Madelyn Thompkins wasn’t in the habit of sneaking down rickety staircases in dive bars. But this was the opposite of habit: according to social media, her sister, Ava had been at The Prow less than an hour before.
No one had heard from Ava since she checked out of rehab in their hometown of Cheyenne, Wyoming, four months ago. So to have her turn up in Boulder, where Madelyn was enrolled in med school? It was an opportunity she couldn’t squander.
Despite the crummy neighborhood and the sketchy bar, Madelyn came straightaway. A quick search of both the main bar and the bathroom turned up nothing. It left her with two choices: give up on her first chance in months to find her sister, or explore the entire building—even the parts that were off-limits, like the basement hallway she was standing in. Then again, when she thought of it that way, Madelyn didn’t have a choice at all.
She pushed the slightly ajar door fully open and peered into the room. A figure, shrouded with the dark, moved. She wasn’t alone. Her pulse spiked and she bit her bottom lip to keep it from quivering.
“Hello,” she called out. The room swallowed her words. “I’m looking for Ava Thompkins. Do you know her?”
“You aren’t supposed to be here. This place is for employees only,” a man said. “The sign on the door says ‘Private.’ Can’t you read?”
She hadn’t come this way for nothing. She fished her phone from her cross-body purse and pulled up her sister’s latest picture and post. Turning the screen to the room, she asked, “Do you recognize this woman?”
Suddenly the man was in front of her. He had short, dark hair. Clad in a form-fitting black T-shirt and snug jeans. He was big—well over six feet tall with broad shoulders and muscular arms. The outline of his pecs and abs were unmistakable.
“I’m the bartender, so I see a lot of people,” he said, giving a noncommittal answer. “What’s she to you?”
“My sister.” Holding the phone at arm’s length, Madelyn continued, “She was here less than an hour ago. You must’ve seen her.”
“Why do you care?”
“Besides her being my sister? Isn’t that enough?”
Madelyn hesitated only a little before sharing Ava’s history. “She checked out of rehab and we haven’t heard from her since.”
“Maybe she doesn’t want to be found,” the bartender said.
“I doubt she does,” said Madelyn. “But I’m desperate to find her.”
“Like I said, lots of folks come and go.” He gave a useless shrug. “I don’t remember them all.”
“Are you sure?” Even to her own ears, Madelyn’s voice was tight and thin, like a string about to break. She wasn’t going to let Ava slip away again, not when this man might be able to help. “You’ve never seen her before?”
“You seem like a nice lady, so I’m going to be honest with you. This isn’t a nice bar. Just go home. It’s safer for you there.”
“If it’s not safe for me, then it’s not safe for my sister.”
“Go.” The man pointed toward the stairs.
“Why are you trying to get rid of me?”
“Why are you being so difficult to get rid of?” The man grabbed her elbow. “Let me walk you to your car,” he said. “If your sister stops in, I’ll let her know that you’re looking for her.”
Madelyn’s joy soared, taking her to a dizzying height. While he might not be the key to finding her sister, the bartender was a link in the chain that led to Ava.
“You know her?” Madelyn asked.
“She’s been around.”
Standing on the threshold, it occurred to Madelyn that the man hadn’t bothered to turn on the light in the darkened room behind him. Was he trying to hide something? She eased around him, entering the room. “Where is she?”
The man stepped in Madelyn’s way, blocking her from gaining further access. “I don’t know where your sister is now,” he said. “But I do know that she’s not in this office.”
Madelyn narrowed her eyes.
He held up two fingers and said, “Scout’s honor.”
“You? A Boy Scout? I thought you said that nobody nice came to The Prow.”
“Would you believe me if I told you that I made Eagle Scout by the time I turned sixteen years old?”
For an inexplicable reason, Madelyn did. “So, Boy Scout. Why won’t you help a hardworking doctor find her ill sister?”
“You’re a doctor?”
She corrected herself, “Well, I’m not a doctor—not yet, anyway. But I am a medical school student at the University of Colorado.” A flush crept from her chest to her cheeks as Madelyn realized she’d rambled.
Maybe it would be for the best if she just went home.
The bartender closed the space between them. His spicy scent surrounded her and she drew in a deep breath.
Her eyes had adjusted to the light and for the first time she looked at his large frame closely. His short hair had lighter streaks throughout and Madelyn wondered if he spent time in the sun. Dark stubble covered his cheeks, and still she could see the cleft in his chin. The collar of his black T-shirt was frayed.
“So, what kind of doctor are you?” he asked.
Madelyn didn’t want the flirtation to continue, yet she found herself saying, “I’m thinking of specializing in psychiatry.”
“Because of your sister?” he asked. “And her addiction.”
“Who sounds like a shrink now?” Madelyn joked.
Madelyn tried to think of something charming, or at least witty, to retort. But she stopped. The bartender held himself as if he were forged from iron and not flesh and blood. He had not been teasing, he truly wanted her to listen. Then she heard them—male voices speaking, but not English. Ukrainian? Or Russian, maybe?
The man placed his mouth next to her ear, his breath hot on her skin. “Those men are going to walk through that door in one minute and neither one of us should be in this office. I want to protect you, but to do that I need to give them a reason why we’re trespassing.”
“Protect me?” His words were more confusing than menacing. “What do you mean?”
“I’m on your side,” he assured her, “but what’s your name?”
“Madelyn,” she said. “My name is Madelyn Thompkins.”
“Madelyn,” the man said, pulling her closer still, “I’m Roman.”
“Why do I need to know who you are?”
“Because as an Eagle Scout, I’m honor bound to introduce myself to any distressed damsels that I kiss.”