Recap of Chapter 20: Chloe finally got the online troll to stop harassing Penny, but when she went to share the good news, she learned that she and Martin had retreated to his cabin in Maine. While sweating out her frustration at the gym, she happened to meet Matthew. Together, they hatched a plan for a surprise visit to the cabin. But what would they be walking into?

Chloe and Matthew stood on the small porch, nervously waiting for someone to answer the door. They glanced at each other, trying to exude confidence, each secretly hoping the whole escapade wasn’t a giant mistake. It was cold outside and dark, but warmth glowed from the big windows: a welcome sight. Chloe shivered, despite having buttoned her coat. Going from the warm rental car to standing outside on the porch, she was feeling the infamous northern Maine cold in her bones.

They heard Barney bark inside and a muffled voice wonder who could possibly be visiting at this hour. It was Martin who swung open the door, and the look of utter shock on his face was genuine. Barney broke through, tail wagging, bumping against their legs. Martin looked surprised alright, Chloe noted, but not quite elated. It was so unexpected, she told herself, that it was no wonder he didn’t have time to properly react. Noticeably missing from the greeting: a warm hug and kiss. Instead, he stepped aside to let them in. Matthew greeted him with a hug and a slap on the back as he passed by. “My God!” Martin said, shaking his head. “I can’t believe you’re actually here.” He closed the door against the cold and called out. “Penny! You’re never gonna believe who I found outside, standing in the cold!”

“We convinced ourselves that you would somehow be happy to see us.”

Penny stepped around the corner into the foyer. When she caught sight of Matthew, she stopped short. “Oh my God!” she exclaimed. “What are you doing here?” Matthew stepped forward, pulling her into a hug, noting her cool embrace. He was instantly regretting the rash decision to show up without warning.

Martin saved the moment by taking charge, pushing their suitcases to the side and taking their coats, hanging them on the hooks by the door. Penny couldn’t stop staring and repeating the phrase, “I can’t believe you’re here.” Finally, she gestured toward the living room. “Well, come in. Can I get you something to drink? Water or… ?” Matthew tipped his head toward the coffee table, “What you’re drinking looks like a godsend.”

“Oh, of course,” she said going to the alcove with the built-in that served as a liquor cabinet. She poured two fingers of whiskey into a rocks glass and handed it to Matthew. She looked to Chloe. “How about you? Wine or… ?”

Chloe had stepped out of her shoes and was standing in her socks, rubbing goosebumps from her arms. “I’ll have what you’re having,” she said. “It looks perfect.”

“Here,” Martin said, “have a seat by the fire and warm yourselves.”

Chloe shuffled toward the fire, taking a seat on the cushioned hearth, grateful to have the warmth of the fire at her back and whiskey to sip. Matthew sat next to her, both facing the room. Martin and Penny took their seats on the couches opposite. Then there fell an awkward silence, broken only by the sounds of the crackling fire and the jingle of Barney’s tags. At least he seemed happy to see them, positioning himself between their legs to pander for a rub. Matthew and Chloe exchanged nervous glances.

He took a bracing sip of whiskey before saying, “You’re probably wondering why we came here, uninvited, and are now sitting in your cabin, sipping your whiskey and petting your dog.”

“It crossed my mind,” Martin said. Penny nodded, looking to Matthew, eyebrows raised, waiting for an explanation. Matthew cleared his throat. “Well, we hoped it would be a good surprise, us showing up like this.”

Chloe gulped half of the contents of her glass before nodding and then nervously, she said, “It was meant to be a good thing. It was Matthew’s idea, really, but I totally jumped on it. I mean, we thought that since you two sort of… ran away, without explanation, that we could hop on a plane and join you… without explanation… ” Her voice trailed off. “Or an invitation. It was a spontaneous decision.” She looked down. “Surprise,” she said weakly.

Penny began, “It’s not that I’m unhappy to see you but, Matthew, you knew. I told you I just needed to get away from it all. I couldn’t take the tension, constantly waiting for something bad to happen. I thought, if I could just come out here and clear my head, get away from all reminders, I’d be prepared to come back and face whatever comes.”

“True,” Matthew conceded. “I did know the reason, but I also thought I would be an exception, that my company would be welcome, not a reminder of your troubles. Plus, Chloe wanted to share some good news that should be done in person.” He nudged her with his elbow.

“That’s right,” Chloe said, perking up. “I wanted to tell you that I handled that little bastard once and for all by threatening him with a slander suit. He backed right off and even published a retraction of some of the more litigious points of his posts. It was beautiful! He is no longer a problem and you are free and clear to come home.”

Penny stared at her in disbelief. “You mean he’s stopped posting things to gin up his followers about my guilt?”

“Exactly! You can put that behind you, once and for all. I came to the Lucky Penny, champagne in hand, to spread the good news, and Jesse told me you’d come here. Then I got a text from you, Martin. Then, when I ran into Matthew at the Rec center and got to talking, we hatched this plan to hop on a plane and come see you.” She looked from Penny to Martin. “We convinced ourselves that you would somehow be happy to see us.”

Ignoring the last sentence, Penny said, “I can’t believe it! You really got him to stop? What about someone else in their organization?”

“Nope,” she declared with confidence. “The way they backpedaled, it was clear that someone with legal background coached them. I cannot see anyone in that organization bringing it up again. At least not online. They’re finished harassing you. Enjoy the win!” She raised her glass. “It’s not champagne, but it still works for a toast.”

Martin and Matthew raised their glasses. “To the win!” Matthew said. Penny didn’t raise her glass. Stunned, she simply couldn’t absorb the information.

“Why are you not smiling?” Chloe asked. “You should be smiling right now, Penny.”

“I just can’t believe it! Seriously. I have had PTSD with this guy. The harassment, the constant worry about people’s reactions—it took me back to how it felt to be wrongly accused in the first place. It was five years ago, but when stuff like this comes up, it still feels like yesterday. It’s going to take a minute for this to sink in.” The clock ticked in the background interminably before she finally raised her glass. “To the win,” she said, adding, “thank you, Chloe. You’re a wonder!”

Martin rose to fetch the bottle. He poured generously all around, topping up their drinks. “Yes, thank you, Chloe. I admit, that is very good news—a real cause for celebration. I also admit it is very unexpected, you two showing up like this… ” he looked pointedly at Chloe, “ … suitcases in hand. I should warn you that mine is a very small cabin, with only two bedrooms.”

Chloe felt as if she’d been slapped. Her smile disappeared as she felt the color rise in her cheeks. Her celebratory news had suddenly been replaced by dread. She now realized that by showing up like she did, she was forcing their relationship to the next level. She had thought that things were going well and that he wanted a physical relationship, but they hadn’t discussed it. Could she be wrong? Coming here like this made her appear desperate.

Matthew picked up on her distress. “Penny, do you have something I could snack on? I’m suddenly very hungry.” Penny also caught the vibe in the room. “Sure,” she said. “Let’s go root around in the kitchen.” They quickly vacated the room, leaving Martin and Chloe alone.

They were fooling no one with their hasty exit. Martin looked at Chloe. “A little transparent, but I guess it’s obvious. We need to talk.”