Home > Undeserving (Undeniable #5)(15)

Undeserving (Undeniable #5)(15)
Author: Madeline Sheehan

Mud and manure didn’t smell much better than a New York City alleyway, yet Preacher preferred the devil he knew. The open road made for a good mistress, but the city held his heart. If it didn’t smell like exhaust and someone wasn’t trying to steal it, Preacher wouldn’t be staying long.

Forgoing the trek through the farm animals, he headed for the vendors instead.

Walking idly through the aisles, browsing without actually seeing any of it, Preacher lit cigarette after cigarette, content to just soak up the atmosphere. Every now and then a pair of nicely tanned legs or a smooth, bare midriff would catch his eye, but nothing that warranted more than a brief, appreciative glance.

At a food booth, Preacher paused to order a burger. Leaning against the makeshift counter, waiting for his order, he surveyed the crowd. It had been a while since he’d been surrounded by so many people at once, the hum of too many voices. In a way, it reminded him of home.

His languid stare snagged on a passing pair of bare legs, sleek and muscular, and then on a familiar scrap of leather tied around the waist above. He blinked and his eyes widened. That was his jacket—he’d recognize that jacket in the middle of a snowstorm, blindfolded. And wearing it was most definitely Debbie Reynolds—those gorgeous legs were proof enough. A crisp new bag hung from her back; her clothing was clean, also new. His eyes narrowed, knowing he’d paid for all of it.

“Son of a bitch,” he muttered, pushing away from the counter. Forgetting his food, he hurried after her.

He entertained the idea of grabbing her from behind, yanking her between vendors, and demanding that she return his things. Only as he drew closer, his anger began to wane.

She was working. And Debbie “Liar, Liar, Pants on Fire” Reynolds was quite a sight to behold.

Not wanting to draw attention to himself, Preacher slowed his gait, allowing more space to build between them.

It only took a few moments of observing her to identify her preferred marks—young couples with children. She’d wait until the parents were distracted by their kids, then strike and quickly slip away.

She made the act seem effortless, though Preacher knew otherwise. It took quite a bit of skill to lift something off the body of another without them noticing anything. But Debbie was pulling it off. No one who wasn’t actively looking at her, studying her every movement as Preacher was, would be the wiser.

She was so damn good at what she did, watching her in action felt like live entertainment.

If he hadn’t been accustomed to watching his back for even the smallest of threats, she would have gotten the drop on him back at the truck stop. He never would have noticed her; his wallet would have simply vanished, leaving him wondering what the hell had happened to it.

He continued after her, even as she wandered into the petting zoo, full of braying mules and bleating goats and stinking to high heaven. Preacher hardly noticed the stench; he was too busy enjoying Debbie, his grin growing with each theft.

Something soft squished beneath his boot, and Preacher glanced down to find his right foot half submerged in mud. When he looked up again, Debbie had disappeared. Cursing, he rushed forward, his eyes darting in every direction, scanning the clusters of people milling about.

He lurched to a stop only minutes later and burst out laughing. Debbie was standing in line for the Ferris wheel. With his jacket tied around her waist, her new clothes clean and fitted, her hair pulled neatly away from her face, she appeared utterly innocuous, every bit an average teenage girl. Not at all like the lying, thieving little minx she really was.

As the line began to move and Debbie ascended the small set of stairs, Preacher moved forward, an impromptu plan forming. He cut several people in line, jumped up the stairs and onto the platform, slapped a ten-dollar bill across the chest of the teenage boy manning the ride, and darted quickly across.

He slid into the swaying cart just as Debbie was sitting down. Her head jerked up, her eyes going wide as he sat down on the bench across from her. She glanced toward the exit, and Preacher swiftly lifted his legs, placing his muddy, booted feet up on the empty seat beside her, effectively caging her in.

“Shit.” A breathless declaration of defeat.

The cart lurched, groaned, and then the Ferris wheel began to turn. Like a cat cornered by a bulldog, Debbie scrambled backward, her hackles raised.

And Preacher grinned.

• • •

Frozen in the corner of her seat, Debbie gaped at Preacher. The sounds of groaning metal, whirring motors, and shrieking people winked out of existence, leaving behind only the furious rhythm of blood pounding in her ears.

How had he found her here? Had he been following her? Or was this simply an unlucky case of wrong place, wrong time? Debbie swallowed several times, an attempt to calm her racing heart.

“You know,” Preacher drawled. Head tipped to one side, arms draped over the back of the cart, he studied her intently. “Debbie don’t really suit you. Debbie’s a nice girl’s name, and you really ain’t so nice. You’re more of a…” Preacher trailed off.

He snapped his fingers. “Hell on Wheels! That’s what I’m gonna call you. Wheels for short!”

Still stunned by his appearance, Debbie only continued to stare.

“I woulda given you a ride, you know.” The humor in Preacher’s expression vanished. “Some cash, too. You didn’t have to steal my shit.” He was frowning at her now, and while Debbie’s outward appearance remained frozen, she was shrinking inside.

Although her pride told her she’d owed this man nothing—that in this life everything was up for grabs, no matter how kind you were—her guilt was screaming the opposite. She could feel his heavy leather jacket wrapped around her waist, a weighty reminder of what she’d done.

But it was neither her pride nor her guilt that had her untying his jacket from her waist. It was common sense. Regardless of how she felt, she knew she was no match for this man physically, and in her current situation, dangling from a Ferris wheel, she had nowhere to run.

Pulling the leather from her waist, she leaned forward in her seat and held it out in offering. Preacher eyed her shrewdly a moment before quickly snatching it away. He was patting down his coat when his eyes flashed with surprise.

His booted feet hit the floor with a thud, sending the cart rocking. He pulled his wallet from the coat’s inner pocket. “You didn’t toss it.”

She shrugged. She’d meant to chuck it; she’d never kept a stolen wallet before, only the cash inside.

“I’m guessin’ it’s empty?” His smirk returned.

Debbie worried her bottom lip, unsure of what to do should he ask for his money back. His money was long gone, though she’d since stolen more than enough to pay him back.

But he never asked for it. He only continued to watch her with an infuriating all-knowing look on his obnoxiously handsome face, leaving her feeling as if he could see straight through her.

He didn’t look away until their cart came to a rocking stop.

They both turned, peering out over the fairgrounds. They were nearly on top of the wheel, giving them a spectacular view of everything below. Debbie could see the entirety of the fair and beyond, patches of forest and quaint little neighborhoods. Streets lined with glittering street lamps and rows of homes, their lit windows letting off a soft golden glow.

Debbie’s chest expanded, drinking in the sweet air. The higher she was, the more untouchable she felt. Nothing could reach her up here. She was a goddess among men. As opposed to what she really was. A speck of mortal nothing. A thing to use. Forsaken.

When the Ferris wheel began to move again, she turned back to Preacher. He’d since traded his denim jacket for his leather and was currently transferring the contents of his pockets. Balling up the faded blue denim, he tossed it onto Debbie’s lap without warning.

Startled, she only half caught it and glanced up at Preacher, puzzled.

“Keep it,” he said, nodding at the jacket in her clutches.

She stared at him, a hundred questions burning on the tip of her tongue. Why was he still helping her? Especially after what she’d done?

“Are you sure?” Unable to look him in the eye, she posed the question to the stretch of starlit sky over his shoulder.

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