Home > Undeserving (Undeniable #5)(16)

Undeserving (Undeniable #5)(16)
Author: Madeline Sheehan

“You need it more than me.”

Debbie’s attack of conscience intensified. No one, literally no one, had ever been this kind to her. Her guilt flamed hot once again, Preacher’s continued generosity making her petty thievery feel a thousand times worse than ever before.

“I’m sorry,” she blurted suddenly, finally facing him. “For, um, taking your stuff, and—”

Preacher laughed outright. “Liar.” He laughed again, shaking his head.

Cheeks heating, Debbie clamped her mouth shut. Her guilt evaporated, replaced by indignant embarrassment. If she didn’t need his jacket so badly, she would have thrown it in his laughing face.

If Preacher noticed her shift in mood, he didn’t appear bothered by it. Still smirking, he placed his elbows on his knees and leaned forward. “Speakin’ of. How’d a girl like you get so good at pickin’ pockets?”

“A girl like me?” she bit out.

He shrugged. “You aren’t a typical street rat. For starters, you got good teeth. And you’re smart, too.” He tapped two fingers against his temple. “Pretty easy to tell the difference between someone who’s been to school and someone who hasn’t. So I’m curious how a girl like you ended up so slick. I’m guessin’ someone showed you the ropes?”

She wanted to hate him for figuring her out so perfectly. For knowing so much about her without knowing her at all. For being an all-knowing arrogant ass whose overly confident smirk was grating on her nerves. For laughing at her apology.

But for all her irritation, there was an odd sort of warmth blossoming inside of her. Preacher had seen straight through her. Through the grease and the dirt, through her torn, dingy clothing. Through the lies she’d told him.

No one, not one single soul, had ever done that before.

Debbie took a breath. “Sunshine. Her name was Sunshine.”

Early on in her travels, Debbie had found herself stuck in Nashville, Tennessee. Out of money and without a plan, she’d spent most nights sleeping along the Cumberland River under a bridge, and most days rummaging through city garbage cans for something to eat. Out of options, she’d been trying her hand at panhandling on the Boulevard, typically with very little luck, when she’d happened upon Sunshine.

Tall and slim, her hair the color of ripe wheat, her skin glowing a tawny gold, a young woman had expertly strummed her guitar, crooning to a crowd of people. Debbie had stopped to listen, partially transfixed by the haunting quality of her voice, but mostly jealous of the ever-growing pile of money being tossed into her guitar case.

Hours passed, the crowd dispersed, and still Debbie remained—she’d had nowhere else to go. She’d watched the woman pack up her guitar and get ready to leave. But instead, she’d turned to Debbie and smiled.

“Ride’s over.”

Startled, Debbie blinked at the pimply-faced teenager standing outside their cart. Mouth downturned, eyes glassy, he stared blankly back at her.

“Ride’s over,” he repeated, deadpan. “You two have to get out.”

“Here, kid,” Preacher said, handing the teen a folded bill. “Buy yourself a personality. We’re stayin’ on.”

Turning back to Debbie, Preacher folded his arms over his chest and quirked a brow. “You were sayin’?”

Debbie looked at her lap, where she was still clutching Preacher’s denim jacket. The butterfly ring on her index finger—a gift from Sunshine—glinted in the moonlight. As she often did, she began to twist the silver band around her finger. “She taught me everything I know.”

Sunshine had been born on a commune, the unclaimed result of her mother’s many bed partners. She’d run away at thirteen for reasons she’d never disclosed to Debbie. By her twenties Sunshine had learned more than a few tricks for surviving on the road, pickpocketing being one of them. Surprisingly enough, Debbie had excelled at it.

Still twisting her ring, Debbie took a breath and met Preacher’s gaze. “And then one day she was gone.”

“She ditch you?”

Debbie nodded. Those few weeks had been the happiest of her life. She’d thought she’d found a companion, someone to share the burden of her lifestyle with. She’d thought her bad luck had finally taken a turn for the better.

She’d thought she’d found a true friend.

Finding her suddenly gone one morning, Debbie had broken down in tears. And she hadn’t cried since.

“It wasn’t anything you did.” Shaking his head, Preacher’s gaze wandered away.

“Known chicks just like Sunshine. Guys, too. They got the bug. Gotta keep movin’, you know? Can’t sit still, can’t stay in one place too long. Bet my ass she stayed longer than she would have if she hadn’t met you. And I’m guessing she left while you were sleepin’ ‘cause she didn’t want to have to say goodbye.”

“It’s easier for ‘em that way. Somethin’ is broken up there, in there.” He tapped a finger to his temple and then over his heart. “They can’t face staying, and they can’t face leaving either.”

Debbie took a moment to consider his words. It made sense, more sense than anything else. And for the first time since Sunshine had left her, she felt maybe not quite so miserable about it.

“Was your mom—is your mom like that? Like Sunshine?”

“Nah. She was just makin’ do. Just getting by until she found somethin’ better, somethin’ permanent… like you.” His eyes settled on Debbie, those dark depths quickly sharpening.

As uncomfortable as she was in the face of his scrutiny, Debbie held his gaze, even as her stomach twisted anxiously. This was the most she’d spoken to another person in quite some time, and by far the most truth she’d divulged in twice as long. She also assumed Preacher had already guessed as much, given how obnoxiously perceptive he was.

And then he smiled. Not a smirk. Not a laugh. A generous curve to his mouth that lifted his cheeks, reaching all the way to his eyes. In that instant, he appeared younger than he looked. Sweet, even. And achingly handsome.

Debbie’s lips twitched. The unease in her stomach began to ebb. Instead of clammy, she felt warm—a sort of comforting warmth, a sensation that was completely foreign to her.

“Anyway,” she mumbled. She glanced out across the fair. They had nearly reached the top again, and the view was no less beautiful than before.

“Stealing is easy when you’re practically invisible. Hardly anyone even notices me.” Unlike Sunshine, whose beauty and style had all but commanded attention, Debbie was plain in comparison.

Even before she’d set out on her own, she’d gone virtually unnoticed by her peers. She’d been the girl in the background, finding comfort in the shadows. And to her mother, she’d been only an accessory—a pair of polished pearl earrings worn only to complement the much larger, much more extravagant necklace.

Unfortunately the only person who had noticed her had been a monster.

“I noticed you.”

Debbie’s eyes darted back inside the cart, colliding with Preacher’s.

I noticed you.

Those three words took flight, finding and nudging awake long hidden places inside of her.

Throat bobbing, she turned away. Why would someone who had spent her entire life hiding suddenly find being noticed so incredibly appealing? She didn’t like being noticed. She worked hard to ensure she went unnoticed.

So what had changed so suddenly?

Unable to stop herself, Debbie’s gaze shifted back to Preacher.

It was Preacher. She liked being noticed by Preacher.

Chapter 11

Preacher followed Debbie down the platform, observing the rigid line of her shoulders, the restless way she was glancing around as if she couldn’t get away from him fast enough. Since telling him about Sunshine, she seemed suddenly agitated and twice as uncomfortable.

He didn’t much like the way he was feeling, either.

Here he was, angry at the hand life had dealt him, pissing and moaning over his strained relationship with his father, wandering aimlessly without a clue—all because he could. He had more than enough money and more where that came from. And whenever he got sick and tired of wandering aimlessly? He had a home waiting for him. A family. Friends. The whole nine yards.

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