Recap of Chapter 8: Penny had complete faith that Matthew would contact her as planned, but a couple weeks later and there was still no word. Maybe she’d imagined the spark between them. Trying to put him out of her mind, Penny immersed herself in the running of her restaurant. Meanwhile, Matthew lay broken in a hospital bed, trying to survive, day by day.

Penny told herself that it was natural to feel a little let down after the holidays. As far as celebratory holidays go for restaurants, they all came and went by mid-March. And now, before the summer months kicked in, she felt a bit off, as if restlessness had been made to feel welcome and unpacked its bags for a long stay. Sure, she had her regular customers and the monthly meeting groups, but neither did much to lift her mood. It didn’t help that Matthew hadn’t resurfaced, either. Maybe it was just as well. Who needs to be involved with a guy who was unreliable?

Penny was wandering the empty restaurant before opening, idly mopping the already clean tables with a cloth when she heard an aggressive knock on the door. She frowned. It wasn’t a delivery day. She approached the door, and called out, “Sorry, we’re closed. We open at 11.” Then she heard a dog barking and a familiar voice say, “It’s me, Lucky. Dad.”

“Dad, you’re scaring me. What’s going on?”

Penny quickly unbolted the door and threw it open. There on the stoop stood her dad with Barney in tow. “I don’t believe it!” she exclaimed, leaping into his arms. “Why didn’t you tell me you were coming?” she teased, slapping his shoulder. Her dad laughed, soaking in the joy of the moment. “Because this greeting is the best and it wouldn’t have played out the same if you knew.” He kissed her head. She squeezed him again and Barney put his paws on their arms, his tail swishing. Finally, Penny released him, swiping at the happy tears on her cheeks with the back of her hand. “So, are you going to invite us in or what?” he said, picking up the worn duffle and slinging it over his shoulder.

It was just like her dad to show up when she needed a lift. Penny was in grateful amazement, watching him settle into a booth to eat lunch. It made her exceptionally happy to see him in her world.

“That’s your recipe, Dad,” she said, putting a bowl of chicken and dumplings in front of him. “Looks good,” he said, spreading a napkin on his lap. “I’ll just check to see if you followed the steps properly,” he teased, spooning up some broth. He made a show of swishing it around his mouth. Penny made a face of mock impatience. “Perfect!” he finally declared, flashing her a smile. “Just like I taught you.” For the next few hours, he watched the patrons come and go, had a nice conversation with Jesse, and generally made friends with everyone who wandered into his sphere. When the lunch crowd dissipated, Penny sat down opposite him in the booth. “Want some dessert and coffee?” she asked. “We have lemon meringue pie.” He smiled and patted his belly. “I wouldn’t miss it,” he said. “You sure do know how to make your ol’ dad welcome.”

When Penny returned to the table, dessert in hand, her dad touched her arm. “Besides visiting with my favorite daughter, there’s another reason I came,” he said. Penny frowned. His expression looked serious. “When you have a minute, I want to talk to you.” Suddenly, Penny felt scared. Could something be wrong with him? Why she jumped to that conclusion, was no mystery. Her hands went instantly clammy because of what happened to her mom when she was just a kid. Nervous, she said, “Dad, you’re scaring me. What’s going on?”

“Oh, it’s nothing bad—just something I thought you should know. Well, actually, it is kinda bad. There’s no sugar-coating it.”

“I have time now. Let’s just get into it now.”

He rubbed his face with his hands. “You sure you have time? You’re not too busy?” Penny waved her arm across the room. “It’s between lunch and dinner, Dad. I have time. And Jesse’s here. If we get a sudden rush, he’ll cover it.” She reached for his hand. “What’s going on?”

He busied himself adding sugar and cream to his coffee and poking at the meringue on the pie. “This looks great, Lucky. You sure learned good.”

“Dad,” she coaxed. “Seriously, talk to me.”

He sighed, then reached for her hand on the table. “You remember Billy from back home in Granville?”

She nodded. “Billy, Billy Boone, your best friend? Of course, I remember. What’s happened?”

He reached into the pocket of his jacket laying next to him on the bench. “He’s good. Still keeps in touch every week. But, he sent me this and I wanted to show you in person.” He placed a folded piece of newsprint on the table. “Looks like it’s some kind of anniversary and… well, being a small town and all.” He unfolded the newsprint, smoothing it flat onto the table. He turned it around to Penny. It was the front page of the Granville Gazette—the tiny town of Granville, Ohio’s only weekly newspaper. Penny took in the headline, then the photo, and finally the date. She gasped, her hand covering her mouth, as tears instantly filled her eyes.

“5th Anniversary: Granville’s Notorious Double Homicide” it read in bold print across the top. Below was a mug shot of a defeated-looking woman, her hair unbrushed and her expression that of confused terror. Penny hardly recognized herself in the photo. The caption read “Esme Rodriguez-Pazzano, suspected in the grizzly murders of ex-husband and unidentified woman, brutally slain in their sleep.” It was a reprint of the original story that turned Penny’s world upside down. Five years had passed, and yet the Gazette felt the need to drum it all up again. It was unbelievable and completely unfair. She turned her face to the window. “Why?” she managed to say, her voice shaky.

“I know, honey. It’s so unfair. Billy sent it to me because apparently the Gazette has some sort of online edition now and I didn’t want you to find out I’d kept it from you.” Penny’s lip trembled. “Billy said that the anniversary story is going viral since it was the worst crime Granville had seen in its history or some shit like that, and they’re drumming up readership with it because it’s sensational. That’s what the newspapers are all about now—sensationalism.” Penny shook her head in disbelief. “How can they even do this?” she asked to the window. Jesse came around with the coffee pot, and Penny hurriedly slipped the paper onto her lap. He took in the scene and her body language and retreated without saying a word. Her dad offered him a wan smile, shaking his head slightly.

Jesse eyed them from behind the bar. Penny was obviously upset and crying. If it was anyone besides her dad sitting across the table from her, he’d barge in and demand to know what the hell was going on. He knew in his bones that he’d physically hurt anyone who dared to harm Penny. He clenched his jaw, getting more and more agitated over not knowing. He did not like to feel helpless. Not where Penny was concerned.

The door bumped open and seeing how the guy was struggling to come inside, Jesse rushed over to hold open the heavy wooden door. He was surprised to see that it was Matthew on crutches, one arm in a cast. He had a black eye and a scratch on his cheek.

“Oh, it’s you!” Jesse said, astonished. He got a good look at him. “Whoa—what the hell happened?”