Recap of Chapter 17: The article in Serenity did the trick, winning over the community and the benefits were showing up by way of increased business. The holiday season was busier than ever and, finally, Penny felt like part of the community.

Riding high on the heels of a successful Christmas season, Penny got right to work creating a New Year’s party menu. She wanted something truly special, but also fitting for the pub-like ambience. She planned a buffet-style spread with comfort foods that would be easy to eat while socializing. She settled on orange duck bites on skewers, ham & cheddar sliders, three kinds of soup served in tasting cups, and deep fried macaroni & cheese bites. Other items came straight from the everyday menu, such as the bacon-wrapped jalepeño bites and mini caprese skewers. For the dessert table, she put aside the cleverly decorated Santa and reindeer cupcakes, so popular at Christmas, and made a menu full of liqueur-infused finger desserts to put on display. Rum balls, amaretto cheesecake bites, and limoncello cake balls were the first that came to mind. Then there were the decorations to think of. It was a good thing her Dad hung around for the holidays because she surely couldn’t have done it without his help.

“She knew she would keep this new development to herself. Let the girl have a triumphant night.”

Penny smiled to herself. It was all due to her dad and Matthew, that clever man. They had suspended hundreds of balloons in a net to fall at the stroke of midnight and created segmented trays for servers to safely navigate the crowd to pass out champagne. Matthew worked with Jesse to make a playlist that would hit everyone likely to come celebrate. They were determined there would be dancing. Tables were moved and the place was transformed into a party venue. And Penny had to admit that it all looked wonderful—sparkly and special. She not only planned to host a very successful party, Penny planned to look the part. She thought of the gorgeous dress she’d purchased to stun, and smiled. If she played her cards right, Matthew wouldn’t be able to keep his eyes off her.

Finally, all that prep work and cooking was complete. Penny took one last look and declared it good to go before heading upstairs to get ready. She planned to take her time tonight, paying attention to every detail. Matthew had gone home to shower and promised to be back in case she needed an extra set of hands tonight. The party wouldn’t start until 8—plenty of time to do her magic.

After a hot soak, Penny put lotion on her legs and laid her outfit on the bed. She’d picked a champagne-colored dress that shimmered with sequins. It would look spectacular under the Lucky Penny’s twinkling lights. For her hair, she’d curled it and pulled up one side with a sparkly barrette. Even her makeup had a subtle shimmer to it. She had strappy rose gold heels to make her debut, but also stashed a pair of chunky heels in case she had to do any heavy lifting. It wouldn’t do to miss her footing and spill an entire tray of tapas on the customers. The tickets were sold out weeks ago, so she knew there would be a full house. She thought for the 100th time how lucky she was to feel she had nothing to hide—finally. That sick feeling of dread no longer snuck into her thoughts. She could go out and be the star of her new life, head held high.

Chloe, the Serenity writer was tracking online comments on her article from the November edition—the life-changing piece that worked so well for Penny. Most of the comments were favorable and feisty, all for team Penny. Some complimented her writing—never a bad thing. But there was one troubling comment that popped up out of nowhere. It showed up yesterday when most people were busy with family and holiday plans. And it was downright hateful. The handle the author used gave no hint as to his or her identity but, still, there was no ignoring it. “Assuming this article is non-biased would be a grave mistake,” it began, capturing Chloe’s attention. “Many facts were left out or misconstrued in the defendant’s favor. Let’s remember that local law enforcement felt there was enough evidence to indict Esmeralda—AKA Penny—and put her on trial. Don’t let the so-called exoneration fool you into thinking she’s innocent. Remember, a man and woman were brutally murdered, and the crime remains unsolved. She doesn’t deserve a guilt-free new life and identity. She should be brought down a few pegs. Better yet, she should be behind bars where she belongs. Maybe I’ll do it myself.” It was signed Aware in Ohio. Taken aback, Chloe quickly did an online search of Aware in Ohio and found a victim’s advocate group. They seemed to be bent on stirring up discord in the wake of what they perceived as unjust court decisions. This was deeply troubling. Chloe was getting ready to head down to the Lucky Penny for the New Year’s party. She knew she would keep this new development to herself. Let the girl have a triumphant night. Why borrow trouble when it might amount to nothing at all?

Matthew showered and shaved. He was going to surprise Penny by wearing a suit—something she’d never seen. He’d been told that he cleaned up alright. Hopefully, she thought so too. He removed the plastic from the dry cleaners and began to hold up ties against the jacket to make his pick. He settled on a champagne-hued one. Pleased with himself, he was glad he’d finally been able to ditch the crutches in time to dance with his girl on New Year’s Eve. Things were going so nicely for the two of them lately. He hadn’t even thought about looking for anyone else to date. Taking one last look in the mirror, he couldn’t help but smile. He felt very good about the direction his life was taking.

Jesse was primped and looking very handsome in a gorgeous silk shirt in royal blue, which looked spectacular against his café au lait skin. He caught sight of Penny as she turned the corner toward the bar. He whistled. “Damn, boss lady!” He made a twirling motion with his finger. Feeling pretty good about life in general, she obliged him by turning a ladylike circle. He whistled again, which made her blush a little. “Let’s hope Matthew feels that way when he sees me,” she said. “Oh, Matthew doesn’t stand a chance against all that. Trust me, you got it going on!” he said.

Penny ran upstairs when she realized she’d forgotten to put on the earrings that Matthew got her for Christmas. “I’ll be right back,” she said and disappeared. It was then that Matthew pushed through the door. “Look at you!” Jesse remarked taking in his suit. “Nice. Penny’s gonna love it! And wait until you get a load of her—she looks so sexy.” Matthew gave him a ‘watch it’ look and he backpedaled. “I don’t mean to speak out of turn here, but she looks seriously hot—I’m telling you… ” Just then, they heard footsteps on the stairs. Matthew angled his position to watch her descent. He stared, open-mouthed, before emitting a slow whistle. Jesse nudged him. “See? Seriously hot!” Matthew pushed him playfully, “Get outta here. Find your own girl.” He reached for Penny’s hand as she made it to the last stair. “This one is mine.” He twirled her, admiring the view from all the angles. “Wow. Just wow!”

“I’m glad you like it,” she said, looking down demurely. What was it about getting dressed up that made her feel so girly? “And may I say how handsome you look all dressed up? Oh look! Your tie matches my dress. Probably a good thing so maybe all the eligible women tonight will think of us as a couple and not try to steal you away.” “Stolen away from a fine thing like you? Never.” He caressed her cheek. “I know who I want to kiss at midnight.”

Jesse rang the big bell at the bar. “Get ready, everyone. It’s time.” He cued the music and her crew sprang into action. Penny and Matthew squeezed hands. “Here we go.”