Disclaimer: The characters do not belong to me. I gain no money from the writing of this piece. I grovel shamelessly at the feet of Janet Evanovich.

This story has not been beta-d. Any errors are completely the fault of the author, the poor proofreader that she is. :P

Notch

by EmeraldSoleil

He sat at a table in corner, his back to the wall, booted feet propped on a chair in front of him. He was nursing a beer, thinking about making the switch to something more potent. The beer tasted like shit.

The music was worse than the beer, the same sappy lyrics set to a different banjo melody. He was more out of place in this honky-tonk than he'd ever been in his life. It didn't matter.

He didn't frequent bars in Trenton. Too many people trying to pull him in too many different directions. In this dive, he didn't have to worry about it. These people didn't know him from Adam, but they were smart enough to realize he wasn't to be tangled with. They left him alone.

It had been a long, hard week, and he felt every single moment of it weighing down on him. How long had it been since he'd allowed himself a vacation? Too damn long. But he wouldn't make the sacrifice. He would rather be dog tired and on his last breath than spend even more than a few hours without something to keep him distracted, something to keep his mind from digging too deep into thoughts he wanted to keep buried.

The waitress sauntered by, arching her painted-on eyebrows at him, assessing. She gave him a long, slow look, her eyes taking in his dark skin and traveling south, to a part of him that was hidden in shadow. Her cherry lips moved in an upward curve, the kind of smile that promised a few hours of mindless oblivion.

She was pretty, in a tired and worn sort of way. Too many years living too close to the edge, he figured. He didn't hold it against her; he knew the feeling. Even so, he wasn't interested, not tonight. Not with her. He returned the smile with a single shake of his head and tipped the empty beer bottle in her direction. She disappeared back into the smoke and the sound.

Somewhere across the dark expanse of dance floor he caught a glimpse of brown curls, and the muscles in his abdomen contracted.

It wasn't her. He knew it wasn't her. It bothered the hell out of him how much he wanted it to be her.

Christ, Manoso. Get it together.

Another beer appeared in front of him, and he took a long pull from the bottle. He wasn't much of a drinker anymore. He could still drink Tank under the table, and that was saying something, but liquor had lost it's appeal for him after a drunken binge in college had made him a father. He'd since learned the value of a clear mind. Lately, he'd wished for anything but. What was the use of lucidity when he couldn't control his thoughts?

He supposed that was why he'd ended up in the bar in the first place. A few minutes alone in his hotel room, and his cell phone was taunting him. Call her, it screamed, but he wouldn't. In the end, he'd stuffed the phone in his overnight bag and stepped out into the humid August night, desperate for distraction. Knocking back beer after beer normally didn't do it for him, but it took the edge off. And in a town like this, there weren't many other options.

He sighed. The smart thing would have been to climb into the Porsche and get an early start on the drive home. Maybe go for a late night run, sleep in his own bed for once.

He slapped a tip down on the table and stood, weaving his way through the throng of cowboys on the dance floor. The air outside was a direct contrast to the smoke and the perfume of the bar, and he breathed it in deep. He was still standing just outside the door when a warm body emerged from the bar and walked straight into him.

Lightning reflexes born of military training was the only thing that kept him standing. In one smooth movement, he spun around, bracing himself against the building as he slid his free arm around a petite waist. Manicured nails fisted in his shirt as his quarry tried desperately to regain her footing.

"Goddamn heels!" she cursed, steadying herself. "I am so sorry. Guess I went over my limit this evening." She offered him a wry smile, and the sparkling eyes that peeked out from under her cloud of brown hair made him wish he'd never left his hotel room. This was going to be trouble, he could feel it.

But then, again, maybe a little of her kind of trouble was exactly what he needed.

He offered her a smile, the blinding Manoso smile that had never failed to dazzle a woman. "Name's Carlos."

"Bethany," she replied, her eyes moving unabashedly along the lean lines of his body.

Twenty minutes later, their clothes lay strewn about the floor of his hotel room and he was losing himself in her softness. The taste of her mouth, the silk of her hair. It had been too damn long, and he was right, this was exactly what he needed.

He wasted no time joining their bodies, offering her no pretense. His mouth absorbed all sound that left her lips, and his hips set a frantic rythym that she matched thrust for thrust. It was over all too soon, and at the moment of his release, he was forced to bite his tongue to prevent the name on the end of it from tumbling into sound.

Separating himself from the woman beneath him, he left the bed. He turned the faucets in the bathroom and the shower came on hot. The heat was nearly unbearable, but he stood beneath the stream, letting the water wash away all traces of the woman in his bed. Now that it was over, he felt the wrongness of it washing over him more scalding than the shower. A half hour of forgetting, another notch on his belt, and what the hell did he have to show for it?

He knew why he'd done it, knew he'd hoped it would push her from his mind. But if anything, her sparkling blue eyes only loomed more clearly in front of him. He had known addiction before, but never like this. Cursing, he stepped from the shower and slung a towel around his waist. He could hear movement in the next room, followed by the soft snick of a closing door. She was gone.

Ranger wasted no time in putting himself back together. An hour later, he guided the Porshe onto the interstate, glad to be leaving Tennessee behind. He drove without stopping until the sun was rising over the Virginia border, grabbing a few hour's sleep in a fleabag motel just off an exit ramp.

He awoke clear-headed and set his sights toward Jersey. As he drove, his mind wandered, as it often did, and he thought of what he might find when he arrived. The phone call from Tank three days ago had surprised him, giving him more to think about than he was really comfortable with. His mind had volleyed back and forth. Anger and frustration that she was in danger and he was in no position to help her. Masculine pride, and something much deeper, that she had run to him, even in his absence.

Thoughts of her in his space filled the time as he drove. The hours flew by more quickly than he anticipated, and as he reached the outskirts of Trenton, he made an unconcious decision, turning the car towards the city. He thought of her, stretched out in his bed, her hair spilling wildly over his pillows, and his foot got a little heavier on the gas pedal.

Home would have to wait a little while longer. He had a notch in his bedpost to erase, and if he had to do it with the worthless bodies of a few gangbangers, well, that was a small price to pay. No price was too great when it came to her safety, her happiness.

Not even his own.

AN: I'm not entirely sure I'm satisfied with the way this ended. When I first began writing it, I had a much different scenario in mind, but, the words take you where they want to go. As always, criticism is welcomed with open arms.