"The things we will promise if we could just turn back the pages of time! Ms. Stover makes the promise of a man's soul to the devil an exciting and incredible journey into the past - to a period just after the Civil War. With imaginative meetings with a little devil named Slick and racy love scenes that simply burn up the pages, this time-travel promises heat and passion. The wild fires in Hell cannot keep these two lovers from scalding each other. A burn you'll never forget! The devil never had a more captivating role! Intriguing, passionate, and fun....yes, fun! A story for those who love a blend of romance and mystery!" Copyright © Literary Times, Inc. All rights reserved -- From Literary Times
"EXTRAORDINARY!!!! Deb Stover is a master dream-spinner! A haunting, heart-wrenching, utterly beautiful example of time travel romance at its very best!"
~ Bestselling author, Maggie Shayne
"An exciting page-turner from a talented author. In addition to suspense, romance, and humor, this book has a heart of pure gold."
~ #1 New York Times Bestselling author, Susan Wiggs
"5 Stars! A tremendous time travel romance...brilliantly crafted...great work from a rising star!" ~ Affaire de Coeur
"With a number of wonderful surprises and startling revelations, The Bargain sets Deb Stover apart. She is truly an original writer of remarkable talents and you'll be delighted with her sexy, creative, humorous and poignant trip back in time!"
~ RT Book Reviews
"I'll bet Dirty Harry never had to do this," Mike Faricy said, leaning back against the worn vinyl upholstery.
"I hear that." Barney aimed his binoculars toward the three-story building again.
Parked in a lonely alley behind a waterfront warehouse, the Chevy was more like a prison cell than a car. Darkness settled over the sleeping city of Natchez like a shroud; a thick bank of fog from the river blotted out the stars. The streetlights appeared as nothing more than faint golden halos in the unseasonably cool, moisture-laden air.
Trying to fill the boring hours with happier thoughts, Mike allowed himself a smile. Barney and Carrie's great news more than compensated for the gloomy ambiance. "Man, this is great—I'm going to be an uncle," Mike said, feeling himself warm from within. His sister, Carrie, had been trying for years to have a baby. Finally, it looked as if her dream might come true. "Let's see, today's June twentieth, so when's the baby due?"
"Sometime in early February, you'll be an uncle and I'll be a dad." Barney gave a satisfied grunt, keeping his curly head turned toward the dark building as he spoke. "I hate stake-outs."
"Yeah. Me, too." Mike sighed. "Having a brother-in-law for my partner's bad enough. I can just imagine what having an expectant father around is going to be like."
"It'll be far freakin' out, and you know it." Barney chuckled low in his throat, never interrupting his surveillance of the still-dark building. "You don't suppose Milton's men are going to let us down again tonight, do you?"
"Nah." Mike shifted in his seat to peer toward the building. "If they do, it'll be embarrassing as hell after all the trouble we had convincing the state police this was Milton's point of operation."
"A little town like Natchez sure as hell isn't the most likely spot." Barney shot Mike a crooked grin, barely visible in the increasing darkness. "Yeah, Mike, I'd say after ten days of this crap, it's past time for them to come out and play."
"That's for sure."
"So, you think the kid'll be as good-lookin' as his old man?"
Mike chuckled, ignoring his partner's indignant grunt as he turned to face the warehouse again. "I don't know, Barney. I think Carrie'd prefer he take after his Uncle Mike."
"In your dreams."
They laughed quietly, nervously, continuing to stare in silence at the building.
Nothing happened. Minutes turned into hours. Well after midnight Mike was ready to call their shift another waste of time when a van, headlights off, pulled into the alley adjacent to the warehouse. "Hot damn." A few minutes later, light filled an upstairs window.
"It's about time," Barney whispered, drawing his gun from his shoulder holster and releasing the safety.
Mike mimicked his partner's actions, sharing Barney's obvious excitement. "This is one crack shipment that isn't going to find its way to the streets." Barney didn't have to respond—Mike knew they both felt the same way. Group think became automatic after all the years they'd worked together.
"Don't be an ass." Mike reached for his partner's arm. "That kid's overdose wasn't your fault and you know it."
Barney sat quietly for several seconds, then released a sigh. "I know, but if my last collar had stuck, Milton would've been locked up...and that kid would be getting ready for his frigging prom about now."
Mike nodded, knowing this wasn't the time to press. "I'll call for backup."
"Do that." Barney turned toward the warehouse again.
Mike reached for the radio and wasted precious seconds waiting for the frequency to clear, then he called for backup. Every time they were on the brink of busting Milton's operation, something always interfered. The drug lord had more than his share of luck, but he was pure pond scum.
"Yeah," Mike whispered, climbing from the dark car. Barney'd permanently disabled the dome light to allow them to get out of the car without tipping off the bad guys. He and Barney were the white hats now, out to see justice done, to preserve the American way. But this wasn't a game like the cops and robbers they'd played together as children.
This was for keeps.
"Cover me, Mike," Barney whispered over his shoulder, breaking silently for the open alley before his partner could stop him.
"Barney, damn you. Wait for backup," Mike whispered fiercely—futilely—then darted from the sidewalk, adrenalin pumping through his body. He flattened himself against the cold brick building across the alley, squinting to get his bearings through the thick fog. Barney had always been the brave one—foolishly so, on more than one occasion.
But now Barney was an expectant father. Mike couldn't let anything happen to his brother-in-law. That would devastate Carrie, especially now.
One of them had to keep his head, and it sure as hell wouldn't be Barney. History'd proven that. Mike's brother-in-law hadn't earned the status of most-decorated cop in the department from practicing common sense. Mike had to be the voice of reason.
Barney—the horse's ass—was walking right through the side entrance as if he paid the mortgage, the taxes, and had the only key. Mike clenched his teeth, feeling his jaw twitch as he watched the slight shifting of light near the doorway where Barney slipped stealthily inside.
With the bad guys.
Cautiously, Mike scanned the street. Nothing. Where was their backup? Damn. Releasing the breath he'd been holding, he darted across the alley, thankful for his black athletic shoes, dark jeans and denim jacket. He was quiet and invisible in the night.
Quiet and invisible was the only way to be on a night like this.
There was an edge to the evening that Mike had felt before, and he didn't like it. Instincts became lifelines to cops over the years, and separated the veterans from the rookies.
Tonight, for some insane reason, Mike felt like a rookie.
Pausing outside the door Barney'd slipped through, Mike waited for his breathing to slow, listening for sounds from inside. What the hell was Barney doing in there?
Panic wasn't Mike's way, but tonight he had to struggle against it. The stakes had gone up, and suddenly he almost wished Barney hadn't shared his good news.
Why couldn't he shake the cold sense of dread that had crawled inside him like a deadly snake?
I hate this.
The door was open, allowing Mike to squeeze through noiselessly. He had to find Barney. Some deep feeling of urgency coursed through him, driving him to seek out his partner before...
A cold sweat popped out on his forehead as he eased his way along a dark hall toward the stairs. Weapon drawn, Mike kept his back against the wall to guide him until he reached the metal stair railing, then he gripped it with one hand, continuing to clutch his gun in the other.
"You son of a bitch!" The shout echoed down the dark stairwell.
Mike took the steps two at a time, reaching the top as a gun exploded on the other side of the door. His blood turned to ice. He froze, his free hand clutching the doorknob.
Always wait for backup.
Swallowing his fear, he ignored all the standard rules of precaution as he turned the knob and opened the door. More darkness greeted him on the other side, but he knew he was no longer alone. A subtle alteration in the blackness divulged another's presence.
"Stupid cop," the raspy voice—definitely not Barney's—taunted from across the hallway. "Dead cop."
Mike dropped to a low crouch, taking aim on the shifting silhouette. What dead cop? Did the thug mean him?
A flash from the man's gun pinpointed his location as a spray of bullets blasted into the wall just above Mike's head. Splintered plaster showered him as he scooted to his left, hoping to confuse the gunman.
Where's Barney? Mike couldn't risk accidentally shooting his partner. He took careful aim and waited for the man to fire another round, praying his adversary would miss again.
Both guns discharged almost simultaneously, followed by the welcome thud of a falling body. Mike lurched to the right, coming into contact with something warm and solid on the floor.
Mike's heart hammered dangerously loud as he remained alert to a possible counter attack from his enemy. He felt the shape on the floor with his free hand.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Mike moved his hand along the supine form, finding warm, sticky blood where there should have been a neck. He struggled against exploding panic, glancing once toward the area where his opponent had fallen. There was no movement, no sound.
Cautiously, he reached into his pocket and withdrew the penlight hooked to his key ring. After flipping it on, he shined the small light on the body.
"Oh, God." Mike sucked in a breath to kill his rising nausea as he searched his brother-in-law' face above the wound. Sightless eyes stared up at the ceiling.
Lowering the beam, Mike confirmed that CPR would be pointless. Barney's throat and neck were blown wide open—no chance that his heart would beat again.
You dumb son of a bitch. I told you to wait for backup. He sucked in a breath and struggled for control. How the hell am I going to tell...Carrie?
Barney—his childhood playmate. His partner. Carrie's husband. Mike's kid sister was a widow because of Milton and his apes.
A gaping wound in his own throat would've been easier—better—than this. God, not Barney.
The sound of running feet came from the far end of the hall, then a door burst open. Three men carrying large flashlights—and even bigger guns—emerged, stopping to take in the carnage.
"Holy shit. Somebody got Joe," a man said, sweeping the floor with his flashlight. "Milton said we wouldn't have no trouble tonight."
"Looks like plenty trouble to me," another man said.
This wasn't his backup.
Mike eased back against the door, reminding himself that Barney was beyond help. Besides, Carrie sure as hell didn't need to lose her husband and brother on the same night.
Knowing he'd been spotted, Mike leapt to his feet. Forcing the image of Barney's lifeless eyes from his mind, he sailed down the metal staircase, just ahead of the bullets fired by his pursuers. He sprinted out the side door and out into the alley. He had to get to the car. Hell, Barney had the only set of keys.
Men thundered down the metal stairs inside the building as Mike started to run. They wouldn't stop until they had him.
Just like Barney.
He ran down the street with his pistol still clutched in his fist, sweat and tears streaming down his face. Calm down Mike. Need to find a phone. Need to think. Let somebody know what happened. Barney, you bastard. Milton, I'll get you, I swear.
He didn't know or care where he ran—it didn't matter.
They were getting closer.
Mike rounded a corner on the rain-slick street, desperately searching for a place to hide. To think he and Barney'd planned to put the biggest crime boss in the state of Mississippi behind bars for the rest of his natural days.
Now all that mattered was survival.
His lungs felt as if they would burst. His heart battered the walls of his chest. This pace was killing him.
But to stop meant certain death.
No matter how far he ran in the misty streets, the footsteps were never far behind. A car joined in the chase, careening after him through the fog. Even the cover of darkness couldn't protect him.
Mike paused at the corner, recognizing the huge old house across the street. No one ever went inside the antebellum mansion on the outskirts of town. Everyone in Mississippi knew—thought—it was haunted.
The second story windows stared back at him like harbingers of disaster.
Get a grip, Mike.
Barney wouldn't have been afraid. Besides, Mike didn't believe in ghosts. He'd seen too much real life—and death—to start believing in nonsense at this late date.
Clenching his teeth, he looked over his shoulder. He couldn't see his pursuers, but he heard them. In only a matter of minutes they'd have him, unless he could manage to become invisible.
Picturing his sister's smiling face when she and Barney'd told him their good news, he knew what he had to do. In desperation, he ducked beneath the board which had been nailed to the broken gate, then darted across the overgrown lawn. When he reached the porch of the run-down mansion, he dropped to his knees and waited in the shadows.
The gang members congregated on the walk just outside the gate. Mike's lungs burned for air, but he denied them the luxury awhile longer. He had to make sure his enemies were gone before he dared make too much noise. High humidity and cool temperatures turned the air into a conduit for sound. His oxygen-starved senses would have to wait awhile longer.
Because if they caught him, he wouldn't need to concern himself with trivial matters like oxygen.
He listened while the threesome compared notes with the driver of the Thunderbird that had stopped beside them. "Where the hell'd he go?" one voice demanded.
"Man, Milton's gonna have our asses for this."
"More'n our asses."
"Shit! We gotta find this dude."
"We gotta go back and get rid of the other one."
"Yeah, get in. The fish are hungry."
Barney. Mike closed his eyes. Even if he managed to escape from Milton's goons tonight, they'd catch up with him sooner or later. Every thug in town knew Faricy and Sloane. As soon as the killers figured out Barney's identity, they'd know exactly where to look for Mike.
He was as good as dead right now.
"One of us has gotta hang around here," the driver said. "Just in case he's hidin' out, waiting for us to leave."
"I ain't stayin' here by myself, man. Everybody knows that old house is haunted."
"Haunted?" The driver chuckled, a menacing sound on the night air. "You're full of shit, Billy. Now stay here and keep your eyes open. We gotta take out that piece of shit or we'll be feedin' the fish. Got it?"
"Yeah." The man ordered to remain grumbled incoherently as the others climbed into the car and it sped away.
Mike glanced behind him at the dilapidated house. He had to get inside and rest for a while. The guy thought the house was haunted. Perfect. For tonight, it would be haunted.
By Mike Faricy.
Once the sun came up, he'd find his way to Carrie.
He watched until the man crossed the street and vanished into the alley, then Mike crept quietly around to the side of the house. He passed by a few boarded windows, hesitating to jiggle a couple of doorknobs. No luck. Everything was locked up tight, though he couldn't imagine why. It wasn't as if the place was on the hit list of any local burglars. In fact, no one ever went near the place.
Except maybe on Halloween.
When he found the French doors on the west side, his luck changed. The old lock was easily picked and soon the right side swung open on squeaky hinges.
Mike held his breath—what little he had—wondering if any of Milton's men might still be in the area. Every sound could be the last one he ever made or heard. He had to be more careful; his sister needed him.
Once the door closed against the damp outside air, he heaved a sigh of relief and gulped precious, dusty air into his starving lungs. Regaining some of his strength, he walked across a broad expanse of wood flooring, forcing the image of Barney's face from his mind with every step. The place was huge.
Looking up, he realized the area he now stood in must be at least three stories high. Dark shapes defined what he suspected were doors and stair rails as he turned in a circle.
Yeah, like I care.
Brushing cobwebs from his face and hair, he sought a place where he would be able to see all the possible entrances, then lowered himself to the dirty floor to lean against the wall. A deathly silence permeated the huge structure, making him shudder as he waited for his pulse to slow to something the normal side of critical. He shoved his weapon in its holster.
"Dammit, Barney." A lump formed in Mike's throat, threatening to gag him if he didn't release the grief boiling inside him. His gut burned as he struggled against the stinging tears behind his eyes.
A faint sound drifted to his ears, momentarily distracting him from his misery as he gazed around the dark room. It was distant, muted. He strained to listen more closely, trying to identify the sound.
Yeah, right. Maybe a funeral dirge.
Insistent tears pricked his eyes again. He hadn't cried since second grade, when he and Carrie'd first learned about their parents' car accident.
They were dead—just like Barney.
All he and Carrie had now was each other.
He closed his eyes against memories of the night he'd just survived. Remembering the blood, his partner's dead eyes, bile again rose in his throat. He'd seen more than his share of mutilated bodies in various stages of decay in his life, but this was different. Barney'd been more than a brother-in-law—he'd been like a real brother. A soul mate.
How was Mike ever going to break the news to his sister? He should never have let her marry a cop.
Barney was dead. Gone. No amount of hindsight, twenty-twenty or not, would bring him back.
The music suddenly ended as mysteriously as it had begun. An awesome silence filled the old mansion, crawling right inside Mike to incite his agony. The only sound he heard now was the heavy thud of his heart, beating out the tempo of sadness and dread. Fear. Terror.
His Dirty Harry Callahan imitation only went so far, then the real Mike Faricy came out to play.
God, not now. He had to be superhuman.
Mike blinked, trying to focus in the dusty darkness. No sound, no movements. He was alone. Then what had he heard? Where had the music come from? As if on cue, muted sounds again drifted to his ears. Closing his eyes for only a moment, he focused on the noise. Definitely music—no doubt about it. A piano.
Was he losing his mind?
The music continued, fluctuating from faintly distinguishable to almost silent. It was real.
Breathing very slowly, Mike suspected he inhaled more dust than oxygen, but it didn't matter. He'd erupt internally before he'd let himself sneeze.
Seconds ticked by as he continued to search the room. The only distinguishable shapes were the French doors, where faint surreal light came through. His gaze was drawn to that light, where the gray fog played tricks behind the dirty glass.
What was that?
His heart pounded louder, faster as he watched the minimal movement of light and gray outside the doors. A darker, more solid shape stirred beyond the glass, then paused to turn toward him.
A face—a man—stared through the French doors.
They'd found him—he was a dead man.
Milton's flunky had mustered his courage, after all. Slowly, Mike reached across his chest and inside his open jacket. The hard butt of his gun offered a false sense of security. Mike knew he couldn't possibly win against all of Milton's men.
Still, he'd die trying.
The doorknob rattled, then the French doors slowly squeaked open. Mike swallowed hard, preparing himself to do battle again.
"Come on out, Mike," the man said in a deep, self-assured voice. "I mean you no harm. I'm here to help you."
Help, my ass. That voice couldn't possibly belong to the one Milton's men had left behind. True, Mike had called for backup, but they wouldn't be looking for him in this dump. Besides, he knew everyone on the force and, despite the darkness, Mike felt positive this guy wasn't one of them.
"Hiding is pointless. I can see you."
It was a trick. Mike ground his teeth together, itching to pull the trigger. Suddenly, the need for revenge overpowered common sense. Mike felt a rush of hatred, so powerful it overtook all sense of reason. Like a slow but insidious poison, revulsion seeped through his veins.
Scrambling to his feet, he lunged toward the silhouette in the darkness, still clutching his weapon in his right hand. With lightning reflexes, the man gripped Mike's wrist with one hand.
"You ready to talk now, Mike?"
The man's bone-wrenching grip dug through Mike's skin and straight to the marrow. Forced to his knees, then immobilized, Mike clenched his teeth, struggling against the urge to drop his gun in surrender to this strange and powerful enemy. "Who the devil are you?"
The man chuckled—the sound echoed mockingly through the vast emptiness. "Ah, now that's an interesting choice of words. I probably should thank you for the promotion."
Mike shook his head, trying to determine which words the man found interesting. "Go ahead and kill me—get it over with, you bastard."
"Oh, rest assured, I've been called worse." The man sighed, then jerked Mike's wrist until his gun flew across the room as if propelled by some invisible force. "Your weapon is useless against me."
"Oh, yeah? Why don't we give it a try? I'd like to see for myself."
The intruder laughed again, a sick, menacing sound that made Mike shudder. "There isn't enough time for that."
"I've got all night," Mike said steadily.
"And I have tonight and eternity." The man sounded bored with life. "Trust me, even that isn't enough time."
Mike shook his head as his own mad laughter consumed him, shaking the foundations of his sanity. This was too damned much. Why the hell didn't his captor just kill him and get it over with—put him out of his misery?
What about Carrie?
"Yes, what about your darling sister, Mike?"
Mike's laughter died an instant death as he jerked his head around to stare through the darkness at the creep who still imprisoned his wrist. He blinked several times, continuing to gape at this strange man. "How—"
"There's something you want. My boss sent me here because I know there's some way I can be of...service to you," he said in an infuriatingly calm voice, though there was an intensity to it that belied his more obvious attempt at sincerity. "All you have to do is name it, Mike, and it's yours."
"Something I want?" Mike swallowed hard, feeling strangely desperate to reveal his need. It was a need more powerful and insistent than any he'd known in his entire life. It was almost as if this man drew it from him—reached right inside his core and yanked the truth from him.
"Yeah, there's something I want, but you can't give it to me. Nobody can," Mike confessed before he could stop himself. "I'd give anything..." What the hell did he have to lose?
"Anything at all to—shall we say—turn back the clock?" His voice took on a mesmerizing song-like quality, luring Mike into a trusting state.
"Turn back the clock?" Mike echoed, trying to resist being sucked in by this guy's hypnotic voice, but it was a constant battle. There was an odd, powerful presence about him, more significant than the superhuman strength which enabled him to hold Mike powerless at his feet.
"Of course." The peculiar man gave a dramatic sigh. "Really, Mike, how else can we undo all that's happened tonight?"
"What...?" A cold sweat popped out on his forehead. "You're frigging nuts, man."
"Let's see—today's June twentieth, so all we have to do is make it June nineteenth. Right?"
"Sure. Just snap your fingers and make it yesterday." Mike squeezed his eyes shut for a moment. God, how he wished he could really do just that. If only he could go back in time to stop what had happened, to make Barney live again.
"So be it."
Fool! he chided himself, trying to regain control of his thoughts and actions. No one could undo the horrible events of this night. Not even God.
The man suddenly threw his head back and laughed out loud. It was a terrifying sound. Monstrous.
A streak of lightning illuminated the mansion, sending dancing sparks to the tips of the man's fiery hair. For a brief moment, Mike's gaze locked with his. The man's eyes were—
Another lightning bolt revealed the truth. The man's eyes were red, glowing with a feral power that left Mike paralyzed. The flesh around his mouth tingled and he felt hollow inside. Now, even in darkness, those red eyes glowed, holding Mike prisoner in his own body.
He had to fight this, whatever it was. This madman wanted something, and every instinct in Mike's body screamed in favor of escape.
Every instinct but one.
His need for revenge.
Common sense rallied, trying to seize control for a flickering moment. Mike jerked his wrist, but the stranger held him fast.
"I don't know who the hell you are or what you want, and I really don't give a rat's ass," Mike lied, unconvincing even to his own ears.
"Mike, Mike," the man said with that same taunting, strangely soothing tone. He was like a used car salesman moving in for the kill. "I'm here to give you your heart's desire—what you want more than anything else. I'm going to allow you to go back in time." He chuckled quietly. "You said you'd give anything..."
A sense of foreboding filled Mike, but he forced it into submission. "Yeah, anything. Everything." His voice sounded hoarse, barely more than a strangled whisper. Why was he buying into this jerk's sick game? Then the brilliance of those red eyes intensified, forcing Mike's doubts to whither beneath an onslaught of fierce hunger.
He would have his revenge. Satisfaction. And more importantly...Barney would live to raise his child. Madness claimed him and Mike barked a derisive, and strangely victorious, laugh. Though the bastard hadn't yet spoken the words, here it was, out in the open at last. Mike knew.
"Yeah, hotshot. Even my worthless, fucking soul!"
* * *
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