Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Hard Limits
Rough, unedited version subject to change.

Chapter One

“Heads-up, that man is calling the cops on us,” Ronnie said, glancing through the window and waving.
Paige leaned into the steering wheel and smiled innocently at the man in the next car, but it didn’t help. He continued staring at Ronnie and her with his eyes about to bug out of the sockets, speaking even faster into his phone while automatically locking the doors.
Who would have guessed people would be more scared of Paige clad in white than in her normal Goth attire? Then again, she was wearing a wedding dress splattered in blood-red, Carrie–style. Ronnie was too, so yeah, she could understand the panicked expression in the neighboring car. That they were driving at three o’clock in the morning through Boston suburbia with their makeup all smudged and their hair a messy snarl of paint and crazy party didn’t improve matters.
“We are sooo ending up in jail.”
“Probably,” Ronnie said, trying to pat her hair down.
When the lights changed, Paige floored it and soon lost the spooked driver. Whatever came first, the arrest or the speeding ticket, she was letting her lovely lunatic of a boss deal with it.
After all, their current predicament was all Elle’s fault. She’d declared her bachelorette party was happening in stages over a whole month, the coed paintball game being the first installment.
As if the women hadn’t been an easy mark for all those testosterone-ridden ex-military guys with perfect aim to begin with, Elle had had them wear old wedding gowns over the protective gear. Guess how that ended? Not even leveling the odds by mixing teams had helped.
“Jail. A fitting ending for the night,” Ronnie muttered. “Can’t believe it didn’t happened before, at the club.”
No shit. After the shooting fest, looking like some sorts of vampire gore brides, they’d gone drinking downtown. How Elle had gotten them in to the club dressed like that, Paige didn’t know, although it shouldn’t be a surprise. Elle always got her way and now, with that ominous weapon of mass destruction called Jack shadowing her 24/7, it was a miracle anyone blinked at her twice, regardless of how nuts or unreasonable what she was asking for was.
All and all, a memorable first installment. Paige couldn’t wait to see what was to come. By Jack’s aggrieved looks, he couldn’t either. 
“You seemed to hit it off with Kay at the club,” Paige said. “How come I’m driving you home and not him? Not that I mind. Just curious.”
Ronnie laughed. “Didn’t you see the way Jack looked at him when we were talking? I didn’t want to give my brother a coronary. Besides, I didn’t want to jinx it now that he’s more relaxed and all that crazy stuff about the drug cartel  is finished.”
True. At the time, when Jack had suddenly started following Elle everywhere and ordering her around—well, trying to at least—Paige had not known what was going on. Then Elle had gone underground and James Bowen, Elle’s brother-in-law, had gathered all of Rosita’s staff and informed them he was taking over the management of the restaurant temporarily. From then on, more and more 250-pound, heavily tattooed, bodyguard types had appeared at opening and closing. In hindsight, no frigging wonder. It was not every day that you had a South American cartel gunning for you.
By the time it was all said and done, Jack almost lost his life rescuing Elle. Now though, they were happily in love and about to get married. If the groom or the guests could survive the bachelorette party, that is.
“What about you?” Ronnie asked. “How come you’re driving home with me and not with some sexy stranger? You are by far the prettiest of all us brides, the way you Goth customized the outfit.”
She shrugged. “No one tickled my fancy.”
The last guy who managed that had been one of the enforcers for the drug cartel. The second-in-command, as she later found out. He had come to Rosita’s scouting the place and had struck a conversation with her. Nick, sea platform worker.   Extremely handsome, interesting, easy-going man who almost had gotten Paige to go out with him.
It figured that the psychopath would zero in on her.
They always did.
Worst of it all? She could still remember how badly she’d wanted him.
“You need to give them a chance,” Ronnie insisted. “Talk to them at least. Take for example that cute guy who kept sending Bloody Marys your way.”
A frat boy interested in taking a stroll in the kinky side. Nope, thank you. Either they ended up disappointed or freaking out and freezing, or she was the one doing all the freaking out and freezing. Both options as unacceptable, really.  And unpleasant. Not to mention totally unsexy.
“So that’s me,” Ronnie said pointing at a building after they turned into her street.  “Thanks for getting me home.”
That was what it had not to drink, that she was a permanent designated driver.  “No problem. It was on my way.”
Paige would have gone straight home, because she was dead on her feet, but she had a three-day holiday from Rosita’s and she needed to make sure all was in order, especially as she had been the one closing. At the moment couldn’t recall if she’d verified the lock. Besides, Paige’s colorful roommate was having her boyfriend over and the only thing they did more than fuck was fight and yell at each other so she was not in too much of a hurry to get into that mess.
She parked in front of the restaurant. Time to make her OCD proud. The lock on the roller shutter was closed. She opened and closed it again, fixing the moment in her mind, and then pulled at it three times, to ensure she wouldn’t forget. Then from the corner of her eye she detected movement from a nearby parked car, the door ajar.
There was a man inside, hunched over, one leg out.
Probably one of those drunk morons who thought he drove better intoxicated. No sounds were coming from him. No drunken babble or dribble or sideways swinging, but it was cold outside. She couldn’t leave the man there to freeze or choke on his own vomit.
Paige approached. “Yo, buddy, you okay?”
No answer. The guy wasn’t moving, his head still flung forward. She couldn’t see properly through the window so she opened the door a bit more, and the hunched figure tipped sideways until his face was buried on her stomach. She took a step backward and noticed a fresh splotch of bright red on her dress. Oh, God. That was blood. Real blood. Thick. Sticky. Dripping from his face. His side too.
She reached for him, and the second she touched him, a strong hand clamped on her forearm.
The man lifted his bloody face to her, his expression a snarl, his deep-blue eyes cold and murderous. Before she could react, he shoved a gun on Paige’s neck.
Oh shit. She knew that man. “Nick?”

* * * * *

Nico had trouble focusing his sight. Everything was blurry. Distorted. He narrowed his eyes. His trigger finger twitched. The image in front of him sharpened little by little: a bride covered in blood. Oh, well, it looked like the Grim Reaper had gotten a makeover. Or maybe he was hallucinating. It wouldn’t be the first time tonight.
“It’s me. Paige,” the bride let out.
Who? He couldn’t recognize the face in front of him, but her eyes were strangely familiar to him. For the first time that night, he felt safe, so he lowered his gun. It must had been a right call, because the Bride didn’t grab his weapon and shot him with it.
“You’re bleeding,” he heard her say. “You’ve been shot.”
And drugged. Or poisoned. Hell, both probably. He wasn’t sure he could articulate so many words, so he just nodded.
“You need a doctor. A hospital,” she continued.
“No hospital,” he choked out. A hospital meant police. Too many questions. If by any miracle he managed to survive, he didn’t want to wake up in a government black site. Or in a hole in a jungle compliments of the cartel.
The bride seemed to doubt for a second. “Okay. No hospital. But you can’t stay here.”
That was true. Remaining in the open was a sure death sentence.
Without waiting for his consensus, she scooted him over to the passenger seat, jumped in, and revved up the engine.
Nick fought to keep conscious as his sight became fuzzy again. Fuck, not now. He had to get to a safe location before he lost it completely.
“Where are we going?” he managed to ask. Hopefully she was not turning him in or driving him to a hospital because he was too weak to fight his way out.
She didn’t answer. Just continued driving, throwing furtive glances his way, eying the gun and his wounds.
He tried to fight the blackness, but he couldn’t. He was drifting away. Resignation blanketed him, dulling his senses as his body started shutting down. He looked at his driver. Vintage wedding dress all covered in blood. Military boots underneath. Spiked choke collar. Weirdly pretty raccoon eyes. He’d always thought that the last thing he’d ever see in this world would be a hostile face snarling at him while sending him to hell.
If that beautiful bride was the last image before biting the big one, he was happy.
Taking into consideration the life he’d led, that was more than he deserved.