An Unexpected Distraction (Judge # 3) by Catherine Bybee

Jax pushed aside her martini and looked James in the eye. “Kiwi.”

“The hairy fruit. Got it.” James stared back.

Jax sighed and looked at Sven. “You need to cut him off.”

Sven turned to James. “You might want to take it easy, mate.”

“I sober up on a dime.”

She hoped that was true. The previous year it took all of them to unscramble the maze Neil had put in place to find the victim.

She pushed Sven’s shoulder and stood from the high perch she’d been sitting on. “Deal with your friend. I’m going to mingle.”

Because what was learned the night before the previous year’s kidnapping had been crucial to finding the victim in the time slot they were given, Jax decided to make eye contact with more than a handful of the team members.

She pushed up next to Lars and eyed his long-neck beer. “I see you’re not worried about getting nabbed tonight,” she told him.

“It’s beer.”

“You mean what you called water when you were in the service?”

He nodded and took a drink.

She turned her back to the bar and kept her gaze moving around the room. “Any idea who the victim will be this year?”

“Neil never tells us till the last minute.”

Which meant as a senior member of the team, Lars would not be a victim but someone to watch once he left the bar. “Keeps you guessing,” Jax suggested.

“He likes it that way.”

Jax bumped against his arm and moved along. The majority of the London team were making the most out of the open bar. The same thing had happened the year before, and it was one of them that had been taken.

Claire stepped beside her, a tall glass with a lime and a skinny straw in her hand.

“Club soda?” Jax asked.

“Duh . . .”

“Any idea who it’s going to be?”

Claire shook her head. “Not Isaac.”

Jax glanced toward the bar, where Lars and Isaac were snuggled up with their beers. “Lars is on the kidnapping team.”

“I figured as much. But what part?”

Jax shrugged. “Who knows?”

“I wouldn’t be surprised if Cooper or I were the victim.”

The thought had crossed Jax’s mind, too. Mainly because with their relationship, it made them more vulnerable and less focused. Or so it was assumed. Jax thought the two of them actually worked better together than separate.

“I say we take turns sleeping tonight,” Jax suggested. “There’s no way Sasha and Neil will ignore the tracking devices we have in our phones. You know she’s going to nix that app as soon as we leave the bar.”

“Defeats the purpose of the exercise anyway.”

Jax removed her phone from her back pocket and opened up the tracker she used for her best friend and Cooper. Even if they didn’t all work in the same location and at the same danger level, the fact that they lived under the same roof made tracking each other a must-do.

Each of their names popped onto her screen, showing them all in the bar.

She slid the phone away. “Let me know when you want to head out. I’m going to keep circulating.”

“Will do.”

Within thirty minutes, the bar had completely filled, and the team members that tossed caution to the wind were well past the point of sober. No matter how much they thought they’d sober up when told to, Jax had her doubts.

“Can I buy you a drink?”

The question came from her left.

One look told her he was in the service. Military haircut, thick chest, clean-shaven, boyish smile. Younger than her, if she had to guess. Since the night was met with suspicion, she couldn’t help but wonder if he was a guy in the bar hitting on her, or part of the pending ruse.

“Hello,” she said with a smile.

“I’m Wess.”

“Jax,” she said.

Wess looked over his shoulder to a group of guys standing at a high-top table nearby.

The guys lifted their beers as if approving.

“Friends of yours?” she asked.

“Yeah. How about that drink?”

She let Wess buy her one beer, which she drank out of the bottle.

She watched the team as they slowly left the bar, while maintaining a conversation with the recently-turned-twenty-one Marine. He was cute enough. Held his side of the conversation enough. Old enough, although she was four years older in age, and quite a bit older in life experience . . . and since she was not willing to leave with him, she eased her way out of the conversation before tipping the last of the beer back.