An Unexpected Distraction (Judge # 3) by Catherine Bybee

Much as the night had been uncomfortable, she was better for it.

She opened her mouth and screamed. Unlike earlier when she heard voices, now was when the team needed to find her and know she was alone.

What better way to reveal that?

And if there was someone assigned to her side, they’d be there . . . not out running around on the deck of the ship.

“Here! I’m down here!”

People running.

Grunting . . .

“Bloody hell. I’m out!” someone yelled.

A timer on her chest blinked to life. “Holy shit.”

That, she was not expecting.

Two minutes.

“Hurry!” she yelled at the top of her lungs.

Fifteen seconds passed before the door to the room burst open.

“One minute forty seconds and we all blow,” she yelled.


Claire rushed to Jax’s side. “Really?”

“Minute thirty.” Jax kept her eye on the clock.


The room filled and finally James made his way front and center.

He dropped to his knees, a smile on his face. “Easy stuff.” He withdrew a pocketknife and flipped it open. His fingers pushed through the multiple wires, then he looked around the back.

He nodded a few times, picked at the wires.

“I hope you sobered up.”

He looked up at her. “Hours ago.”

James started cutting while everyone watched.

Four wires later, with twenty seconds on the clock, and the work was done.

Jax felt her shoulders slump while the team started to cheer and pat each other’s backs.

The team was riding on a high.

The day before had fueled them like any team-building weekend should, and now they were taking on altitude for their jump.

They found their place in line.

No obligatory seatbelt needed.

This was for fun.

A way to end the weekend.

A reward for a job well done.

Cooper was poised at the open door, first to make the leap.

A quick twist and he kissed Claire before jumping out of sight.

Claire disappeared next as Jax moved into position.

The world opened up under her.

Adrenaline pumped and excitement filled her lungs.

A tap on her shoulder and she lunged forward.

Air rushed past.

Her eyes found Claire in the free fall.

Jax held out her arms and legs, her eye on her watch, calculating the altitude. They had a full minute of free fall.

The fun part.

The coast of California spread out under her, the line between land and sea nothing but strips of white, shimmering on the shore.

The horizon was dotted with clouds, and the crescent shape of the earth always made her wonder how anyone ever thought the earth was flat.

She laughed at the freedom.

Screamed at the excitement.

Nothing made you feel more alive than jumping out of a perfectly good airplane and risking death.

The timer in her ear made her reach for her chute as the earth plunged closer.

The world stopped.

Like that of a cartoon character hitting a rock canyon, the fall ended, and the harness strapped to her legs that kept her tied to the chute promised to leave a bruise in the morning.

“Whoo hoo!” she yelled.

“I love this!” Jax heard Claire calling through the silence.

It always amazed her how loud the jump was until the chute was pulled.

She tugged on the levers, swinging right, then left.

“Better than a roller coaster.”

“Yeah, baby!” someone above her chimed in.

Jax looked up, never once worried her chute wouldn’t open.

The team dotted the sky.

She maneuvered through the air . . . their target in sight.

Only instead of an X it looked like something else.

She turned herself around until it came in clear.


Jax knew it was coming.

Not this . . . not exactly this . . .

But Cooper had been working up to popping the question for months.

Jax couldn’t see Claire’s face but knew she must have seen the question written on the ground.

“Well done,” Jax whispered to the silence around her. Her heart filled with excitement for her best friend.

She slowed down enough to hit the ground running.

When she stopped, she witnessed Claire and Cooper kissing in the middle of the field.

“I take that as a yes,” Jax heard someone say behind her.