“She worked hard at not thinking about it.”

Recap of Chapter 2: Penny recalled in painful detail all the betrayals her ex had made her suffer through—especially the first night she learned of his infidelity. No matter how hard she tried to banish all memories of him, that painful memory snuck into her thoughts at the most inconvenient and unexpected times.

Penny used her shoulder to push open the car door. Her hands were full of packages, but she mentally willed herself not to feel guilty. So she lived in a tiny over-the-bar apartment—that did not mean she couldn’t fill it with gorgeous throws and pillows, great smelling lotions and luxurious soaps. And how could she not have that achingly beautiful Persian runner classing-up the tiny entryway. It was beyond her ability to be disciplined in Mountain Home and Pangaea Carpets. She would have to make up some rules for herself for the next time she couldn’t resist shopping there.

Once home, she arranged everything to her satisfaction—the pillows clustered on the couch, the throw artfully positioned on the end of the bed. She laid out the soaps in the bathroom and rubbed lotion into her hands, luxuriating in the earthy scent. Penny was pleased with the improvements. She would worry about how much it all cost when the credit card bill showed up.

She snuck downstairs into the bar to pour a glass of wine, hoping to get away without Jesse hailing her. Thursday evenings were her own, thanks to Jesse, and she was very protective of her time off. Lord knows she got little of it. Jesse was leaning over the bar, shamelessly flirting with a tourist, who was clearly tipsy, verging on drunk. Penny caught his eye and gave him the sign for cutting her off. He gave her a sheepish grin and shrugged. She winked and disappeared up the stairs.

Penny dug in the freezer for something to eat. She was in the habit of packaging portions for one from the restaurant to freeze for nights like this. She marked them with the contents and date, stacked them in the freezer, and then simply heated them up. Tonight, she settled on braised beef in mushroom wine sauce and made a fresh herb salad drizzled in raspberry vinaigrette to go with it. She had only one discipline about food—she avoided bread whenever she could. It was just too easy to pack on the pounds when tasting everything was literally at her fingertips. She was still a size 6, thanks to that simple sacrifice and the fact that youth or something adjacent to youth was on her side, favoring her with a high metabolism. Gus came running when the savory smell of dinner wafted toward his napping spot in the windowsill. Penny dished out his food and put the bowl by his water on the mat. She ran her hand along his back while he bent over his dish.

Penny settled at the high-top by the window that overlooked the creek. It was a cool night, but by cracking the window, the sounds of water rushing by made it the perfect dining spot. And if it got too chilly, she now had a very cozy throw to wrap around her shoulders. All in all, it was the perfect day off. And, to make it even better, one of her favorite murder mystery shows was airing a new episode in an hour. Did she miss snuggling up with a man? Not if she didn’t think about it. She worked hard at not thinking about it. It was one of the trains of thought permanently banished from her mind, no matter how hard it hovered just below the surface. Besides, she now had fabulous pillows to hug. Penny finished her meal, cleaned up the dishes and changed into yoga pants and a big sweatshirt that had belonged to her ex. Thankfully, after many washings, it no longer carried his scent. Still, she ducked into the neck and sniffed to make sure.

The murder mystery began just as Gus jumped up to knead the pillow on Penny’s lap, purring loudly. Penny turned up the volume. The plot of this storyline centered around a wife falsely accused of murdering her philandering husband. “He deserved it,” she said to Gus. “Rat Bastard.” The detectives were zeroing in on the true suspect halfway through the show, while the wife twisted in the wind, suffering the wrath of the town’s leaders and being interrogated time and time again. Her calm facade was cracking, which made her look suspicious. Penny thought that if the suspect was exonerated, she should pack up and move. It wouldn’t be quickly forgotten how her so-called friends turned on her in her time of need. She shook her head, scooping Gus into her arms. “You’re lucky you’re a cat, Gus,” she said, kissing his fur. “People suck!” Gus opened his eyes a slit and then closed them again. The twist in the storyline, which was revealed at the end, was that the wife was also involved in an extra-marital affair and, not wanting that bit of information to get out, had distanced herself from her paramour. She was utterly alone in her misery. “I know how that feels,” Penny said out loud. She finished her wine as the credits rolled.

It was only 9 pm—way too early for bed, especially since she usually stayed in the bar until 10. After her shopping spree today, she was thinking about her space—how she could make it homey. Studying the room, Penny suddenly realized that she had not unpacked any framed photos or keepsakes. She hopped up, heading for the bedroom, where she got on all fours to peer under the bed. The trunk was easy to spot. She wriggled it out of its hiding place and hefted it with a thud on the wooden bench at the foot of her bed. Not only had she stored all her old family photos inside, but also precious things from her childhood. Under a lacy crocheted blanket, Penny found the framed photo of her grandad, which brought a warm smile to her face. She kissed her fingers and pressed it to his cheek sealed behind glass. “Oh, you definitely need to come out and warm up this space,” she said, setting it aside. She found a couple other things she liked too—a bright yellow bud vase and a wooden bowl she used for avocados. Just as she was arranging the blanket back over the contents, she spied an overstuffed brown accordion file, held closed by an elastic band. She recognized it immediately and froze in place. The mere sight of it caused her heart to race and her head to ache. She stared at it, one hand on the lid of the trunk and the other on her throat, willing her breath to steady.

In one quick motion, Penny slammed the trunk lid shut and flipped the clasp. She would have fixed the lock if she knew where it was. She pulled the trunk roughly from the bench and wrestled it back to its spot under the bed, giving it a final kick so she didn’t have to be on its same level. Once it was back where it belonged, Penny slowly backed toward the door, feeling overwhelmed by the emotions that folder brought to the forefront. She pulled the bedroom door shut—a transparent act of trapping the danger that lurked there. Safely outside the room, Penny leaned against the wall, willing her pulse to slow and her breath to return to normal. Will there ever be a time when her past could just stay in the past?