The first thing he registered was that his head was killing him.

The second was finding a woman in his arms.

With an oath that would have made Sister Margarita cry, John bemusedly knit his brows as the dire revelation hit him harder than a good slug, twisting a foul sensation in his gut. He grit his teeth when an insistent pounding in his head advertised that he required a flask, yet he found his body unresponsive to his strong protest to get up—a desire for water now taking over the former. Perhaps it was the fact that he was stark naked against a dozing stranger, or the way his mind told him he had a major hangover, but he found himself succumbing to the rising tide and instead sagged his shoulders in surrender. If he had temporarily sated his need for a woman in bed, then it didn't matter if he stayed for a few minutes—it wasn't as if the sheriff realized who he was, and Texas Devil Hal was probably all the way in eastern California by now. Plus, the whore next to him wasn't even budging an inch: He'd just pay her extra if she was going to make a mess out of it.

Still, he exasperatedly thought, what the hell was he doing, to go and have a wild night where he didn't remember a thing? He could hold his liquor better than—

And he widened his eyes in shock.

Silence filled the void immediately.

Good God, what the devil have I done?

At first, the source of panic did not register at all, creating an incredulous and astonished sculpture out of him; it could be a possibility that he was having a delusional nightmare of a past he wished he didn't burn, a bridge he could've upheld if he didn't follow that call of duty. Or maybe the whiskey at the saloon was drugged, because it was a common deed to do. Pursing his lips, he tensed his muscles and attempted to ease the tick in his jaw; there was always the chance of him losing a tad of his control after frustrating times …

But then, as the resting female unconsciously burrowed closer to his chest, John knew that he was merely covering his panic.

He was forever damned—because he knew that hair, that scent, that scar.

That face.

—of a woman he swore he'd never see.

Turning his head in silent anguish, the ill gunslinger raised up a calloused hand and bunched it to relieve what might have been horror and guilt over a furious bout of anger. He couldn't bear to look at the vulnerable form that molded perfectly with his own, a familiar head tucked deeply into his bosom. The only factor that kept him sane was his previous years of pushing through extreme situations that bordered on cynicism, but that didn't stop him from pressing a sore arm over his eyes and wishing he was burning in the depths of Hell: Anything was better than what he was placed in—anything that kept him far away from the woman who gave up her life for him, he who had everything yet nothing to give.

He made that promise to himself: Then why the fuck was he trembling and helpless?

Why was he subjecting himself to such torture?

And another wave of enigmatic emotions cast tar over him: It disgusted him to no end when he discovered he was glad that he didn't remember a single sliver of yesterday—he was glad because he wouldn't have to roll through his memories, questioning—demanding—what false reason he had conjured to have her in a dingy motel that would never suit her Sunday smile and aura of hard work. It made him inquire who he was after the thought of sneaking away, without a word of leave, deemed feasible; it made him curse himself and wonder how redemption was on the horizon, how far he had deterred from his mission of avenging his dead wife and boy.

How lost he was now.

His entire hand quivered when he delicately tucked a loose lock of hair behind her ear. Christ, she had never looked so beautiful, so relaxed, not gazing at him with a puzzling streak of longing in her eyes, like those years of hunting down a man he thought was his brother. He couldn't—wouldn't—stop his sinful hand from tracing a small path down her smooth cheeks, bringing about a squall that rendered his being traitorous and selfish for taking advantage of such a moment. What a man would give to have this woman …

The miserable outlaw grunted none too gently at his wicked admission; was he so egotistic as to ruin her life even further? He already had …

Emitting a smoldering malediction, the conflicted male raked a bare hand through his hair. Shit, if he remembered correctly, Bonnie—it pained him to think of that name—was never married, and she had never taken a lover: meaning …

A stigma that rivaled Satan's branded his conscience. He had robbed her of what a woman cherished the most.

Not only had he forced this predicament upon her, but he had thieved her virtue, her innocence that was invariably shielded to survive in a man's world.

And now …

Swallowing anxiety was ineffective: He was suddenly all too aware of her nakedness pressed against him.

God damn this—the only thing he could think of was how to escape his plight, when to run along with his tail between his legs as the one behind would condemn him to eternity. Who knew what would happen if he stayed any longer: No amount of guilt or sorrow or apologies would ever measure up to the pain he would cause and already caused—especially the day he left her broken and reaching for his retreating back, leaving her, with a Colt in his hands and a bottle of brandy stashed away to negate the sting; no amount of drinking and senseless hunting could replace that bitter memory—no amount of years could ease the pull of regret at not seizing the chance to bring her with him …

Irritably, he sat upright, making sure to move stealthily as he began to pry off the warm embrace she offered—he'd be genuinely insane if he let his masochism override his need for vengeance. Bonnie—once again, cringing—would not see the haggard state he was in: His actions were beyond salvation for what he did and was about to do—he could only leave her again, for both of their sakes, without the chance of tipping his hat or begging for forgiveness: because he was selfish like that, because he secretly wished she never hated him, because nothing they ever did to make things work ever turned out right.

Because she gave him everything and received nothing in return.

It was for the best he didn't recall a damn thing—alcohol and madness did that to a man: It left him wondering when the hell he seized the opportunity and kicked dirt in one's face. And now, biting down sharply on his fatigue, he could solely think about where in heaven's name his pants and guns were. He needed to get out of here, when he didn't know what happened last night, when he couldn't remember the first shot of poison, where he could be chained when—if, he feverishly pleaded, if—she woke up.

God! If she woke up …!

The very thought made his moves absolutely mechanical as he pushed back her mussed tresses, loosening the inviting hold around his waist before moving the thick comforter over her shoulders, which, he noted with bile in his throat, were bruised and battered from what seemed like rough grabbing and squeezing. Her neck was covered in scrapes and blaringly red teeth marks, lips aggravated and swollen, but then, the eyes! Hell, her eyes! Eyelids raw and on top of dark smudges, they lead the trail down to where dry tears and filth outlined the immaculate clearness that ended at her clavicle.

And then, everything came rushing back at once.

The endless onslaught, the duel, the loss—the madness, the kill, the whiskey: and women—the whores, the harlots, the abashed, and deputies, and insanity, and the desecration of graves. Thundering back into town, blood on his clothes, insatiable lust, mindlessness, the saloon, anger, anger, anger, just mad, hopeless anger. And rain, it was raining, the numbing rain, and rain, god, it poured like lunacy, much similar to his bullets and rage, dispassionate, unforgiving, cruel; he took and took, until he did not know where the top of the disillusionment was and where it gave way to emptiness, three sons of bitches, a dead priest, twenty-three thousand dollars on his head, mocking death and staring straight at the eyes of bastards who thought they owned the world. Fifty-eight times he shot at them, fifty-eight bucks spent on an Irish wanton, fifty-eight tons of gattling gun ammunition resting at his feet.

Fifteen downs of whiskey, and she's there.

—fuming, worn, disheveled, a shotgun on her back as big as the cerulean orbs who took in the sorry creation of an unfair god; there's no pity, no remorse, no anguish, no silence, because there's rain, and he's drunk as hell, and yelling why she dragged her ass all the way out here when she could've been happy with a dandy farmer: listening, staring, quiet, blank, him not being able to understand that statues don't cry, maybe because it's raining, and he half drags her from atop her horse, perched like a regal queen in royal grime, shaking red-rimmed, dead and gone. He kills her rebellion, coercing his tongue into her mouth, swallowing a startled gasp, sadistically running his hands over her while pushing her into a closet-sized boardroom, flinging an unrecognizable wad of money at the owner; crushes her desire to be safe, sorry, unrelenting, scraping his teeth down her throat with a demanding hand on her breast, spreading her legs hastily and ripping off his clothes, breaking, searching, greedy. She fights, in vain, afraid for the second time, choking, begging for sense, crying out, pushing, John oh god stop stop stop it please it's me John I came for John you have to John John don't do John stop I have to tell you god just stop for one John I oh John I I I John John John ah John John John John!

And then she's hugging him: enraged, betrayed, shaking, feeling more than disgusted at himself, never at those eyes that spoke of acceptance and longing and determination of god I finally found you I found you John after all these years I found you yes I found you please don't cry John not after this please don't don't don't regret this what we have look at me. How he wished she hated him and cursed him and said the words that would have killed him, but she doesn't—touching his cheek, whispering, clutching his head to her heart, kissing, want, skewered happiness, relief as thin as her loss of virginity. Yet he still weeps and clutches—

He bolts upright and slides expertly from the bed, ignoring the faint sign of arousal that served as the testament to the foolishness of man; quietly and efficiently, he collected the articles of clothing and flung them onto the dilapidated coffee table, not without slamming down his horsehide hat and nabbing his boots off the floor—don't look you sorry sunova bitch don't look. He had to get out of here, he had to get out of here, god, he had to get out of here, he had to get out of here …





Because he realized that she was everything, with nothing in her hands.

Because he knew that she was the everything of the nothing he had lost long ago.