An Unexpected Distraction (Judge # 3) by Catherine Bybee



A Jeep rolled up, kicking up dust that hadn’t been wet down.

Neil stepped out, sunglasses shielding his eyes, his expression perfectly neutral.

The man’s superpower was hiding his emotions.

He walked over to Jax and Claire. His praise was a tiny lift of the right corner of his mouth and a minuscule nod.

“Damn right!” Claire exclaimed with her shoulders pulled back.

“Don’t get cocky,” Neil told her.

Considering Neil was the closest thing to a father that Claire ever had, his words were expected.

“Too late,” Cooper said at Claire’s side.

Neil turned away, covering the smile on his lips with a swipe of his hands along his chin.

But Jax saw it.

Crazy how a tiny twinge of jealousy tickled the back of Jax’s throat.

Envy of the respect Neil showed Claire was an unwanted emotion.

If anyone who knew Claire and Jax growing up was watching now, they’d remember that it was Jax that had all the family connections and money to keep her comfortable for her entire life. Claire was an orphan and destined for some nefarious clandestine existence, which was exactly what would have happened had Neil and his team not come along.

And here Jax was, pushing away the evil green monster because of the simple nod, smile, and reprimand Neil offered to her best friend.

“Time to celebrate our victory.” Claire pushed into Jax’s shoulder with the suggestion.

“Nobody’s celebrating yet.” Neil killed their joy with his next words. “You have thirty minutes to shower and report on the range.”

Ten minutes later with the cold spray of an open shower pouring over them, Claire turned to Jax. “What do you think? Let the boys win?”

Jax rubbed the water out of her ears and turned the water off. “Wait . . . what?” Claire was one of the most competitive people she knew. Sasha taking a close second. Throwing a competition wasn’t in their wheelhouse.

A slow smile spread over Claire’s face. “Kidding.”

Jax grabbed a towel. “Thank God. I started to think Cooper was taking the drive out of you.”

She followed Claire out of the showers to the dressing room they had all to themselves.

“Bite your tongue,” Claire chided. “Not a bad strategy to make them think that, though.”

Jax liked how her friend’s mind worked. “I can agree with that.”

At the end of the day, Jax and Claire didn’t have to worry about taking the gold behind the scope. Cooper and James took the lead with the rest of them close on their heels.

And with this being an all-expenses paid weekend—Neil was the sugar daddy for the team—Jax knew none of them would be pulling out their wallets.

With her blonde hair brushing her midback, Jax sat at one of several round tables in a bar in Oceanside. The community was known for its “newlywed and nearly dead” residents—and those that were transient because of the military base that kept the economy alive—so it was safe to say the mingling young people didn’t live there permanently.

Not that Jax had an opportunity to mingle.

Sven sat next to James, the two of them yammering on about the day.

“What’s next?” James asked.

“Team building,” Jax offered. She looked around the room to find Claire and Cooper standing beside the bar. The way Cooper was looking at Claire suggested it wasn’t going to be long until they sealed the deal and shared their last name.

Jax was happy for her bestie.

Cooper was one of the good ones.

“What does that mean?” James asked.

Jax shook off the image of her friend and addressed James. “The kidnapping. Which means tomorrow could start at any time and doesn’t end until we find and release the victim. So go easy on the tequila.” She looked at James’s glass and realized it was already too late.

He was new, so she turned to Sven. “Didn’t you warn him?” she asked him in German.

Sven shrugged.

Another scan of the room and Jax took in Sasha and Neil standing away from the group, heads together.

“Does James at least know the safe word?”

Instead of answering, Sven turned to James. “What’s the safe word?”

“The pussy ‘I give up’ word?” James asked. His British accent somehow made his use of the word pussy less abrasive.

“Yeah.”

James sucked down a shot of tequila. “I don’t need to know.”