Excerpt from CLAIMED

3D Claimed

Fourteen-year-old Mackenzie Lynn Stonebreaker stood inside the barn, hidden in the shadows of the loft above her. Particles of hay, catching the light streaming through a high window, floated all around her. She kept painfully still, her eyes glued to the open doorway of the office.

Whit Mason, the owner of Hunter’s Moon Ranch, sat at his desk, his buzzed, reddish-blond head bent down, counting the horse boarding money from the cash box. Mac waited, her sweaty palm holding tight to a hoof pick. Her heart raced. Any minute someone could—

The air around Mac exploded, and Whit’s head shot up. Definitely a shotgun blast. Not unusual for Carbondale, Colorado. Only it was early June in the Rockies. Hunting season didn’t start until fall. Mac kept her eye on Whit. He’d gone back to counting his money. Guess he wasn’t too concerned.

“Whit!” Dr. Rachel Hunter, the town’s pediatrician and Whit’s business partner on the ranch, hollered.

Mac’s body snapped to attention.

Whit jumped to his feet and bolted from the barn, leaving the office open and unlocked. Now was her chance.

Mac couldn’t care less that Miss Rachel’s voice broke with terror. Well . . . maybe a little. But only because the doc wasn’t like most adults she’d come in contact with over the years. She was nice. Mac shook her head. Not my problem. But escape was, and the distraction created by whatever was going on outside the weathered barn doors had given her unexpected access to the gray metal cash box sitting on Mason’s desk. No longer needing the hoof pick to jimmy a lock, she dropped it. Quickly pushing back her wild, dark sable mane into a hair tie, she took a tentative step inside the office. Her body shook. If she got caught, they’d ship her back to the juvie detention center in Grand Junction.

Mac had lived most of her life in and out of Colorado’s foster care and juvenile justice systems. Her latest stint landed her in Rifle House, a step-down institution run by the state. The place controlled her every move, especially the head youth worker who happened to be on duty tonight—Rebecca Hale.  Those suspicious, bottomless gray eyes of hers always tracking, tracking . . . Like she’d already decided there were no redeeming qualities in a girl like Mac—abandoned, unloved, and a burden on the state until they could legally throw her out into a world that totally frightened, yet still tempted Mac with its independence.

Scared or not, she wasn’t going back with the other five girls who volunteered with her at the ranch. Rubbing her sweaty palms down her jeans, she skirted the desk and raised up on tiptoes in a pair of scuffed-up work boots and peeked out the dirt-smeared window above the desk. Whit and Miss Rachel talked out front. Usually at this time of day the doc remained in the rustic log cabin that doubled as her home and office. Probably out checking on the horses in between patients. The two adults then raced through the pasture gate into the meadow beyond. Hunter’s Moon’s grassy horse pastures sprawled over several hundred acres.

Mac slipped behind the desk and tossed the newspaper Whit had thrown over the box to the side. Bills scattered. Mostly ones. She dug frantically through the mismatched heap until she came across a few fives. It wasn’t enough for a new start. Mac’s chest tightened, and then her hands stilled.

Something’s not right.

It wasn’t a new start. It was the past she sought—more importantly, answers. Mac could only get them with money.

Hurry up, take it, and go before you get caught.

She grabbed the cash from the box and lifted the empty cash drawer. Stashed underneath was a small, plump envelope with the word BOARDING written across it. Her beating pulse warned against taking it. Whit and Miss Rachel had been decent to her. She snatched it just the same—angry at herself. Angry Miss Hale had been right about her.

Footsteps hit the compact earth of the barn floor. Mac shoved the wad of cash and the envelope inside her front sweatshirt pocket. Sidestepping the desk, she headed toward the door and freedom, running full force into Jordan Parks’s chest. Mac’s face smashed against a sweaty, stinky Mumford & Sons T-shirt.

“Ow!” Jordan grabbed her by the shoulders, her bowl-shaped blonde head of hair looming over Mac’s five-foot-one frame. Jordan eyed her with penetrating green eyes and one arched brow. “You were in his office.” It wasn’t a question.

Icy tingles trickled down Mac’s spine. “Not your business.” She jerked free and walked with purpose toward the open barn doors.

“Stonebreaker!”

Jordan’s boots clomped behind Mac as she stepped outside. The late afternoon sun streamed into her eyes, and she blinked but kept moving toward the detention bus, her focus on the river and thick, dense woods beyond.

Fingers laced around her upper arm, spinning Mac around. “Split the cash. Or I’m telling.”

Her stomach dropped.

“Like that’s ever going to happen.” Mac flashed a cheeky grin. “No way.” She shook off Jordan’s arm and kept walking.

A force hit Mac from behind. Long, grabby fingers came around her waist, trying to dig into her sweatshirt pocket. Mac pushed back, shimmying from side to side, trying to break free.

“Get off, you oversized giraffe!” Mac gritted her teeth and stuck her hands inside her pocket to protect the bankroll.

“Hey!” Another voice, dead ahead, came out clipped and angry.

Mac and Jordan froze, their bodies twisted together in a human pretzel, and Mac grabbed some of the cash, quickly shoving it in the pocket of Jordan’s dirty jeans.

Jordan’s head shot up, her eyes full of . . .

That’s right. You open your mouth and you’re just as guilty.

Mac didn’t have to say the words out loud. Jordan let go, working like crazy to hide the bills that were sticking out, shoving them into her pocket with Miss Rachel closing in fast.

Miss Rachel walked toward them, her gait agitated and her cell phone propped up tight against her ear. “I don’t even want to know.” She shook her head. “Jordan, time to get on the bus, and, Mac, I want you to come with me.”

Jordan straightened, and Mac shifted on her feet, moving away.

“Miss Rachel,” Jordan said in her fake, sweet voice she only used with adults. “Why does Mac get—”

“Not now,” Miss Rachel snapped. “They’re waiting for you.”

Jordan turned toward the bus and hesitated. Mac squinted at the girl standing on the last step, her flowing, golden hair longer on one side as she tilted her head. Carolyn Hanson. How long had she been standing there? Maybe she couldn’t hear that far, but she certainly could see what had happened. Mac gritted her teeth.

Awesome.

“But what about Mac?” Jordan held her ground.

“She’s coming with me.”

Mac’s head spun around, and she shivered at those four words. Now she was going to get it. But how could Miss Rachel know? And why wasn’t Jordan getting in—

“Mac, let’s go!”

Mac jerked at the force of Miss Rachel’s voice and then glanced at Jordan. Jordan smirked, and Mac wanted to bust her in the mouth. Jordan slowly moved away, mouthing a few indistinguishable words, probably about Mac being a loser. It was the story of her life. Jordan got to walk away with half the take without making Miss Rachel a bit suspicious.

Miss Rachel’s lips thinned. “Let’s go.” With dragging feet, Mac fell into step next to her and stopped when the doc grabbed a rope off the tailgate of the pickup. Mac’s eyes widened. Seriously? They couldn’t wait for the sheriff to handcuff her?

Her hands gripped the money inside her sweatshirt. Dread, instant and consuming, snaked through her body.

She couldn’t even deny it. Once they frisked her, they’d find the cash.