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By Dani MacInnes All Rights Reserved ©

Romance / Drama

Chapter 1

No stars illuminated the night sky, for the lights of Detroit were too bright. The city was buzzing with excitement. The moon shone high, but thin clouds threatened to sweep it away. Buildings were packed close together as people busily walked by. An old, rundown dance studio sat in the corner of a street. It did not seem like much, but it was still in working condition.

The inside was much more inviting. Big band music played as couples swung each other around on the dance floor. There was a bar off to one side. Tables and chairs curved around the dance floor for single men and women to drink and wait for a dance.

Darko Stroud was standing in front of one such table. His arms were crossed as he looked out at the couples with a fierce gaze. The man was 27-years-old. He stood at five feet eleven inches. He was well-built. He was not particularly muscular, but he still appeared strong. His eyes, currently filled with great intensity, were a striking blue. His stare was intimidating to anyone unfortunate enough to get caught in it. His hair was a light brown color. For the most part, it was straight, but it curled slightly around the edges. He had left it messy and unkempt today. He did not care much for looking after his appearance. He was wearing torn jeans and an old hoodie. His appearance was not very inviting, but nor did it automatically scare people away. There was an energy about him that intrigued the most daring.

A young blond watching him from across the room was one such person. Darko took immediate interest in her. She was thin and pretty, her wavy hair going past her shoulders. Before he knew what he was doing, he found himself making his way over to her. She smiled up at him. “Hello,” she said shyly.

“Hi,” the man said gruffly. “I’m Darko Stroud. What is your name?” He could not forget the manners that had been ingrained in him as a child. They had become instinctive.

“Lily Harrison,” the girl replied. There was a slight blush on her cheeks under the dim lighting. Her eyes were a marvelous hazel.

Darko found himself swallowing. You can do this, he told himself. You’ve done it a thousand times. “It’s nice to meet you, Lily. Would you like to dance?” He held out his right hand for her to accept or reject.

The girl giggled and took his hand. “Sure,” she said with another smile.

Darko gently led Lily onto the dance floor and then got into position. His left hand now clasped her right while his right went to the small of her back and she placed her left on his shoulder. He moved immediately. The music was fun and energetic. Darko was good. He had been swing dancing for most of his life. It made him feel alive and free. Sometimes, if just for a night, it was like nothing was wrong in his life. But the dawning of the morning always ripped it away.

He felt himself drawn to Lily. She was intoxicating. Dancing always got his endorphins running. They were easily confused with other emotions – or hormones. He ended with a dip. Instead of letting her go, he held her there for a few seconds longer, staring deep into her eyes. Something stirred inside him. The memories were coming back. He knew how others expected him to act, and their expectations were beginning to control his behavior. For a split second, he thought he saw fear in her eyes.

He put her back on her feet and mumbled a “thank you.” He suddenly did not feel like dancing anymore. The moment was ruined. He would not be who they thought he had to be. A scowl crossed his face, though he was angrier with himself than anyone else. He made for the exit. He had to get out of there. He was suddenly feeling much too claustrophobic.

The cool Michigan air was a welcome to him. He closed his eyes and let the breeze wash over his face. When he opened them again, he felt uncomfortable with the several people around him who were roaming the streets. He lifted his hood and placed it over his head to hide his face. He did not need anyone recognizing him. Stuffing his hands inside his pockets, he trudged over to his green Ford pick-up truck. He slammed the door and was on his way.

The apartment building was even older than the dance club. It looked like it was falling apart. Darko was spotted as he walked from his car to the door. “What are you still doing here?” an angry man called. “Disgusting vermin.”

Darko’s eyes tightened, but he ignored the man and pressed on. His landlord was waiting for him inside. So was a bitter woman. “Kick him out,” she chided. “We need to feel safe again.”

Darko resisted the urge to roll his eyes and retort back. She would never believe him. Why should she? They were from two separate worlds as far as she was concerned. She was good and he was bad. That was all there was to it.

The landlord frowned. “I’m afraid she’s right. I can’t keep you here any longer.”

He should have known this was coming. It was bound to happen eventually. Still, something in him made him want to fight it. “Why? I haven’t done anything wrong.”

The woman barked out a laugh. “Nothing wrong? You’ve done worse than all of us here combined.”

The landlord held up a hand. “Please.” He appeared tired and weary. He gave Darko an apologetic look. “I’m sorry. I can’t risk having anyone move out. Or worse. They could run me out of business.”

Darko shook his head. “It’s not right. You are doing nothing illegal. Where am I supposed to live?”

“How about in the garbage where you belong?” the woman’s husband suggested.

Darko’s face darkened. He focused only on the landlord. He had to hold himself together. “I have as much a right to live here as any of them.”

“That’s not the way they see it,” the landlord said. “I’m just trying to do what’s best for everyone.”

“Except me,” Darko growled.

“You already made your choice!” the woman howled.

Darko snapped his head to glare at her. “And so I have to pay for it with the rest of my life?”

“Enough!” the landlord said loudly. “I’m sorry, Mr. Stroud. I need you out by the end of the week.”

Darko clenched his teeth together. He knew arguing would get him nowhere. He had to accept his place in life. “Fine,” he muttered. He stormed up the stairs and too his room.

“Good riddance!” the couple called after him.

Darko wanted to slam his door but thought it would just make matters worse.

The room was always the same. Darko has come there too many times to count. He was not sure it even did him any good. Dr. Harold always said the same thing. Today was sure to be no different. But with recent circumstances, Darko would be expected to stop by. It was the only polite way to treat a therapist. Perhaps he would actually have some good advice.

Darko closed the door quietly behind him. Dr. Harold looked up from his desk. He was an older man with graying hair and glasses. His space was very neat and organized. He was a particular type of man. He always thought he knew the right way to handle a situation. As a psychologist, perhaps he had a right to think so. He peered up from behind his glasses. “Darko, come in,” he said.

Darko solemnly walked over and took the seat across from the desk. He dreaded what came next. He did not like talking about his problems with anyone his was not particular close to. He knew that was what a therapist was for, and he had been very helpful, but he still wished he could handle things on his own. At last, he let out a sigh and said, “I’ve been evicted from my apartment.”

Dr. Harold nodded once. The news did not seem to faze him. “And does this surprise you?”

Darko’s eyes narrowed. He stared at the wood desk top. He ignored the question. “I have to move,” he said. “Detroit doesn’t want me here and I don’t want to be here.”

The therapist let out a sigh. “Where do you expect to go, Darko? Every place is going to be the same. No one wants to be around a sex offender.”

The label still made Darko flinch. It was what was ruining his life. It was the reason everyone hated him, even his own family. Was there nothing more for him? Would he never find a place where he belonged? “There has to be some place that will accept me.”

“Chicago, perhaps?” the doctor suggested.

Darko rolled his eyes. He had gone to Detroit thinking they were used to crime. It was a big mistake. The small towns he had visited may have been meaner, but big cities were worse. There was no personal identification. No one cared about anyone. There was no sense of community. Everyone was just looking after themselves. Maybe that was what he needed to do. It was what he should do.

Dr. Harold sighed again. “A new city is not going to fix your problem, Darko. The world is a very unforgiving place, especially towards those who have committed your particular crime. No one will take to you kindly. You have to make the best of it. You seem to have gotten it down. Hide out in a new city until you are discovered. You get to visit new and interesting places, and you are much safer.”

Darko dug his nails into the wood of the armrests. “No,” he said firmly. “I’m tired of running away.” It seemed like that was his life now. Nothing was permanent. He had no friends. He could not keep a job long enough to earn decent money. If this went on for much longer he felt he would go crazy. Or worse.

He shook the thoughts away before they came any closer. No. It would never come to that. He was strong enough. He was in control of himself. All he needed was himself.

He raised his head to look at his therapist. His face had grown softer and wearier. “Don’t you know of any place where I’d have a chance at calling it home?” He knew the prospects were slim. Even without his condition, homes seemed to be a rare thing these days. He had left a pretty good one behind.

Dr. Harold hesitated. His eyes lighted, as if he had just thought of something. He suddenly turned to a stack of papers and began to sift through them. “There is one place,” he murmured. He smiled and pulled out a single sheet of paper. His smile faded as he gave his patient a stern look. “Now, I don’t think this is going to work, but I have a friend who works at a sports store. Maybe he can get you a job.” He slid the paper across the desk to him. “This city is probably your best bet.”

The hope that had begun to bubble in Darko’s chest left as soon as his eyes glazed over the name of the city. His eyes turned hard on his therapist. “This city? Are you sure? Did you see what they did to one they loved? What do you think they’ll do to me when they find out about me?” His heart began to beat in panic. He could not go there; it would be too difficult.

Dr. Harold merely shrugged. “That’s the risk you take with a city like this. Fit in with their culture and it’ll be like heaven. But if you present yourself as an outsider, they will do everything you can to get rid of you.” He pushed his glasses to his nose. “I suggest you try to fit in if you can. This may be your only shot.” He shrugged his shoulders. “Otherwise, just continue with the life you’re leading. You’re surviving, aren’t you?"

Darko muttered something under his breath as he took the paper in his hands. Barely. He knew he needed to try something different, but was this city really the solution? There was another problem with the city, but he did not voice it. It was too dangerous to do so. He knew he would be going to the city. He did not have any other choice. He would have to move eventually. Would he try to become a part of their community? Well, he would decide on that later.

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