Better (Stark Ink Book 2)

BOOK: Better (Stark Ink Book 2)
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Better
STARK INK
Book Two
 

By

Dahlia West

Copyright and Legalities

 

This novel is a work of fiction. Names, characters, and locations are either a product of the author's imagination or used in a fictitious setting. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or people, living or dead, is strictly coincidental. No part from this book may be used or reproduced without written consent from the author.

 

This e-book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This e-book may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each. If you are reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, please return to an online book retailer and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Copyright © 2015 by Dahlia West. All rights reserved.

 

 

For my brother
1960 - 2004
I should have been your Adam

Chapter One

 

Dalton Stark had tried to sell his soul to the devil once in a room smaller than this one and, as blood seeped from his thumb, he remembered trying to make that deal. At the time he’d assumed the Father of Lies was on vacation because no lesser demon had appeared with a pen and a piece of parchment paper, but now he was beginning to rethink that assumption. Perhaps the deal
had
gone through and he was living it now.

“Stark,” Stephens said from across the room.

Dalton glanced up. “Not a big deal,” he insisted.

Stephens looked at the blood. He seemed unconvinced.

“Really,” Dalton insisted. For good measure he picked the nail gun back up. “It’s fine.”

He pressed the guide sight flush against the wooden window frame and pulled the trigger. There was a slight hiss before the sharp crack of the finish nail being fired by thousands of pounds of pressure. This time the tiny metal projectile embedded itself into the wood and not into Dalton’s flesh.
Nowhere to go but up
, he figured.

Half an hour later, the job foreman called for a break. Everyone filed out of the work site and onto the packed dirt of someone’s future front lawn, a rich someone judging by the size of the other homes in the area. Dalton himself had only worked on these kinds of houses. He was from a different neighborhood altogether, far on the other side of town.

Stephens, Donaldson, and two Hispanic floorers that Dalton didn’t know stood in a huddle, blocking the cutting wind by strategically locating themselves near the row of port-a-potties. Dalton was thankful he didn’t have the urge. He’d pissed in front of enough strangers lately. They all lit up at once. Dalton was tempted to join them even though he didn’t smoke. What kind of greedy asshole worked a crew nearly round the clock in late November? But the question already contained the answer.

The foreman lit up his own cig and glared at Dalton through a haze of blue smoke. Dalton ignored him. He’d skipped lunch, yet again, but he wasn’t skipping break. He climbed into his beat up Toyota pick-up and stretched out in the cab. He pulled a bandanna out of the glove compartment and wrapped it around his throbbing thumb. The last thing he saw before he closed his eyes was the jagged torn flesh on his hand.

Dalton supposed he could live without food, but the lack of sleep might actually kill him.

A few minutes later, a loud bang on the side of the truck startled him awake. By the time he sat up, the foreman was already walking away. Dalton sighed and opened the lid of the small cooler sitting on the passenger side floorboards. He popped the top off a can of Coke and took a large gulp. He still had four more hours left on his shift that had started before dawn. None of the houses in the new subdivision were occupied yet, so there was no one around to complain about the noise.

Dalton slid from the cab and shut the driver’s side door. As he crossed the lawn, his watch beeped signaling the end of the break.

 

 

He worked gingerly around his still-throbbing thumb. It wasn’t that he couldn’t take the pain, but it brought back old memories and reminded him of what could go wrong on the job. He worked slowly, cautiously, ducking the disapproving looks being thrown at him by the foreman.

Fuck him
, Dalton thought. His good will could only stretch so far. Dalton was grateful to have a job, but if he wasn’t careful, it would be his last.

He finished framing the window, setting the last nail just as the call sounded for the end of the shift. Dalton said a silent prayer of thanks. If it’d been a weekday they’d plug along until well after dark using tripod lights and a generator to see, but it was Friday and the boss man wanted to get his drink on.

It was strange how alcohol still affected his life in certain ways.

Dalton slowly put his tools away as the foreman passed out the envelopes. There was no point in hurrying; he always got his pay last. The man liked to make him wait.

Union guys got their envelopes first, thin ones with actual checks displaying extra zeroes denoting the overtime. Next were the undocumented workers, guys who spoke just enough English between them to get the job done. As a former union man, Dalton had been irritated by their presence on work sites. Now that he was among them, below them, so it would seem, he couldn’t conjure up any animosity toward them. Their envelopes were fatter, though not by a lot. Cash was king on a job site these days, though Dalton didn’t have to compare totals to know who got paid more. He vowed never to complain about the dues if he ever got reinstated.

The foreman finally reached him and tossed the envelope into the open tool box Dalton was loading. Dalton didn’t say thank you or even bother to look up, but he supposed he had no real right to complain. He’d missed days, a lot of days, back when his pay came stamped with bank routing numbers and respectability. Somewhere in the hazy days of early summer, he’d been officially fired. He’d had to wade through a dozen voice mail messages before that last one telling him not to bother coming back. It had been Adam who’d gotten him his job back, Adam who’d gotten him cleaned up in the first place.

As Dalton watched the foreman walk away, he wondered what Adam had offered him to make him hire Dalton back. Free tattoos for life? Dalton doubted it. The boss didn’t seem to have any ink, nothing visible anyway.

Who knew? Maybe the man had “HOLE” written across his butt cheeks.

Dalton pocketed the envelope without bothering to open it. If he’d been shorted, he had no recourse anyway. The foreman, so far, had not stooped that low. Dalton was still the best worker they had on site and there were plenty of other construction outfits in the city that paid under the table. Dalton could probably make more money with them, but he’d rather make amends instead.

He headed back to his truck and his open can of Coke. At this rate, he’d need an IV of caffeine by Christmas. He was on hour fifty this week, or maybe more. He’d lost count and he still had tomorrow to work.

Come Hell or high water this cookie cutter house would be finished for the holiday— A true Christmas miracle!

Except that clinking sound wasn’t a bell, it was the extra change in the boss’ pocket that he saved by not paying Dalton time and a half. Dalton didn’t care much. He was still getting his wings. Maybe. Eventually. Maybe eventually. He refused to dwell on it, though. Jig had warned him to be careful about depression, especially around the holidays.

Dalton had a job and a place to lay his lately always-weary head. Things could be worse.

He hauled his massive frame into the rusted out truck and cranked the ignition. It roared to life despite the weather growing increasingly colder. It didn’t look like much, but it was reliable, at least. He reached up and rubbed the two-day stubble on his face and hoped no one could say the same about him.

He was a decent looking guy when he was cleaned up, if he did say so himself. He was also built like a linebacker, which made sense because he was one in high school. A partial scholarship had come through even, to the University of Wisconsin in Madison, but Mom and Pop couldn’t afford the rest.

They might have. God knows they would have tried for as long as they could scrape the money together to send him, but Dalton hadn’t let them. He wasn’t quite NFL material due to a slowly deteriorating left shoulder. He’d have made it through college, though, barring any serious injuries. But all Mom and Pop’s tuition money would have bought was a useless degree for jobs that didn’t exist in Rapid City for a guy like him and maybe a few more trophies to put on a shelf. In the end it seemed hardly worth it just for a few more years of gridiron glory. Dalton had let Mom and Pop keep their hard-earned money and enrolled in trade school after graduation.

As it turned out, he’d had a talent for carpentry. Mom had beamed and said, “You know who else had a talent for carpentry?” Dalton had never responded. He was a nice guy, but he was no saint. He’d had too many women and too many beers, even back then. That had been Mom, though. She had always seen the good in people. When Dalton and Adam had moved out, she’d adopted two more kids. Her philosophy had always been that everyone deserved a second chance. Dalton wasn’t sure about that yet.

Kids, yeah, because they were innocent, just victims of the shit hand life had dealt them. They didn’t deserve the short end of the stick just for being born to asshole parents. But Dalton had made his choices and none of them had been good after the accident.

If he was in Hell, which was debatable at this point, then it was one of his own making.

Chapter Two

 

Dalton pulled up to the split-level ranch that he’d grown up in and put the truck park. He ran his hands over the steering wheel just to kill time. Dinner here was way better than the frozen burritos he had back at his own place. That was his cover story, anyway, but it was true enough to help sell it. Dalton had never been a good cook. After a few months with Zoey she’d moved in and taken over the kitchen, so he’d never bothered to learn.

So it was true that he ate at the family house because he missed Zoey’s cooking, but it was more about missing Zoey herself. He’d decided not to renew the lease on his old apartment a couple of months ago and instead moved into a smaller, two bedroom place closer to Pop’s house. This was partly to change his surroundings and leave old memories behind and also in case there was an emergency.

Unfortunately, sometimes there was.

Alzheimer's. Another ‘A’ word that Dalton was still trying to adjust to. It was tough to watch the old man’s ‘episodes’.  Sometimes he had periods of time in which he didn’t even know who they were, or even believed it was still the 80s and thought Adam and Dalton were his only children. It was hard on Ava when he called her Miriam, trying to shoehorn his adopted daughter into the role of the only female he remembered. Jonah seemed to be dealing with it okay, or at least better than Ava, but then Jonah and Pop had never been all that close.

Dalton finally gave up the ghost and headed inside. He found Pop in the living room watching TV and Jonah on the couch with a book. Ava and Adam’s girlfriend, Calla, were in the kitchen.

“Hey,” said Dalton. Jonah looked up and nodded. Pop smiled at him. “How’s it going?” he asked cautiously.

“Good,” Pop replied. “The girls are making ziti.” The old man looked okay tonight, in fact, he was okay most nights. He went to a day program at a nursing home so Adam and Jonah could work. If speaking of the Devil made him appear, then thinking of Adam seemed to have the same effect. Dalton’s older brother came around the corner of the hallway, hair wet, fresh from the shower. Living alone with an aging and deteriorating father had proven to be too much for Ava and Jonah to handle by themselves. Adam had moved in shortly after Mom’s funeral to try and help shoulder the load. Dalton had always felt as though his older brother carried more than his fair share, even now.

Dalton watched as Calla turned and kissed Adam on the cheek, but he had enough decency to look away when Adam smacked her lightly on the ass. If her grown-ass boyfriend moving back home bothered Calla, it was impossible to tell. Adam’s newly acquired girlfriend never had a bad word to say about anyone it seemed. She appeared to understand the difficult situation Adam had inherited when Mom had died. Ava and Jonah were growing up fast, but they still needed an adult around, especially Ava since she was only seventeen and still just a senior in high school. Jonah was eighteen and had already graduated, but he had his fair share of… problems. Dalton guessed he would call them that.

Adam had traded places with Jonah. He’d taken back his old room here at the house and given Jonah the small efficiency apartment over the shop and a job to go with it. Jonah now spent his days shoving steel spikes into people’s body parts, which, considering the kid’s history of surliness and quick fists, actually seemed strangely appropriate.

Adam thought Jonah was getting better. Dalton certainly took note of the fact that the kid now spent a lot more time here with the family than he ever had growing up. More time, in fact, than Dalton himself did these days, an acknowledgment that always came with a sharp pang of guilt. With the crazy hours at the construction site, Dalton had to choose between paying off old financial debts or acquiring new personal ones. The more hours he racked up, the more money he made to pay Adam back for all he’d done for him, but it didn’t leave Dalton with much time to help out here. He did what he could, though. He spent Sunday afternoons with Pop so Adam and Calla could have some time alone. Adam seemed grateful enough just for that.

“Set the table,” Calla ordered and Adam dutifully gathered utensils from the drawer. As he headed into the dining room, Calla turned to Dalton. “Can you help?”

“Sure,” he replied, rolling up his sleeves.

Calla spooned a huge amount of pasta into a large serving bowl and passed it to him. She had the rim, though, so he grabbed the underside with his left hand. “Dalton!” Calla hissed.

He frowned at her.

“It’s hot!”

He looked down, hesitating before bringing up his other hand. “Oh,” he said lamely. When he glanced back up, Calla was staring at him. He knew she didn’t mean anything by it, but it still bothered him. Dalton hadn’t known Calla before, which was both a blessing and a curse, he supposed. On the one hand, unlike his family, Calla had no impossibly inflated memories for him to try and live up to now. He didn’t see disappointment in her eyes when she looked at him. There was no real sense of loss there.

On the other hand, she’d never met the man he used to be. His pride sometimes tried to goad him into pulling out old home movies or photo albums to show her. Mom had taken photos of everything: Dalton’s football glory days, Dalton on his hands and knees laying the tile floor for Adam’s shop. Evidence of Dalton Stark’s previous existence as a halfway decent guy did exist and, if not for that, Dalton himself might not have believed it.

He was fully aware that he was standing before her now, broken, holding a bowl that may or may not be too hot, unaware because half-dead hand couldn’t let him know. He wondered if he seemed pathetic to her, but he didn’t have the balls to ask. He turned and quickly took the bowl to the dining room table before heading back into the kitchen, determined to be helpful. He didn’t have to make amends to Calla. He hadn’t known her back then and therefore couldn’t have done anything bad to her that he needed to make up for now, but he still felt like he had a lot to prove to her. At the moment she felt more like a member of the Stark family than he did, more deserving anyway.

The Starks never had wine with dinner unless it was a holiday, so you’d think that the elephant in the room would be hidden by a full-length curtain most of the time, but sadly that wasn’t the case. He’d missed out on a lot of family stuff, going back a good long while. Mom had felt poorly, got her cancer diagnosis, and was gone seemingly in the blink of an eye. Dalton hardly recalled her actually being sick, but that was mostly because it was Adam who’d moved in and started taking care of her those final two weeks. It was supposed to have been temporary. Now Adam was fighting Pop and Ava the shower.

It wasn’t so much Dalton’s problems as his absence that was straining things. It had taken awhile before he began to understand that
he
was the elephant in the room, an awkward, out-of-place creature that didn’t really fit. Work didn’t help as he spent more time there than here, making it tough to just jump back in.

“How’s school?” he asked Ava as he pulled up his chair.

“Fine.”

Over the last few months her answers had grown shorter and shorter. He was probably annoying her by now. Dalton made a point to ask every time he saw her. Last year she’d been suspended and he hadn’t even known. She seemed to have her shit together this year, so now that he was capable of helping her there was nothing for him to do, of course.

“How’s the shop?” he asked Jonah. “Any complaints?” He loved the kid, but Dalton would be damned if he’d let Jonah anywhere near
him
with a big-ass needle.

Jonah grinned. “Nah. No more than usual, anyway.”

“We’ve got a movie,” Calla said cheerfully. “Can you stay?”

Dalton actually hated to disappoint her, but he shook his head slowly. “No, I can’t.”

Adam frowned. “Back on the clock? Jesus, D, this job is killing you.”

Dalton scooted his pasta back and forth on his plate having suddenly lost his appetite. “Not… not work. I’ve got somewhere I’ve got to be.”

He wasn’t sure why he always worded it like that, except that maybe it was as simple as the fact that he was still ashamed.

“Oh,” Adam said quietly. “No problem. Tomorrow night then.”

Dalton nodded and hoped like hell they’d be able to knock off at sundown tomorrow. “Yeah,” he said, as if saying it out loud might make it come true. “Tomorrow night.”

BOOK: Better (Stark Ink Book 2)
12.37Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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