sure,” she said, unenthusiastically. “What’s up?”
“Earlier,” he began, “when you were talking with your dad, Matthew came in.”
Penny stared at him. Matthew. With everything going on, she had put him out of her mind.
“He was in pretty bad shape, Penny,” Jesse continued. “He’d been in a bad car accident—broken leg, bruised and cut face, bad arm.” His expression was sympathetic. “He was in bad shape, Pen.”
Penny was quiet, taking in the information. She pictured his beautiful face bruised and scarred. “What did he want?”
“He came in looking for you,” he said, as if it were obvious. “But you were clearly in the middle of something with your dad, so I told him it wasn’t a good time.”
She nodded. “It still isn’t.”
“Isn’t a good time.” She turned away from him and headed up the stairs to her apartment. Halfway up, she muttered, “Call me if things get out of hand.” And she was gone.
Jesse watched her feet disappear on the staircase. “Will do,” he said, not knowing if she heard him. He looked at the reservation book, which was seldom used. It was more of a pop in and grab a seat kind of place, so he couldn’t guess if the night would be busy or not. Just then, the door opened and the regular group of real estate agents came bustling in. He had a brief moment of wondering if he could handle it by himself—the waiting and bartending—and then he remembered who he was dealing with. This group was all women and most of them brazenly flirted with him. Surely, he could handle them.
“Ladies,” he said, his arms sweeping wide. “I have the perfect table for you.” As he ushered them to a booth by a window facing the creek, he said with a pout, “It’s just me today, so I’m hoping if I’m rushed, you gorgeous women will forgive me.” Murmurs of assent all around and he knew he had them.
Upstairs, Penny flopped face-first onto her bed, upsetting the sleeping Gus, who complained. She rolled over, scooping him onto her chest. “It is all messed up, Gus,” she said, kissing his head. Holding him in her arms, she began thinking about how hard she’d worked to build this new life—how high her hopes were that it would be her fresh start. Then the tears began to fall, rolling down her cheeks. She dashed them away at first and then gave in, letting it all out. Her frustration, her fears and her anger all came flooding out. She wept for herself and for Matthew, that beautiful man, who was injured. Gus wanted no part of this and wriggled free of Penny’s grasp. He scampered down the hall, getting far away from the scene on the bed.