Home > Undeserving (Undeniable #5)(14)

Undeserving (Undeniable #5)(14)
Author: Madeline Sheehan

“Run away, little piggy!” one of the girls called after her. “Run away!”

While the group howled with laughter, Debbie ducked down the next aisle.

She hated towns for many reasons, but people were the first and foremost. When cities were few and far between, she stuck to the highways and the truck stops and the mom-and-pop shops scattered along the way. Places where people were always coming and going, where she went largely unnoticed.

Having to deal with the occasional judgmental truck stop waitress paled in comparison to the sort of scrutiny she received in towns like this. Typically, the smaller the town was, the worse she was treated.

Plucking a pair of sunglass off a display, she slid them discreetly inside her jacket, latching them onto the torn collar of her T-shirt.

Passing a rack of pretty summer dresses, she reached out to finger the gauzy material. She used to look like those girls. She used to wear things like this. Better than this, even. Her clothing had always been current, her hair always cut in the latest style, her nails manicured. On the outside, Debbie had looked perfect, pristine. Her mother had insisted upon it because, in her mother’s mind, appearance was everything.

Debbie released the dress with an angry sneer. Fuck those girls. And fuck her mother, too.

Her arms full, Debbie started toward the front of the store, had nearly reached the counter when the front door opened with a groan. Debbie halted, her eyes going wide. Tall and broad shouldered, a police officer in full uniform stepped inside. Removing his hat, he flashed a friendly smile at the elderly man managing the cash register.

“Afternoon, Wendell!”

A wave. “Mike! Hello! It’s a hot one today!”

Debbie backtracked, disappearing down an aisle and behind a bin filled with flip-flops. Her heart pounding, her breath shallow, she quickly ticked through her options. Half of her wanted to simply drop everything and leave, while the other half balked at that idea, knowing it could be quite a while before she found another store.

As it was, she’d been shopping for long enough that up and leaving would look suspicious. She already stuck out like a sore thumb. Filthy, her clothing torn, she was wearing a bulky leather jacket several sizes too big for her, in the summer heat, no less. Once that police officer got an eyeful of her…

She swallowed thickly. Sweat trickled down her forehead. She could suddenly feel every stolen item she’d hidden inside the jacket biting uncomfortably into her skin.

Familiar giggles erupted several aisles over, and Debbie recognized the noise as the group from earlier. Peeking over the top of the display, she found the police officer had paused to speak with them.

Debbie’s eyes darted back to the front of the store. What if she could check out before the officer found his way back? The old man behind the counter looked to have one foot in the grave already—she didn’t foresee him giving her much trouble. And what the store lacked in width, it certainly made up for in depth. There was a good chance she could cash out and be halfway up the road before the officer was the wiser.

She took precious seconds to mull it over before deciding she didn’t have any other options that made sense. Hurrying toward the front of the store, she kept her head down as she placed her items on the counter, and the old man behind it regarded her curiously. Pushing his thickly framed glasses up his nose, he folded his arms over his chest.

“You’re not from around here.” It wasn’t a question, therefore Debbie didn’t answer.

“You here for the county fair?” he continued. “My grandson’s pigs are being featured, you know? He’s got the best hogs in the entire county.”

Debbie forced herself to make eye contact and attempted a smile.

“Yes,” she said, her voice cracking. She cleared her throat. “I’ll make sure to check them out.”

With a satisfied nod, the old man finally turned his attention to her items. He spent several long minutes poking through her pile, sorting her things, and five more minutes examining each one.

“Best doughnuts in the whole state, too,” he said, giving her a gummy smile.

Debbie attempted another smile as a fresh layer of sweat formed on her forehead and dampened her armpits. Could he be any slower? She chanced a glance over her shoulder, searching for the whereabouts of the officer. Her inability to locate him through the numerous bulky displays sent her stomach somersaulting. Panicking, she turned halfway around, and as she did, one of the many items stashed inside her jacket’s sleeve slid down her arm, precariously close to the opening at her wrist. Horrified, she cleared her throat and quickly shook her sleeve, sending the stolen item back into hiding.

“$42.95.” The old man pushed a brown paper bag, brimming with her new purchases, across the countertop.

Her heart racing in anticipation—my God she was so hot and uncomfortable—she pulled her money from her pocket, quickly counted out what she needed, and placed it on the counter. As she slowly withdrew her fingers, she heard a shuffle behind her.

Don’t look, don’t look, don’t look.

The old man slid a nickel across the counter and tapped the coin twice. “Don’t forget about the fair,” he said.

Feeling like she might vomit, Debbie quickly pocketed her change and grabbed her bag full of purchases. She kept her head down as she turned away, hurrying toward the door.

Outside she didn’t dare pause to catch her much-needed breath. Gulping down warm, sticky air, she darted through the small parking lot and jogged across the street. She retraced her steps, stopping once she’d reached the small strip of forest that separated the highway from the town.

Safely ensconced among the trees and tall overgrowth, she quickly shed Preacher’s heavy jacket. Sighing in relief as the warm breeze hit her overheated skin, she sunk to the soft ground on her back. Breathing deeply, her heart rate slowing, she blinked up at the clouds, recalling what the old man had said.

Best doughnuts in the state.

Only six dollars and five cents remained from Preacher’s wallet—only enough for something to eat.

A county fair would definitely draw a good-sized crowd. Lots of people, lots of wallets.

First things first, though.

Sitting up, she rummaged through her purchases, excited to have a toothbrush again and clean clothes to change into. After swapping outfits and freshening up, Debbie settled herself against a tree, flicked open her newly stolen pocketknife, and began sharpening a pencil.

Then she opened her brand-new composition notebook to the first page and closed her eyes. She’d stared at that photograph so often that every line, every curve, had been engraved into her memory.

Her eyes opened.

The first thing she drew was her father’s smile.

Chapter 10

Standing beside his motorcycle puffing on a cigarette, Preacher stared up at the brightly lit entrance to the fairgrounds, wondering how the hell he’d ended up at the Wayne County Fair. He’d jumped off the highway only for cigarettes, fuel, and a bite to eat. Three cups of coffee, a stack of pancakes, two fried eggs, and a bowl full of hash browns later, the sun was setting on the horizon. Which left him with two options—to find a nearby motel or get back on the highway and ride through the night.

Of course he’d chosen neither.

His father’s voice echoed in his head. As useless as a glass hammer.

Yeah, Preacher was feeling pretty useless. Useless seemed to be how he operated lately, utterly clueless and with no direction.

“When in Rome,” he muttered. Flicking his cigarette away, he pulled on his denim jacket and joined the stream of people heading inside.

Set up on a large stretch of land typically used for public recreation, the Wayne County Fair was filled with rows of colorful vendor booths with front men loudly hawking their wares, and food stands scenting the air with a hundred different flavors of grease. Decorative lights had been strung from tent top to tent top, brightly countering the black night sky. A carousel, bumper cars, a rickety looking roller coaster, and a Ferris wheel were just a few of the rides the fair’s skyline boasted.

Preacher stood in the center of it all, weighing his options. A ways off, a petting zoo had been erected, and past the zoo he could make out a cordoned-off area where stunt men were performing on motorcycles for a cheering crowd. He stepped forward, immediately drawn to the unmistakable roar of hard-working engines, until the farmyard stench had him recoiling.

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