An Unexpected Distraction (Judge # 3) by Catherine Bybee




CHAPTER ONE

Jax hit the first wall with a running jump. Muscle memory kicked in as her legs wrapped around the thick rope to help her upper body heave hand over fist until she was at the top of the steep wall and hurling herself over the other side. She didn’t see the pit of watery mud until she was already knee-deep and someone else on the team splashed into it on her left.

Her feet moved and her chest heaved with every gasp of air as she barreled to the next obstacle. Each year Neil managed to obtain access to a course that challenged her entire body. This one sat inside Camp Pendleton, just outside San Diego, and the team had been granted early access before the Marine base opened for a public mud run the following Saturday.

But for now, it was theirs.

She and Claire were partnered up, and currently Claire was sailing past her on the straightaway. Her best friend had serious speed. Jax could hold her own on a flat-out sprint, but she knew Claire could beat her with her eyes closed. The two of them had an advantage over the other teams when it came to the tight spaces, the sprints, and even some of the rope challenges. But when it came to brute strength, they needed to work together.

They had a strategy, one adopted from their years at Richter, where agility testing started before puberty and didn’t end until you graduated. It was simple . . . run fast, don’t look back, reach for your partner if you arrive at the challenge first, and trust that they will be there.

They also may have done some recon on the course the previous week and spent extra time training.

The others on the team weren’t nearly as competitive.

Well, Cooper and Sven seemed determined to win. In reality, they were the younger male members of MacBain Security and Solutions and actually stood a chance. But Jax still had her money on her and Claire.

Neil had flown in several members of the London team to partake in the fun. Three days of team building and healthy competition. The obstacle course was only part of one day. They had trigger time on a range, a swim in the Pacific Ocean, a paintball arena where they divided into two teams for an old-fashioned game of capture the flag. From there they all worked together to infiltrate a mock stronghold where Neil’s senior members of his team, and a few Marine volunteers, acted as the bad guys with a hostage. The entire weekend ended with Jax’s personal favorite . . . a skydive from fourteen thousand feet.

But Jax was getting ahead of herself.

This was day one, level one, of a handful of days that were sure to leave her tired, bruised, and smiling like a fool when it was all over.

There was mud . . . the kind that would stick in the crease of your ear for a week before you discovered it.

The scratches on her back wouldn’t be found until she used a loofah to reach the hard parts.

They won . . . by 0.40 seconds.

Which was too close.

Sasha stood at the finish line. She tapped the stopwatch while her gaze moved between Jax and Claire as if the tip of her finger accused them of losing for cutting it so close. But the right corner of her mouth lifted ever so slightly.

They did win.

In the end . . . that’s all that mattered.

Sven crossed the finish line, dove for the ground, and clasped his stomach. “Bloody hell.”

Hands on her knees, Jax sucked in air but had enough reserves to laugh.

Claire shoved a bottle of water into Cooper’s hands and then patted the side of his face with muddy fingers. “You owe me a massage.”

“Remind me to send my kids to Richter,” Sven said from his position on his back.

“Don’t you dare,” Jax warned.

The rest of the team started piling in, just as exhausted as the winners.

Lars and Isaac trailed the lot of them . . . walking.

Jax narrowed her eyes and took in the relatively clean state of their clothing.

“They’re not even dirty,” Claire said at her side.

“Don’t rush, mates!” Sven yelled across the wide-open field.

The older members of the team sauntered closer . . . the only thing they were missing was a beer in their fists.

Sasha tucked the stopwatch away before Lars and Isaac crossed the line.

“Did you even try?” James, a member of the London team, asked.

Lars looked at Isaac.

Isaac glanced back.

They both shrugged.

Jax rolled her eyes and turned away. She had been surprised when they were at the starting line. In her time with the team, she’d only ever seen the two of them driving the vans and working surveillance from inside headquarters. They were good at what they did, they just didn’t spend a lot of time running, jumping, or shooting at things.