Recap of Chapter 6: Penny couldn’t resist the invitation for a date with the excruciatingly handsome Matt. He warned her to dress warmly, which both piqued her interest and provided a wardrobe challenge. His idea turned out to be a winter picnic overlooking the creek on a property she’d admired. It was enchanting.

There was a distinct feeling of joy in the air at the Lucky Penny. On the heels of the best first date Penny had experienced since… well… you know who, she couldn’t stop smiling. For a brief moment, Penny’s memories dipped into the last best first date with Antonio, but she quickly shook her head, rejecting that trip down memory lane. She was doing her best to leave the past where it belonged: buried in a trunk under her bed. The next day—a Wednesday—Matt showed up unexpectedly right when the pub opened. Penny experienced the same feeling of being starstruck at the sight of him coming through the door, only this time it was 10 times better because he was holding a bouquet of flowers. Penny’s senses were on high alert—not in that “waiting for something to jump out of the shadows way,” but in a “something great might happen that she would be sorry to miss” kind of way.

“I had a great time yesterday,” he said, offering his gift. “I knew you’d be busy for the next week with the holiday and all and I didn’t want Valentine’s Day to come without flowers.” He watched with a smile as Penny buried her nose in the bouquet, her eyes twinkling. “You should be surrounded by flowers,” he said. He reached for her hand. “I’ll be taking the next week or so to bury myself in work, but come next week, I will expect a call from you.” He leaned in and kissed her on the cheek. “Don’t forget.” He turned to leave.

“Why she got so clumsy and tongue-tied at the sight of Matt was a mystery.”

Penny finally found her voice. “Oh, I won’t,” she said lamely, followed by a hasty “Thank you” as the door was closing behind him. Could she be any more awkward? Why she got so clumsy and tongue-tied at the sight of Matt was a mystery. They had a lovely date—relaxed and full of great food and conversation. And, she admitted to herself, that it was a very promising sign that there would be a second date. He all but made her swear to call when she resurfaced from the Valentine’s Day weekend rush. She sighed and busied herself straightening out the lunch menus and checking the pile of bundled silverware. Then she remembered the flowers that she’d set on the counter. She took them into the kitchen to get a vase and placed them at the hostess station so she could enjoy them every time she walked by. Then, before it got busy, she looked at her notes for the Valentine’s Day menu. The theme was Home-cooked Love, featuring comfort foods like rosemary chicken and baked macaroni and cheese. For an appetizer, there was a choice of potato skins or crab cakes. Dessert offerings included chocolate mousse with salted caramel whipped cream or apple crisp with a dollop of French vanilla ice cream. There were fancier menus out there, but Penny knew her crowd and how to stay in her lane. The guests looking for something fancier could order Jesse’s specialty cocktails concocted just for lovers. From what she’d seen (and tasted), the chocolate martinis were sublime.

Driving down the road, Matt was flying high. Not only had he met an interesting, beautiful and fun lady, she was real, stumbling and then blushing. He couldn’t help but smile at the thought. It was adorable. He congratulated himself for thinking of the flowers. They weren’t an expensive gift, but the gesture left her speechless. A good sign, as far as he was concerned. It seemed like a long time since he’d met someone who wasn’t self-absorbed. Who knows if it would go anywhere, but if the butterflies in his stomach were any indication, it felt like the beginning of something special. He laughed at himself. Oh, he had it bad. He didn’t really have time right now to pursue her. It’s a good thing that she was also unavailable, at least for a few days. He pushed aside romantic thoughts to concentrate on the work ahead. He hoped to finish the kitchen cabinets this week, but it would mean long hours and probably camping out at the property. At least the owners were out of town and had already offered the guest room for situations just like this. He had picked up chimichangas for dinner and a bag of Bagelry bagels and schmear for breakfast. The fewer interruptions—like fetching meals—the more progress could be made on the house. The owners were due back at the end of the month, which didn’t leave much time for the projects. He was suddenly glad there were no romantic distractions this week. He suspected Penny could be a wonderful distraction.

Matt drove the road cautiously, braking ahead of the curve in case of adverse conditions. The road hugged a creek, which could cause icy and slick surfaces. What happened next could never be predicted. It was a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. The curve in the road ended with a straight stretch with high visibility and Matt increased his speed accordingly. He had become accustomed to the feel of this particular road and drove it with ease. Never could he have imagined that out of nowhere, an elk would decide to trot across the road at that very minute, just feet from his front bumper. Matt hit the brakes—a reflex that made his truck bed fishtail. His adrenaline pumped as he gripped the steering wheel, trying to regain control and bracing himself for the impact. He steered toward the hindquarters of the bull, hoping he would miss it and this whole thing would be a tense moment and a narrow miss. Seconds passed in uncertainty, the elk and the truck in a dangerous dance with the slick road acting as their stage. It felt as if the whole scene was playing out in slow motion. When the bull’s hind quarters cleared the truck’s fender, Matt exhaled. But the fishtailing worsened. He released the brakes before applying pressure again. Suddenly, he lost all control, spinning sideways. Matt let the steering wheel slide through his hands before making a correction. He’d driven in snow and ice his whole life. This situation could yet be saved. But it was not meant to be. The truck spun out of control before launching over the edge of the creek bed. Wide-eyed, Matt heard his own voice in an anguished scream as he was pitched over the edge sideways.