Stronger (Runaway) Online - Lexie Ray

Chapter One

“Girl, what’s so interesting about that dumpster that you be in there for five whole minutes?”

I froze, cradling the McDonald’s wrapper to my chest. “This is mine,” I called over my shoulder. “I found it.”

“I don’t like seeing folks going through the trash, especially not behind my nightclub,” the voice said. The accompanying shuffle of footsteps was my only warning before someone grabbed my shoulder and whirled me around.

I did the only thing I could think of. I shoved the half-eaten burger completely into my mouth and chewed defiantly, staring up at a black woman more than twice my size. Her heavily made-up eyes widened in shock.

“You did not just eat that,” she declared, her mouth twisting with disgust.

Clutching the greasy paper in my fist, I swallowed the cold morsel. It was the first time I’d eaten in days.

“I found it,” I repeated, wishing she’d leave me in piece. There was still cheese to be picked off the paper. If the paper was greasy enough, maybe I’d eat it, as well. The possibilities were endless and I wanted nothing more than to be left alone with my find.

Something shifted in the woman’s face. I noticed for the first time how finely she was dressed. The sequins on her top shimmered in the waning light and her pantyhose were pristine—no runs in sight. It made me feel self-conscious about my own clothes—torn jeans and a smelly, over-sized T-shirt. Her elaborate up-do prompted me to touch my own greasy hair, which hung in clumps.

“How old are you, girl?” she asked.

“I’m 18,” I said. At least I was pretty sure I was. I’d caught the date on a discarded newspaper in the dumpster that told me I’d missed my own birthday last week.

“You lying to me?” the woman demanded. “You look more like 15.”

I scowled. “I’m 18. My mom always said I looked young for my age.”

After saying this, my face fell. My mom. She probably would have been worried sick. Well, maybe she would have. It was hard to tell. Things were different when it was just me and her. We’d talk. Laugh. All the things normal mothers and daughters did.

Everything was perfect until him.

“That’s it,” the woman declared. “It’s time to get you off the streets. I don’t know how long you been on them, but you’re coming home with Mama now.”

Leaving no room for argument, the woman took me by my elbow and marched me toward a green door. I spluttered a protest as she grabbed the McDonald’s wrapper from me, but she shook her head furiously.

“No, ma’am,” she said. “You want a hamburger, I’ll fix you a hamburger.”

“Who are you?” I asked, dazzled by this force of nature.

“Why, I’m Mama, honey,” she said, peering down at me. “I own this place.”

The door opened to reveal a cavernous nightclub. Workers—all of them women—bustled around the space, preparing it for the night’s business. Sumptuous leather booths lined the walls while cozy tables dotted the floor. Velvet curtains had been pulled back to reveal a stage. Just below it was a dance floor. An enormous disco ball already shimmered above it, throwing spots of light around the room.

“Well, what do you think?” Mama asked, well aware that I’d been struck speechless. I never imagined I would be in such a nice place. I didn’t feel like I was good enough to take a nap in one of the booths.

“It’s beautiful,” I finally managed, awed by the enormous canvas paintings of attractive men and women dancing together.

“Thank you,” Mama said humbly. “Cocoa!”

One of the workers set down a tray of napkins before jogging over to us. She was as beautiful as the nightclub, her hair braided and swept past her face. Her long legs were smooth and unblemished and her body was lithe and well proportioned. She looked like she took good care of herself—or had someone who did.

“Hey, Mama,” she said.

“Hey, yourself,” Mama replied. “I need you to take—ooh, girl, how rude of me, I didn’t even get your name.”

“I’m Jasmine,” I said.

“A pretty name for a pretty girl,” Mama said, smiling. “Take Jazz upstairs and show her where she can get herself cleaned up. Meanwhile, I’ll be frying up a hamburger for her. Be a doll, Cocoa, and let her borrow one of your uniforms to wear for now? I’ll take her out shopping tomorrow.”

“Sure thing, Mama,” Cocoa said before looking at me kindly. “Let’s go.”

My legs followed automatically. I hoped this entailed a shower. My last attempt at bathing—in a