Changing the Rules (Judge # 1) by Catherine Bybee

Claire looked up to the woman. Respected her.

Claire worked for the security business nights and weekends when she was in college. The summer after Jax graduated, she moved in and joined the crazy. The difference was, Jax returned to Europe a couple of times a year, since that’s where her family lived. Claire spent her holidays with Neil and his family, or Sasha and her chosen family.

Neil, the big, stoic dude, busted her ass all the time. He was half father, half boss. And Claire did whatever she needed to to earn the man’s respect.

Jax unfolded from the bed. “I’m exhausted.”

“Me too. Good night.”

“’Night, Loki.”

There was nothing formal about her work when Claire wasn’t on a personal detail. She arrived at nine thirty and was dressed to go for a late-morning run once the meeting was over. Which meant she wore running shorts that hugged her legs, a pair of Adidas, and her hair pulled up in a ponytail. She would have loved to say she wore some kind of special running bra, but since nature teased her in that area, the garden-variety sport top did the job.

She walked into their main headquarters and straight to the surveillance room. Up on the wall of monitors were views from cameras on many of their clients. Most were angles from front doors, or backyards. But all of them could be expanded with the flip of a switch. Security was a serious business for the rich and famous.

“Good morning,” she said as she walked into the room.

Rick turned around in his chair and offered his signature smile. “Hey, Yearling.”

She rolled her eyes at the nickname she couldn’t shake, regardless of the fact she’d been on the team for over six years. “I’m surprised to see you behind the desk.” Rick was Neil’s right-hand man on many occasions. He was almost the size of the other man, but with an easier smile. The two of them went back to their days in the Marines. They’d been to hell more than once, from the stories Claire had heard.

“Favor to Neil,” he said.

“Is this about today’s meeting?”

“Yup” was all he offered before changing the subject. “Judy told me everything went like clockwork last night.”

“Did your wife tell you about the false heist?”

Rick laughed. “I heard about that from Lars.”

Claire moved to the coffeepot that never seemed to empty. “It’s probably wrong for me to crave that kind of excitement.”

Rick glanced back at the monitors. “It’s normal for people like us.”

“I’m not sure that applies to me or Jax. We never saw combat.”

“No, but you both trained for it.”

She supposed that was true.

The door to the room opened and Neil popped his head in. “Good, you’re right on time,” he said to her.

“I’m a half an hour early.”

He looked her dead in the eye, blinked. “Like I said, right on time.”

She shook her head. In the early years, she had to arrive fifteen minutes early, and then somehow, after she graduated with a degree in criminal justice, Neil pushed that fifteen minutes to thirty.

She could lie and say she hated his expectations.

The truth was Claire liked the boundaries and structure.

“You gonna tell me what today is all about?” she asked.

He looked at his watch. “In about twenty-five minutes.”

Claire returned her attention to the coffee, smelled it, and decided to put her effort into a fresh pot. “I don’t know how you guys drink this stuff,” she said as she walked out of the room to find water.

“Grows hair on your chest,” Rick called out behind her.

“Not my goal,” she called back.

By the time she had a cup of drinkable coffee in her hand, half the team had arrived. By quarter to, everyone was there, including Cooper.

She motioned a hello and stood back while several others quizzed him on his time in Europe.

Jax sat beside her, similarly dressed since they planned on doing their workout together. “He’s even cuter in jeans and a T-shirt,” Jax whispered in Claire’s ear.

“Are you thinking of kicking Lewis to the curb?” Jax had been dating Lewis for a good six months. The man was finishing up his law degree and prepping to take the bar exam.

“I’m not married.”

Claire looked up to find Cooper smiling at her. It was nice to see him back. She’d been surprised when he left, but that was when Jax moved in, taking Claire’s mind off his departure.