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* Two Years Later *

"So, we are still going out tonight right?" Christina asked through the phone.

Ashley swivled her desk chair around and looked out the office window. "Oh, uh, I don't know if I can."

Christina snickered into the phone. "Let me guess, Brandon won't let you?"

"Uggh, Christina." she sighed as she turned back around to stare at her computer screen. "Let's not get into this please."

"You know, you have been with him for over a year now, he was fine at first, but now he won't let you do anything. Besides that, he is a major asshole, he's controlling, and abusive."

"Okay, stop." Ashley rested her head in her hand. "At times he can be a jerk only because I deserve it. He's controlling because he protects me. And, he's not abusive."

Christina rolled her eyes. "Why do you always protect him? Why are you always in denial. Oh, and everytime I see you with a new black and blue mark, its always because you ran into someone or something at work." she sighed and then paused before she continued. "This is just getting old."

"This conversation is getting old."

"You know, ever since what happened with Justin, you have punished yourself by getting into difficult relationships with guys that ignorant and selfish." she switched ears and continued. "Why do you keep doing this to yourself?"

"I have to get back to work before the boss comes around. I'll talk to ya later."

"Wait, Ash," she said quickly, but Ashley hung up on her.

"I have to do something." she said to herself as she hung up her cell phone and got ready for her 9 a.m. shift at work.

The clock in the car read 5:20 p.m. Ashley sat at the red light strumming her fingers on her steering wheel. She should have been home five minutes ago. She knew Brandon would be waiting.

Another five minutes later she finally pulled along side of the street and ran up the stairs to her apartment that she shared with Brandon. She stepped inside the door and noticed that he was sitting there waiting for her.

"You're late." he announced.

Ashley hesitated before she could say anything. "Yeah, I know. I uh, was stuck in traffic."

He stood up and walked up behind her. She kept her back to him as she sat her belongings on the kitchen table. "You're never late any other time."

"I'm sorry." she replied quickly but he grabbed her arm and turned her around.
"You better not be messin' around on me or you are gonna be sorry." he said as he pointed his finger at her.

"Get out of my face!" she retaliated as she pushed his hand away.

Before she could step back he slapped her across the face, knocking her to the ground. He hit her so hard that a welt instantly appeared on her cheek. "Don't you ever push me away like that again, do you understand me?" he yelled.

Ashley held her hand to her face as she stared back at him with wild eyes. Brandon backed up and walked out the door, letting it slam behind him.

The next morning, Christina decided to visit Ashley at work. She made her way across town and walked into the building of the Ocean Park Gazette, the city's newspaper where Ashley now worked.

"Hi, is Ashley in?" Christina asked Ashley's mother, who was the receptionist at the front desk.

"I think she is. She has some leads for a story that she has to catch up on but I don't think she's left yet."

Christina looked around the corner of the hallway to catch a glimpse of Ashley's office door. "Do you mind if I go talk to her?"

Her mother smiled. "No, go right ahead."

Christina smiled back. "Thanks."

Christina walked down the hall and lightly knocked on Ashley's door while she opened it and let herself in.

"Oh, uh, hey." Ashely studdered a bit as she kept her head down.

"Hey. Whatcha up to?" Christina asked as she sat in front of Ashley's desk.

"Working." she bluntly replied as she kept her eyes down.

"Um, ok. So, do you want to go out for some lunch later?"

Ashley didnt answer her question and asked her own instead. "You're not working today?"

"No, I took a vac day. So, do you wanna or what?"

Ashley sighed and finally looked up at her. "Not today."

"Why is your cheek red?" she asked, starting to become suspicious.

"I don't know." she defended herself as she looked at her computer screen. "It's just hot and I'm a little flushed okay?"

Christina looked at Ashely's office window. "You have an air conditioner. It's not hot in here. How bout you try again?"

"Christina, please." she replied as she rested her head in her hand.

"Oh, let me think, you must of bumped into your desk this morning to get that new black and blue mark on your arm. Either that or you suddenly got leukemia." she replied sarcastically.

"Oh you are so funny today, Chris. Anything else you would like to add?" she snapped back.

Christina grinned. "What do you tell your mom about all your bruises when she sees you everyday?"

"Are you done?" Ashley huffed.

Christina hesitated before she replied. "Yeah."

Ashley turned her direction back to her computer. "Good. Now leave, I have work to do."

Christina answered with a crude glare as she got up and stormed out the door.

A few hours later, Christina returned to the Gazette. It was around Ashley's lunch time and she knew that she wouldn't be in her office. She would have just enough time to find what she needed.

"Hey is Ash in?" Christina asked Ashley's mother at the front desk again although she already knew the answer.

"Actually, I think she is..." she replied but was cut off.

"Ok, thanks!" Christina interrupted her as she made her way down the hall.

"Uh, yeah." Ashley's mom said to herself.

Christina opened the door quietly. She sighed in relief that Ashley had not locked it. She walked into the dark room and quickly went to her desk. She rooted in the top drawer but found only pencils, pens, paper clips and rubber bands. Another drawer held information for future articles and another held printer paper.

"This is your last drawer, Chris." she said to herself. "You better find it quick before Ashley comes back and busts your ass."

She opened the last drawer and discovered Ashely's address and phone book. "Please, let it be in here." She flipped through the book to the letter T. She looked up to the clock and then to the door.

"Shit! Not here." she said as she looked at a bunch of phone numbers to people she didn't know.

"Ashley is going to be back in less than a minute. Think, Chris." She paused for a moment and then flipped to the letter J.

As she opened the page, a piece of paper fell out. Christina grabbed it and opened it. It was exactly what she was looking for. "Yes!" she exclaimed to herself and she closed the book and put it back in the drawer.

Ashley walked into the lobby and walked up to her mother. "Did I have any messages?"

"You had one, the man from the community meeting that wants to have the charity auction. You said you were going to write the article for that." she said as she handed her his number.

"Ok. I'll get right on that." she replied as she looked at the memo.

"Oh, and another thing. Christina was just here."

Ashley rolled her eyes. "Great."

"She didn't even let me tell her that you were at lunch. She went right back to your office."

Ashley looked at her strangely. "Um, ok?" she finished as she made her way to the hall.

Christina closed the door behind her and noticed Ashley standing in the lobby. She quickly turned and ran the opposite way down the hall just as Ashley made her way to her office.

Christina arrived back home a little while later and ran into the house. She picked up her cell phone that she had forgotten and left on the kitchen table and dialed the number. "Please answer the phone. Wherever you are, please be there."

"Timberlake." he answered into the phone.

"Uh, Justin?" she replied nervously. She actually didn't think he'd answer or that the number would even still work.

"Yeah, who's askin'?"

Her mind raced with a million things to say. "This is Christina."

"Christina? Do I know you? How did you get this number?" he started to demand answers.

"I am Ashley's friend. Remember, from Ocean Park. I need your help. I am practically begging here. I need you to help me. I need you to help Ashley." she stopped and waited for him to say something, but he didn't.

"Justin?" she asked again.

Only silence replied.

< Chapter 2 >