Feeling like a fool, Noah sat at the bar and held his still half-full, single beer. He wondered if he should concede defeat and throw in the towel. He’d never been stood up before. Granted, he wasn’t a dating machine like Holloway, but he’d had a fair share without a single one ghosting him.
There was a chance she was the type to be habitually late. Some people were. It wasn’t one of his favorite traits, but it wasn’t necessarily a deal breaker, either.
Willie, the bar’s owner and drink slinger, thunked a bottle on the bar’s opposite end, Noah spared him a glance then watched as Willie made his way toward him. The man wiped the battered surface of the old bar with a ragged towel along the way, his motions easy with familiarity. Noah lifted his bottle when Willie approached, so the barkeep could continue his path with the towel. Instead, Willie stopped mid-swipe. “What’s got you so down? Something wrong with your beer?”
Noah rubbed a finger over the label, the texture cool and a bit wet under his touch. “Beer’s fine.” He hadn’t even tasted it, really. “I think I’ve been stood up, Will.”
The bartender flipped the towel over his shoulder then scratched his gray beard. “Stood up? By who?”
“Your waitress, Sylvie. The pretty one with bright eyes and great smile. She’s got short dark hair, light brown eyes with flecks of gray…”
Willie’s eyes crinkled, his dull gray irises getting lost in mounds of wrinkles. “You have a date with Sylvie? Bout damn time the girl went out with a real man. That last one of hers, he was a piece of work. She almost married the sumbitch.” The old man visibly shuddered. “He had this fake smile and shiny shoes.” Willie’s tone made it sound as if wearing nice clothes was the equivalent of kicking puppies.
Noah was starting to think she hadn’t been as interested in their date as he’d hoped. When he’d stared into those deep, milk chocolate irises, he’d thought she’d felt the same pull of attraction he did. Her breath caught, in what he thought was the good way.
Maybe he’d misread her signals, like Holloway suggested. At least none of his friends could see his misery.
He set down his beer and shook his head. “Looks like I had a date with her. She’s almost twenty minutes late. Oh, well. Maybe she still has a thing for Mr. Shiny Shoes.” He pulled out his wallet, resigned to her not showing up.
Willie looked genuinely surprised. “Nah. That was almost a year ago, right before she started working here. Even though she never said anything outright, I think he gave her some trouble. The one time I mentioned him I thought she was going to hit me over the head with her tray. Never saw that gal so angry, even when she was little.”
Noah sat in silence as he processed Willie’s words. Seemingly baffled, the old man continued. “She’s never late. Sylvie is one of those annoying types, always ten minutes early for everything. Too damn responsible, if you ask me.” He pulled his rag down and clenched it in his fist as he frowned. “Hmm. Maybe she got cold feet or somethin’?”
“How well do you know Sylvie? Do you think something could be wrong?” Even as he said the words, the hair at the back of Noah’s neck stood up on end. His instincts clamored to life, and he trusted his gut.
Willie seemed to weigh his words carefully. Noah didn’t miss the omission as he skipped over the first question. “Nah. She’s probably just tired. She’s been working an awful lot lately. She’d work every damn day, if I let her. She even offered to work off the clock, for tips only, if I couldn’t afford the overtime. Probably she’s just bone tired. Sorry about your luck, man.”
Noah didn’t like the way the old barkeep’s eyes shifted away, and the feeling in his gut hadn’t abated. “Willie, seriously, how well do you know Sylvie? What’s going on?”
“Nothing. Besides, I don’t know her all that well. Swear. I got a policy to uphold, you know.”
When his eyes slid away again, Noah lost his patience. “I just want to make sure she’s okay, especially if this isn’t normal for her. Tell me her last name.”
The barkeep grumbled then used his washcloth and wiped circles in the same spot. “You really don’t know it? You were goin’ on a date with her and you didn’t even know her whole name?”
Noah set his nearly full beer on the bar with a loud smack and stood. “Your noisy bar isn’t exactly conducive to meaningful conversation. Her full name, Willie.”
“I don’t like people asking about my waitresses. I gotta protect their privacy and all.”
Flat out of patience, the niggling in his gut worsening by the minute, Noah slapped a twenty on the bar to cover his single beer. “I don’t want to argue about a policy that you’ve probably scribbled on an old napkin. Give me her name or I’ll call the sheriff to discuss the ‘shine you’re selling out of the backroom.”
Willie’s creased face went pale. “Shit. You’re playin’ hardball.
“Yup. I swear, I only want to make sure she’s safe.”
Willie’s shoulders slumped, and he braced both hands on the bar. “She’s my late sister-in-law’s girl, Sylvia Grace Smith.”
Noah turned his back on Willie. He stormed out to his truck, thinking he should go home and forget Sylvie. It might be the first time he’d been stood up, but it was her prerogative to decide not to come once she’d agreed. He knew that logically.
Still, even if there could be a reasonable explanation why she hadn’t shown up, his gut instincts railed at him to get moving.
Something was wrong.
Over the past few months, trouble hounded a few of his friends something fierce. He didn’t begrudge them the help he’d given one little bit, but he wasn’t ready to sign on for more. He wanted a date—not a new tangle of danger and intrigue, not more problems.
No. No way. He would go home, find a game on TV, and forget this terrible idea.
His hands acted of their own volition. He picked up his phone and sent a quick text. Hopefully Pete was busy helping his wife with their two young daughters, bath or story time probably. He wouldn’t get an answer until morning and, by then, it would be too late to act.
Need an address for Sylvia Grace Smith. He set his phone in the cupholder and turned the ignition. The engine had barely grumbled to life before his phone chimed. The hair on the back of his neck stood a little straighter.
With a sinking feeling in his gut, he picked up the phone and read the message.
Only an address? Child’s play, big man. Just finished something for the boss. Gimme a sec.
Urgent, anxious dread tightened Noah’s muscles. It had to be a result of his frustration over getting stood up. Nothing was wrong.
Yet, years ago, when he’d been stationed in Afghanistan, he’d learned to trust his gut. In the war-torn desert, anything less equaled suicide.
Willie’s words replayed in his head. She’s never late. Sylvie is one of those annoying types, always ten minutes early for everything.
His phone dinged with a new message. 3467 State Route 713.
He knew the road well, but not the actual house number. He typed it into his GPS app then backed out of his parking spot. A quick drive by, nothing more. In thirty-minutes, he’d be at home watching that game he’d promised himself.
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