Changing the Rules (Judge # 1) by Catherine Bybee

He opened his mouth to offer an ambiguous reply only to be cut off.

“The reunion can wait. We still have work to do.” Sasha walked up to the two of them and handed Claire the shoes she’d tossed to the ground before she did a full body tackle to take him down. Not that he resisted all that much.

Claire pulled at the hem of her skirt and smoothed a hand over her stomach. “Is my dress okay?”

Cooper wasn’t sure the question was directed at him since she turned a full circle in front of both him and Sasha.

“You look like you’ve been rolling around in the grass,” Sasha said, her Russian accent always apparent.

He reached out and pulled a leaf out of Claire’s blonde hair.

Claire was all smiles. “Or maybe people will think I snuck away to get lucky.”

He laughed.

“Run a brush through your hair. It’s getting dark, no one will notice the grass stains on a black dress.” Sasha turned to Cooper. “Relieve Lars. We’ll recap at the end of the evening.”

Claire turned toward the back door of the Victorian home. “Glad you’re home,” she called out over her shoulder.

“Me too.”

Then she was gone.

He brushed at his pants. “That was fun.”


“I forgot how hot he was.” Jax stood in the doorway of Claire’s room in the Tarzana house they shared.

It was after one in the morning, but they were still buzzing from the late night. Claire was slipping out of the formal clothes and into a pair of boy shorts and a T-shirt to sleep in. And Jax was talking about Cooper.

“Don’t let him hear you say that. He will remind you every chance he gets about that ‘one time’ you said he was hot.” Claire motioned toward the disguised camera in the hall that she knew was equipped with audio as well. The home had undergone some extensive security adaptation back when Neil’s wife had lived there. The man took protecting his family to serious extremes. When Jax made the move, she and Claire both decided that the internal cameras and audio needed a kill switch. The last thing either of them wanted was for their coworkers to see what they were doing in their personal time. Like talking about the hotness that was Cooper.

Jax flopped on the end of Claire’s bed and curled her pajama-covered legs under her. “Any idea what this special meeting we have tomorrow is about?”

Claire shook her head.

Neil had told the team to sleep in but be at the office at ten in the morning.

“Neil’s cryptic. You never know what the man is thinking until he actually tells us.”

“I hope it’s fieldwork.”

Claire walked into her bathroom and turned on the hot water in the sink to scrub off her makeup. “You and me both. Running after Cooper and taking him down was the highlight of my week.”

Jax spoke from where she sat on the edge of the bed. “Neil knows you get bored. I think that’s why he arranged a decoy.”

“He’s right. Things need to pick up or I’m going to be signing up for those weekend murder mystery things for a little excitement.” Claire used a washcloth to work the mascara off her eyelashes.

“Those look lame.”

“Better than sitting at a computer all the time.”

Back in her bedroom, she climbed onto her bed and faced her best friend.

“It’s crazy how much stuff Richter taught us that we never use,” Jax said with a sigh. The more tired her best friend got, the more her German accent showed up.

Richter was a military-style boarding school in Germany where they both went to high school. Emphasis on military, right down to arms training and hand-to-hand combat. The school housed many secrets inside of its halls. From murderous faculty to recruiting for special agents and covert assassins. All that changed thanks to Neil’s team. Not that the team had any real recognition for their efforts. No, they moved in, exposed the wrongs, and moved out. “That was an exciting night,” Claire said, reminiscing about the evening Richter changed its ways forever.

“Feels like yesterday.”

It had been six years. Jax had had a semester to go before she could graduate from Richter, and Claire had moved with her new chosen family to Southern California.

Neil set her up in the Tarzana home, and Sasha paid for her to go to college. Sasha had attended Richter years before Claire landed there. When Sasha had returned, searching for direction, Claire had taken their mutual understanding of each other as a sign. A sign to liberate herself from the walls of Richter and venture out on her own. Only she hadn’t been on her own. Sasha had been there, along with AJ, her now husband. Claire had always viewed Sasha as an older sister. Sasha made sure that Claire had what she needed, but didn’t helicopter and assume the role of parent.