~ Taught by Love ~
by Zoe

Disclaimer: Let's see. I'm not exactly sure how to proceed with this part, so I will simply say that Xena and Co. belong to MCA/Universal. But my girls aren't their girls, so I should be okay, right? Anyway, that's that. Oh, yeah, you can't have them.

Violence Warning: There are scenes of violence in this baby. And school violence, to boot. This story deals with violence in American schools (think Littleton, et al, and you got it) and the aftermath of that violence. Rather than present the facts of what has happened in our schools in the last 3 years or so HERE, why not just email me and I'll tell you, okay?

Language Warning: There is some potentially objectionable language, but nothing too darned bad (See? I don't even say anything bad here. Wow.). Well, at least I don't think it's all that bad, but I may be world-weary, or used to it? Nah. But don't say I didn't tell you.

Other Stuff: There isn't any, really. WAIT!! How about my addy so you can tell me if you like it or not? Whaddaya say? Here it is just in case-- zoe_c71@yahoo.com . Oh, okay. I can thank my beta-reader for her help? but she won't let me mention her name so I'm hoping she'll know that this is for her.!

Now, without further ado?

Part 1

Only a few days until school starts. Thank God.

Noelle Potter worked the sheets and tiller on her little boat with the ease of long experience. She sailed solo in her 14.5 foot American Sail Daysailer. As she sailed her boat, she used all of her senses to "feel" the day. The wind ruffled through her short blond hair, its coolness easing the heat of the day. She smelled the heat, the summer scent that was in the air. Her skin soaked up the sun. Noelle felt at peace, calm when she was on the water. This was where she worked out many things that troubled her.

She took a moment to just look at the land and water around her. The sun was high in the sky, the blue of the sky almost ethereal in its beauty. The vibrancy of nature's colors sometimes amazed her. The trees were a dark green that contrasted wonderfully with the brilliant light blue of the sky. The water was a deep blue-black, mysterious in its color and depth.

Her mind was brought back to the task at hand when a strong puff of wind blew across the water. While her hands were busy with the mainsheet and rudder, her mind wandered again to other things. The last couple of years in the US and its' schools were truly frightening to think about for most teachers. Littleton, Jonesboro?hell, it happened right here in PA. Noelle's thoughts moved to the present. How can we help our kids? How can we stop it from happening? She asked herself as the boat moved along at a good speed.

The last month of school was tense. Noelle snorted. That's a hell of an understatement. Kids were scared, parents were scared. The school's faculty was scared. It was rough those last few weeks of last year. Teaching was pretty much fruitless. Everyone, faculty and students alike, was just looking to survive and get it over with for the summer.

God, I pray it goes better this year. Tony did his job, hopefully. Noelle smiled at the thought of her boss. Tony Avedo was the principal at the Pennsylvania high school were Noelle taught. She knew he loved his job and genuinely cared about his students. Tony had promised at the closing faculty meeting that he would research, and put into place, a SAP team. Knowing the SAP team wouldn't solve all of the problems, he had said that he hoped it would be a place to start. And that was the hardest part- getting started. Once the team was in place, once the major problems with the students were addressed, then the school could move on from there. To teaching again.

And we should have a new dean, too. He's got to be better than Munroe. We can't do it unless we get backup from the admin. Jesus, it's a mess. Noelle shook her head. Then she cleared her mind of the thoughts and tilted her head up, feeling the warmth of the mid-August sun on her face.

Feeling the sweat pooling between her breasts under her life jacket, and deciding that she had sweated enough, she turned the boat back to the launch, taking care to duck when the boom came around.

As she came about, she saw another, smaller boat on a fast downhill run, not too far away, heading straight in her direction. The other boat heeled sharply, almost standing straight up on its' side, and the skipper didn't appear to be doing much to slow the boat. She noticed in the millisecond that it took her to decide on a course of action that the other skipper wore a baseball hat, no PFD, and looked to be very inexperienced.

"Shit!" Noelle swore. The only option for her to get out of the path of the other boat's run was to jibe and take another tack. "SHIT!" Jibing just wasn't something that a skipper CHOSE to do, only once in maybe a thousand blue moons.

Noelle pushed the tiller hard away from her, turning almost directly into the wind, causing the boom and mainsail to swing a fast 180 degrees across the boat. She got out of the path of the smaller boat just in time to turn in her seat and watch it capsize.

"Fuck," she muttered. She was half tempted, okay 3/4s tempted, to leave the other skipper to right the boat himself. But because it wasn't in her nature to leave a stranded person, animal or plant, she turned her boat and headed toward the other.

When she reached the capsized boat, she saw that it was a 10' American, a smaller version of her own The other skipper was in the water, holding onto the coaming, trying desperately to get the boat righted.

She sailed her boat directly along side the other boat, letting the mainsheet out all the way so the sail luffed dramatically. It was as effective as a break on a car. Her boat came to a halt not far from where the skipper of the other boat treaded water.

Noelle shook her head. The skipper was on the wrong side of the boat. "It helps if you're on the OTHER side," Noelle said loudly, loud enough for the skipper to hear. The skipper turned his head around to look at Noelle. Noelle was unable to make out any distinguishing features because of the baseball cap and dark sunglasses. What she could see, though, seemed decent enough.

Noelle returned the skipper's gaze. Seeing that the other skipper had no idea how to right the capsized vessel, Noelle sighed deeply.

"Need a hand?"

"Ummm, yeah. If you don't mind," a surprisingly husky, feminine voice replied. "I'm not exactly sure how to get this beast out of the water," she said ruefully.

Noelle mumbled to herself, something about "people who don't know how to sail sure as hell shouldn't be on the water alone." She was a bit shocked to find that the other skipper was a woman, not a man as she had first suspected. Hell, she shouldn't be on the water, period!

The woman grinned engagingly at Noelle. "It can't be THAT hard, can it?"

Noelle shook her head again and sighed. "Swim over here and you can get in and wait while I right your boat."

"Well, ummm, you see? I can't, ummmm?" the other woman's husky voice trailed off into silence.

"Fuck," Noelle swore softly. Then louder, "Don't tell me you can't swim." It was a command, not a request.

"Well, okay, I, ummm, won't then," the woman said sheepishly.

"SHIT! What adult living in the damned new millenium doesn't know how to swim?" Noelle ranted.

"Me. And it's not the new millenium yet. If I'm not mistaken, we have a little over 5 months to go before it gets here." The other woman paused. "Now, are you going to help me or not?" she said with a hint of teasing in her voice.

Noelle looked closer at the woman and saw that she wasn't wearing a PFD. She unzipped hers and tossed it to the woman. "Put this on and zip the damned thing up, would you?"

The woman slipped one arm at a time into the jacket, holding on tightly to the boat with the other. When she was finished and zipped, she looked at Noelle. "Now what?"

"Now just kick your feet a bit and you'll get over here quick enough. And don't panic. You'll float just fine."

The woman took a deep breath and let go experimentally, ready to grab hold of the boat again if she started sinking. Noting that she was floating in the water, she kicked her feet slowly, moving towards Noelle.

"HEY! I'm swimming!!" the other woman yelled.

Noelle couldn't help smiling at the other woman's delight. She watched as the woman made her way over to her boat. When she grabbed hold of the side, she saw that the woman was beaming with pride.

"I did it!" she crowed loudly. Then she laughed a deep, throaty laugh that sent shivers down Noelle's spine. "Who would have known?"

Noelle grinned at the woman. "Think you can haul yourself into the boat after your long swim?" she teased.

The woman snorted. "Watch me." With that, she flipped herself very gracefully into the boat. Noelle watched her muscles flex through her wet shirt, the sight causing her breath to stop momentarily. The woman ended up sitting perpendicular to Noelle. "There," she stated, as she started to unzip the PFD.

"Don't. Leave it on. You should have been wearing one in the first damned place." Noelle paused for a moment and just looked at the woman. Then she reached her hand over to the woman. "Noelle."

The woman took her hand and shook it firmly. "Nice to meet you, Noelle. Thanks for coming to my rescue," she said with a grin.

Noelle grinned back at her. "Look, do us both a favor and don't touch a damned thing while I right your boat, okay?"

The woman laughed loudly. "Right. Not touching a thing." She clasped her hands together in her lap and smiled sexily at Noelle.

Noelle wiggled out of her shirt and shorts, left only in her bright green bathing suit, then lowered herself over the side of the boat.

Wow. Nice body. Definitely nice body. Mmmm? The woman gazed appreciatively at Noelle's body as she dropped into the water. She watched as Noelle swam to the other boat with powerful strokes.

When Noelle reached the other boat, she swam to the mast-side of the boat. She detached the mainsail and jib from the mast, letting them float on the water, attached only to the boom and the boat. She then swam around to the backside of the boat, stood on the centerboard and grabbed hold of the coaming. She rocked the boat twice before heaving backward, pulling the boat upright as she slid into the water off the centerboard.

Noelle climbed into the boat, and it wasn't long before she had it bailed and the sails rolled and squared away. She slipped back into the water, grabbed the towline, and pulled the smaller boat to hers. When she arrived, she tied the towline to a small cleat on her boat. Finally, she hauled herself into the bigger boat, sitting by the rudder.

The other woman started to speak, but Noelle held up her hand. "Forget it. I'd never sleep right knowing I left you to your own devices to get back to shore. I'll just tow your boat back to the? marina?" The other woman nodded. "Good. Now just sit back and enjoy the ride. And don't touch ANYTHING!"

The woman grinned. "Nope, not at thing." She sat silently, studying Noelle's movements, watching as she got the boat undersail again. They sailed a downhill run until Noelle got the boat to a good speed. Then she called"Coming about." Looking at her passenger, and seeing that she wasn't ducking, the boom looking to connect solidly with her head, Noelle yelled loudly, "DUCK!" Her passenger ducked just in time to avoid being smashed in the back of the head with the boom.

She looked at Noelle sheepishly. "Sorry."

Noelle just shook her head. "You really don't know a damned thing about sailing, do you?"

"Uh-uh. Not a thing, really."

"Then what would ever possess you-," Noelle interrupted herself. "Forget it. I don't want to know the answer to that one."

The rest of the trip to the marina was done in silence, the other woman watching Noelle's movements as she worked the boat. Finally, they arrived at the marina. Noelle let the mainsheet go, effectively slowing the boat. She raised the centerboard so they could coast all the way to shore. When she felt the rudder kick up and the boat run aground, she looked at her passenger.

Silently she handed her the towline to the smaller boat. The other woman stepped gracefully into the water. She looked at Noelle, and smiled suddenly.

Noelle's breath caught at the blinding smile that the woman tossed casually her way. It was like the sun coming out after a rain shower. Oh wow. That's something, that smile.

"Thank you. Thanks for the tow back here," the other woman said in a low, husky voice.

Noelle studied her for a minute, then she answered, "Take lessons." With that, Noelle hopped out of her boat, turned it around and shoved off, scrambling back into it as the wind caught the sail. As she got underway, she didn't have to look back to know that the woman was staring at her. She just shook her head and concentrated on the task at hand.

The other woman watched Noelle get underway with an economy of motion. Noelle. Noel- SHIT! Noelle WHO? I never asked her last name. Damn it. The woman growled in frustration, turning towards shore.

***** ***** *****

The first in-service day was a perfect summer day. The sun was shining brightly, the sky was blue, and it was warm, but not too warm. It was a beautiful day. Noelle got out of her electric blue Jimmy and gathered her things before closing and locking the door. She headed toward the building at a quick pace, her sneakers making no noise on the pavement.

She walked into the main office, smiling at the stepped-up pace. Student-workers were busy getting opening day packets ready. They had set themselves up in an assembly line, each young person putting papers on the top of the pile as it went past him or her. The last student snapped a rubber-band around the entire stack and tossed it on the ever-growing pile.

Both of the secretaries were on the phone talking to God knows who, answering some inane question coming from some harried parent. Joan Gooding, the head secretary, looked over at Noelle and waved quickly. Noelle grinned and blew a kiss back to her.

"Wow, I've missed this, " Noelle said aloud.

"Talking to yourself again?" a loud voice boomed.

Noelle laughed delightedly. "There's no one better to talk to, Tony. Anyway, it sure beats talking to YOU."

"God, I can't believe your sorry butt is back AGAIN this year," Tony Avedo said as he walked over to greet Noelle. "You mean they didn't want you over at the middle school?"

Noelle shouted with laughter. "Yeah RIGHT! Like they could handle me?"

"Like WE can?" Tony smiled at Noelle. He liked her, appreciated her enthusiasm for the job and her dedication to the students. She was, more or less, a team player, and he needed that. They weren't just employer-employee, they were friends. They had a relaxed, open relationship, and the effortless banter proved that.

"Can I see you in my office for a minute?" Tony asked her.

"Mmm. Yeah, sure."

Tony led Noelle into his office and nodded to a chair. He sighed as he sat down, looking, suddenly, like he had the weight of the world on his shoulders.

Noelle studied him intently. Jesus. He does. He's carrying the world for these kids. Our kids look to him for guidance and protection, whether they realize it or not. Jesus. What responsibility he has. These thoughts ran through Noelle's mind as she sat down in the chair opposite Tony.

Tony looked at Noelle. "We put the SAP team into place."

"Good. We need it desperately."

Knowing that direct was the best approach with Noelle, Tony moved right to the subject. "I want you to head it."

"What?!? Are you nuts?!" Noelle exclaimed.

Tony laughed aloud. "No. At least I don't THINK so." Tony paused, looking at Noelle for a moment. "Look, Noe, the kids trust you. They talk to you. Hell, they listen to you. The team needs that connection; it's probably the most important element." Tony stopped speaking, looking down at the pencil he was twirling in his fingers. When he resumed, his voice was softer, more intense. "I need youon this, Noelle. The kids, the faculty, they listen to you. We need to do this for the kids. And you're the best person for the position."

Noelle looked down at her hands for a bit, deep in thought. Finally she sighed and looked up. "With whom would I be working?"

Tony smiled briefly. "With guidance, 3 other teachers, and me, when I can make the meetings. Oh, and the new dean, as well."

"Tell me this guy is better than Munroe," Noelle said in exasperation.

Tony grinned. "Oh, the new dean is much different than John."

Narrowing her eyes, Noelle said, "He damned well better be."

Tony shook his head and stood up. "I guess that's it. The first meeting of the team will be this afternoon. I'll have some things for you, info and the like."

He escorted Noelle out the door and into the main office. Noelle put her hand on the doorknob, but stopped before leaving. She turned to look at the principal. "You owe me big for this one, Tony. I'll expect an assistant by the first of October for open gym."

"Jeez, you don't ask for much," he said with a smile. "Yeah, yeah. I'll see what I can do. Faculty meeting in 20 minutes in the library. Try not to be late, okay?" Tony finished, referring to Noelle's penchant for tardiness.

"Hey, at least I'll be there," Noelle returned, referring to her much greater penchant for truancy from the meetings. "Will there be food?"

"Of course."

Noelle smiled. "See you in a few, then." With that she left the office.

***** ***** *****

Not long after Noelle left, a tall, dark woman strode into the office. Joan Gooding, the head secretary, looked up at the woman. She hastily got up to help her, suddenly very nervous. If asked, Joan would not have been able to explain exactly why she was nervous, only that the feeling was strong.

The woman was dressed in very dark colors, a navy blue shirt, black pants and black shoes. The thing that made Joan nervous could have been the way the woman walked, the look in her eyes. She looked for all the world like a lioness on the hunt. Watching and waiting. The dark clothes only served to enhance the dangerous aura of the woman.

"Good morning, Ms. Cartwright," Joan said to the woman with a too cheerful smile.

Molly smiled slightly. "And to you. Mr. Avedo, please."

The secretary walked over to Tony's office and poked her head through the doorway. "Ms. Cartwright is here, Tony."

"Oh, good." Tony got up from his chair and walked out into the main office. "Hey, Molly," he greeted the tall woman. "Come on in. We have a few minutes before the faculty meeting. Sit down."

The two sat on opposite sides of the large desk that housed a computer in addition to scores of papers and pens and other office supplies. There was a round table and four chairs used, Molly suspected, for meetings with both parents and admin alike. One wall was completely covered by a bookshelf filled with books and journals of all sorts. Molly picked out the incongruous title of one book placed amid educational psychology and child and adolescent behavior titles. It seemed so out of place that Molly couldn't help but stare at it.

Tony chuckled then commented. "The Tao of Pooh. Strange, I know. But one of my teachers gave it to me, and it's been such a help. I leave it there so I can read it anytime I feel the need to be rejuvenated."

"It's a good one, that's for sure."

"You've read it?" Tony asked in mild surprise.

"Yes I have."

The two fell silent for a moment, then Tony began speaking earnestly to Molly, getting to the subject at hand. "Okay, we've got a new program that we're implementing this year. It's called SAP, or Student Assistance Program. It's a decent program, but it has its weaknesses. We need strong disciplinary back up, or it won't work at all." Tony paused, seeming to wait for a comment from Molly.

Molly looked at him, her brilliant blue eyes maintaining that cool edge. "I believe that's why I'm here."

Tony smiled. "Eyup, sure is. You'll be attending the SAP meetings. The team will be led by Noelle Potter. Noelle is good. Very good, in fact. She loves these kids, and she's a real dynamo." He paused. "And I'm hoping that you and the other members of the team will, well, balance Noelle's enthusiasm."

At the mention of the first name, Molly's heart beat picked up its pace. Could it? No. No way. My luck doesn't run that way. Molly swept the thought out of her head. "Balance? How so?" came her low response.

He hesitated briefly, causing Molly to raise her eyebrow slightly. "I could tell you about her, but it's so much better if you just "experience" Noelle. She's something else," Tony said with a grin.

"I can't wait," Molly's replied drolly.

Tony laughed and then stood up from his chair. "There will be a SAP meeting this afternoon. Right now, however, we've got to move it to the library."

As the two walked out of the office, Tony asked Molly a question, and grinned widely at her answer.

***** ***** *****

Noelle sprinted down the hall, bursting into the library as Tony was talking. "With that taken care of, let's move on to other business." He paused, waiting for Noelle to slow down. "Well, look what the wind blew in," he said sarcastically.

Noelle blushed lightly. "Yeah, well, better late than never. But I'm here, so let's get to the real fun."

Most of the faculty chuckled good-naturedly. Noelle, still smiling, grabbed a can of juice from the refreshment table and found an empty chair in the back.

Tony shook his head. "Okay, then. New business. We've a few new faculty members this year. Let me intro them, and they can tell us about themselves."

Noelle tuned Tony out, not feeling one shred of guilt. I'll meet them later. Noelle looked around the room, seeing who was back, and who was new. Noting a couple of new faces, her gaze settled on a pair of startling blue eyes two tables over from her. The eyes were looking at her, and they were incredible. They were unlike any color that Noelle had ever seen. She stared into them before slowly looking at the body to which they belonged. It was a long, lean body topped by a mane of thick black hair that draped over one shoulder and down the broad back. Wow, Noelle thought before moving onto the rest of the staff.

My God. It IS her. Damn. And I think I was just checked out by our own Ms. Potter, Molly thought in amusement. She had done her own checking out in the time it took Noelle to run into the library and sit down, so she wasn't offended in the least. What Molly saw was definitely easy on the eyes, as easy as it was yesterday at the lake. Short red-gold hair, intelligent green eyes, nice body. Yes. It's her. Hey, she's even got freckles, Molly thought with a wicked smile. A bit short, but nice. Definitely nice.

Molly's attention was drawn back to the principal when he introduced her. Slowly she stood, taking the time to look each person in the eye, as she strode to stand next to Tony.

She paused for a moment. Then she spoke in a strong, clear voice. "This school WILL get better. I know that you've had some problems in past years. But I'm here now. And we'll work together to get this place and the people in it to where they need to be." She looked again at each person, nodded once, then she moved back to her seat.

At the first sound of the low rumble that was Molly Cartwright's voice, an imperceptible shiver coursed through Noelle's body. Holy shit. It can't be. It canNOT be her. No way. Oh shit? she's the new dean? Holy smokes. Out of the frying pan, into the fire, I suppose. Awfully confident, isn't she? Noelle thought, the words racing through her mind. Well, we'll see if you're any better at discipline than you are at sailing, Ms. Cartwright, Noelle thought with a grin of her own.

The meeting continued, and after the intros, Tony described the SAP team and its role and purpose in the high school. "I've already spoken with those individuals that I'd like to be on the team. The meeting is scheduled for this afternoon in the conference room off the office. Anyone have anything else?"

Noelle raised her hand and waited to be acknowledged. "Do we get more time for lunch this year?" she asked with a mischievous grin and a wicked twinkle in her eyes.

"Don't eat so much and you won't need more time, Noelle," someone called.

The group erupted with laughter, and then began to leave when Tony dismissed them.

As the group slowly dispersed, Noelle made her way out of the library and back to her room, not giving the new dean of discipline another thought.

***** ***** *****

Noelle ran down the hall and crashed through the door of the conference room.

"Sorry," she said, just slightly out of breath.

"Potter, do you think you'll ever be on time for anything?" Tony said with a shake of his head as Noelle dropped her clipboard on the table and sat down.

"Let me think." She put her head in her hands for a second. "Ummm? no." She looked at the rest of the team members with a twinkle in her eye.

She's gorgeous, Molly thought. Wonder why I didn't notice that before.

The room was small, just large enough to hold a long table, ten chairs, and a smaller side table. Its one redeeming quality was that it had a window that looked out over the soccer field. Taking in the assembled members, Noelle was suddenly all business. "Okay, then, let's get started. Tony, do you have anything for us?"

Tony stood and handed each person a packet of papers. "Just these. If you'll read this, we can discuss it in-depth tomorrow. They give some background on SAP, and some ideas on how to use it. We'll be tailoring our team to our school, but it gives some good guidelines. Well, I'd love to stay, but right now I have to meet with the social studies department. They've got "issues"," Tony finished, rolling his eyes.

"You mean they're bitching about something."

Tony laughed. "That about sums it up. Just don't let them hear you say that. Well, if that's it, I'll see you tomorrow." And he left the room.

After he left, all eyes turned to Noelle. "Okay. Let's get moving." Noelle picked up the stack of papers Tony put in front of her. "I suppose we should start by reading this."

"Jesus, do we have to?" Mike Nesbitt, one of the science teachers, asked as he absently turned some pages.

Instead of answering, Noelle quickly flipped through the papers. Then she tossed them on the table. She ran her hand through her hair, making it stand on end in some places.

"Let's scrap this garbage. I'd rather we start with some ideas or opinions about last year, and maybe why we need a program like this one." Noelle took the pencil from behind her ear and pulled her clipboard closer."Any thoughts?"

Carl Rahn, one of the school's 3 phys ed teachers, spoke up quietly. "I was really worried at the end of last year. Shit, so much was happening in the rest of the country, and our kids were getting nutty? I was never so glad to see summer vacation as I was last year."

Noelle smiled a bit. "I know, Carl. That last day, I was just relieved that it was over." The group was silent, lost in their own thoughts.

Molly cleared her throat, causing the other team members to look at her. "Sorry to interrupt these internal musings, but I think we have a job to do."

Noelle looked at the new dean intently. "I suppose you're right." She wrote something on her paper. "Let's hear some ideas, then, on the team. First, on whom will we be focusing? A specific group? The general population? The poorer students? Who?"

The meeting continued with the members discussing the various aspects of the purpose of the team. Molly kept quietfor most of the meeting, only occasionally offering a soft suggestion. While she meant them as suggestions, Noelle was taking them as criticisms on the school and how it was run.

Finally, after another perceived insult, Noelle exploded. "You don't know these kids, Ms. Cartwright. You don't know what it's like to live and work with a fear that's inside of you constantly! Is today going to be the day? Will I die today? My God! These kids have to worry about dying, and we want to try to teach them geometry and history? You have NO idea, Ms. Cartwright! And until you do, I'm suggesting that you keep your comments to yourself."

Having said that, Noelle stood, picked up her clipboard, and walked to the door. "Let's take a half hour." Then she left the room, walking quickly to her classroom to drop off her things. She left the room to walk the halls. After setting a rapid pace for herself, she was soon lost in the walking and thinking.

Who does she think she is? Jesus Christ, she's never even worked in a school, has she? What was she thinking? Noelle shook her head at the thoughts. "What in hell are we going to do?" she wondered aloud. She sighed. "What CAN we do?"

"There's plenty we can, and will do, Ms. Potter," a low voice said behind her. Noelle didn't stop walking, but looked over her shoulder at Molly, not saying anything to her.

Molly settled into step beside Noelle, easily matching her longer strides to Noelle's shorter ones. They walked in silence for some time, then Molly spoke up. "I can help if you trust me."

Noelle interrupted her with a snort. "Trust you? Hell, Ms. Cartwright, I don't even know you. Why should I trust you? And why didn't you tell me who you were yesterday?" she asked softly, more to herself than to Molly. "Anyway," she continued louder, "the kids need to trust you, not me. You're here for them, to protect them and help us keep all of them safe. You have to make THEM trust you, Ms. Cartwright. They won't give that trust freely, not at all. You'll have to earn it," Noelle said seriously.

Neither will you give it freely. Why? Molly thought to herself. Then to Noelle she said quietly, "I know that. And that's what I intend to do. I will earn their trust." She paused. "Look, Noelle," Molly said, dropping the formality of last names. "I may not have worked in the education field before, but I know what I'm doing. And I didn't have the opportunity to tell you yesterday who I was."

"Well, we'll see, I suppose." They were back at Noelle's classroom. The two women stopped walking. Before Noelle could go into her room, Molly spoke.

"Will we finish the meeting?"

"Of course. In another 10 or so. I'll be there in a bit." Noelle walked into her room, effectively ending the conversation.

She's not going to make it easy for me, Molly thought as she walked away.

The team finished the meeting later that afternoon as promised. Having made some headway, Noelle was satisfied with how it went. She was the last one to leave the conference room, and she walked slowly to her classroom. When she entered, she yelped in surprise.

"What are you doing here?" she asked her visitor bluntly as she walked over to her desk.

"I wanted to apologize."

***** ***** *****

"For what?" Noelle asked as she began to straighten her desk.

"I shouldn't have said those things back in the meeting. Or at the very least, I should have explained myself better," Molly replied. "I had no bus-"

"Stop." Noelle held up a hand. "Don't go any farther." She paused and looked out the windows. "Look, Ms. Cartwright?"


Noelle continued as if Molly hadn't interrupted her. "These kids, they're important. Hell, they are the reason we're here. Tony, me, the other teachers. We're all here because of them."

Noelle turned to look at Molly, her green eyes boring into Molly's bright blue. "And you. You need to be here for them, as well. You need to know that they are the reason for your job, for my job. For the team." She paused again, looking once more out the window. When she continued it was in a softer, more earnest voice. "We need to help them, Ms. Cartwright. They need us to help them."

Molly studied Noelle as she spoke. She could feel Noelle's intensity, her LOVE for the job. Or maybe it was for the kids.

"You really love your job, don't you?" Molly asked softly.

Noelle looked up, startled by the question. "Ummm, yeah. I do. Very much, in fact."

Wanting to keep the conversation going, Molly leaned back against a desk and asked another question. "Did you always want to be a teacher?"

Noelle smiled softly, looking down at her hands as she spoke. "Kind of, yeah. I've wanted to be at teacher since fourth grade. I wasn't sure what I wanted to teach exactly until high school. Then? well, I knew. That's all." She looked up at Molly, feeling compelled for some reason to trust her enough to ask a question of her own. "What did you do before you were hired here?"

It was Molly's turn to smile, however, hers was neither soft nor did it reach her eyes. "I was a "consultant" for a security firm in Pittsburgh."

"Oh. Why here? Why in education? I mean, you must have taken a serious pay cut. And there's not a whole lot to do around here."

"Would you believe that I'm a boring kind of gal?" Molly asked seriously.

Noelle snorted in a very unladylike manner. "Schyeah, right! Like I'd believe that, " she answered sarcastically. "I imagine you're lots of things, Ms. Cartwright, but boring surely isn't one of them. And neither is a sailor," Noelle teased softly.

The look in Molly's eyes changed suddenly. Quickly, it moved from warm to hot. Amusement to something darker, something deeper. Noelle's mouth went dry, and her heart beat faster at Molly's next words.

In a low, dangerous rumble, she said, "You have no idea?," letting the words hang.

They looked at each other intently for many long moments, the tension building between them. Finally Noelle drew in a deep breath, breaking the contact with Molly. She turned away, shaking her head and mumbling to herself.

Because Molly didn't hear her, she asked Noelle to repeat what she said.

"I said it doesn't fit," Noelle repeated louder.

Molly looked confused. "What doesn't fit? What are you talking about?"

"Your name. It sure as hell doesn't fit." Noelle answered seriously. "I would have thought? Well, never mind."

"No. Tell me. What do you think my name should have been?" Molly prodded.

"Ummm, well? actually I was thinking that Eve or? or Nikita would suit you better, " Noelle said quickly.

Looking closer at Noelle, Molly could see the merriment dancing in her green eyes. She raised an eyebrow and crossed her arms. "Nikita?"

Noelle struggled to hold on to her composure. "Umm, yeah."

The eyebrow raised higher. "As in "La Femme Nikita"?"

The question was asked with such seriousness, such horror that Noelle lost that composure she tried desperately to hold. She began to laugh loudly. And the more she laughed, the higher Molly's eyebrow went, which caused her to laugh harder, which caused the eyebrow to?

"Stop," Noelle gasped. "Oh God?you?have to?stop?" Her hand came up to cover her mouth, trying to hold the laughter inside.

She almost had herself back under control when Molly started to shake with laughter. Again Noelle was overcome, and she laughed until the tears ran freely.

Molly recovered first. She caught her breath and watched Noelle. She's something else?so beautiful. Noelle's eyes were bright with laughter, her short hair was in terrible disarray, and her cheeks were shiny and wet from the laugh-tears. She certainly wasn't looking her best, yet Molly felt drawn to her.

Noelle chose that moment to look up at Molly, only to stop laughing abruptly when she saw the look in her eyes. Her breath-taking blue eyes twinkled with delight. Yet underneath that, Noelle thought she detected something else.

Noelle swallowed. My God. She can't?no, no way. Her tongue darted out to moisten suddenly dry lips. "I, ummm? I need to go now," Noelle said softly, her eyes never leaving Molly's.

When Molly saw Noelle's tongue peek out of that beautiful mouth and lick those full pink lips, a wave of desire shot through her unlike any she'd ever known. She groaned silently, wanting desperately to taste that tongue with her own. The desire to take Noelle into her arms and kiss her was almost overwhelming. Molly clenched her hands into fists to stop herself.

Noelle saw Molly's hands ball into fists, and mistook that for anger. She turned from Molly and began to stuff things hurriedly into her briefcase. She had a sudden desire to get as far away from Molly as she could.

"I?it's late. I need to be somewhere," she mumbled.

Molly stepped closer, into Noelle's space. "You're not afraid of me, are you?" she said in a low, husky voice.

She watched in amazement as Noelle's whole demeanor changed. Gone was the easy camaraderie in which the two women had just spent the last 7 or 8 minutes. It was replaced with an attitude that surprised Molly.

Noelle stepped back. Her eyes sparked with anger, and her voice hardened. "Afraid of you? Are you serious? You have some ego, Ms. Cartwright, some ego. If you're looking to intimidate me, you're barking up the wrong tree. It'll take a whole lot more than you to scare me. Now step off," she snarled.

Not heeding the warning, Molly stepped closer. She spoke, again very softly. "Intimidate you? No." Then she smiled. "Intimidation is definitely not my style. Not at all," she said seductively, her eyes boring into Noelle's angry green ones.

Suddenly Noelle spun around, shouldered her briefcase, and strode angrily out of the classroom. Molly turned to watch her go, noting the tension radiating from the smaller woman.

Shaking her head, Molly slowly followed after her. I think I just experienced Noelle. Oh boy. This is going to be fun, Molly thought with a small smile as she walked slowly down the hall.

***** ***** *****

"Mom!" Noelle called as she stepped into the small 2-bedroom house.

"In here, Noe," a voice called from somewhere in the house.

Knowing right where "here" was, Noelle walked through the living room. She glanced quickly at the room, feeling, once again, its warmth and coziness. It was small, yet it wasn't claustrophobic. There were two large, curtain-covered windows that let in lots of sunlight, giving the room an airy, open feeling. The sofa was small, just large enough for Noelle to lay on without feeling cramped. A pastel colored quilt lined the back of the couch, and a matching lap-quilt hung over the back ofthe recliner. In the corner closest to the door was a big wooden rocker with a thick seat pad. Noelle smiled. That was the best seat in the house.

She continued to the kitchen, finding her mother sitting at the small table with a cup of coffee, a couple of Italian cookies, and a magazine. Noelle sat across from her in the only other chair in the kitchen. She leaned across the table to kiss her mother on the cheek.

"I missed you today, Mary Potter, " she said softly, looking deeply into her mother's dark brown eyes.

"And I missed you, Noelle Potter." Mary smiled gently at the younger woman, this daughter of hers that she loved more than life itself.

They sat in silence for a few minutes, just taking comfort in each other's company. Noelle always felt so much calmer and in control of things when she was with her mother. Not only were the two women family, but they were friends, as well. Noelle loved her more than she loved another person alive. They were always very close, but since the death of her father 2 years ago, the two women were even closer.

Noelle reached across the table and broke off a piece of one of the cookies. She popped it into her mouth and chewed thoughtfully.

Suddenly, Mary laughed. "If you want some, you know where they are, Bratty. Get a cup of coffee and sit down."

Noelle smiled, a twinkle in her eyes. "But yours are so much better, Ma."

"They're the same damned things that are in the package. Now keep those mitts off mine and get your own," Mary said.

Noelle snuck a hand across the table, but just before she reached her goal, her mother's hand swatted hers away. She looked up to see her mother watching her, that "look" in her eyes.

She grinned. "Okay. Jeez, don't get your knickers in a twist, Mare." She got up from the chair and walked over to the counter that held the coffee pot.

Like the living room, the kitchen was cozy. It had just enough room for one or two people to move around without bumping into each other. The table sat under the largest window in the room. It was covered by a sheer yellow curtain. On the small table was a lacy place mat that held a small potted Christmas cactus.

Beside the usual appliances, there was ample cupboard space, and two doors. One door led to the basement, the other to the small, well-kept backyard. Above the sink was a smaller window encased by a smaller, matching curtain.

Noelle poured her coffee, grabbed a few cookies from the package and sat down. She put one of the cookies in front of her mother. "There, Ma. Now quit your bitchin'."

They ate their cookies in silence, then Mary asked, "Okay, what's wrong?"

Noelle sighed. Knowing she couldn't keep anything from her mother, knowing that she didn't WANT to keep anything from her mother, she told her. "Met the new dean today."

"Yeah? And? Is he any better than Munroe?" Mary asked curiously.

"He is a she, and I don't know. What I DO know is that she's damned near impossible. She's got an ego the size of Texas, she thinks she knows how to run a school, and, well?" Noelle trailed off, absently playing with her mug.

"Well what?"

"Nothing," Noelle muttered.

"Don't you nothing me, Noelle Hannah. What? Is she gorgeous? Hideous? What?"

"Oh, Mom. She's got the most incredible blue eyes, she's taller than Dad was, and she's got? What the hell are you laughing at?" she asked in surprise, finally noticing that her mother was chuckling.

Mary continued to chuckle. "You're attracted to her."

"No! I mean?no way?Like hell!" Noelle stopped talking. "Oh shit, Mare. Shit. But she's a pain in my ass! All she did was insult how we do things. And she's never even worked in education before this!"

"Watch your mouth. And so what? What does any of that have to do with anything? If she's attractive, what's wrong with noticing it?" Mary Potter looked closely at her daughter and saw the anxiety and confusion in her lovely green eyes.

Noelle groaned and dropped her head into her hands. Then she sighed and looked up. "It doesn't matter, Ma. She's still a pain in my ass. And she's going to drive me nuts."

"Good. 'Bout time somebody did it to you," Mary replied with a chuckle.

"Real funny, Mare. Laugh it up, toots," Noelle said disgustedly.

Mary Potter took one last sip of her coffee then got up, took both cups to the sink, and walked out of the kitchen.

"Hey! Where ya goin'?" Noelle called after her.


"WooHOOO!! Let's hit the water, babe." Noelle jumped up from the table, ran out of the kitchen, and slapped a kiss on her mother's still-smooth cheek as she ran past her.

Noelle and Mary made the short trip to her house. Mary waited in the Jimmy while Noelle ran inside to get the PFDs and a couple bottles of water. She tossed the jackets and bottles in the backseat then quickly hooked up the trailer to the hitch. She got into the SUV, slipped on her sunglasses and flipped the colorful strap over her head. She turned to look at her mother.

"You ready, Mare?"

Her mother nodded in response and Noelle pulled out of the driveway and headed for the lake.

The scenery on the short trip was beautiful. The sun was high, the sky was full of cumulus, and it was warm. The forest that lined the road was a rich green, the trees regaled in all their summer glory. Noelle could almost smell the beauty of the summer day.

Noelle's favorite part of the forest around her was the deepest, darkest areas, the places that held such mystery and peace. The pine copses that were so dense that no sunlight shone through, no sounds were made. These were the places that brought the most peace. It was soothing, like a blanket wrapped around her, yet at the same time, it was scary.

Noelle's thoughts were brought back to the present as she approached the turn for the boat launch. She made the turn carefully, then stopped to let Mary out of the Jimmy. Mary walked around to the rear driver's side and helped guide Noelle into the launch. She called for Noelle to stop when the wheels of the trailer were deep in the water. Noelle set the parking brake and got out.

She walked back to the rear of the SUV, and tossed the lifejackets on the ground. She and Mary began to unhook the various straps that held the small boat onto the trailer. When that was accomplished, the two women lifted the boat slightly, and, with a warning to watch the rudder from Noelle, gently pushed the boat into the water.

Noelle fastened the secure-line to the cleat next to the launch. Then she hopped into the Jimmy and parked it in a spot not far from the launch. She jogged back over towhere Mary waited and slipped on the jacket. After buckling it, she turned to her mother.

"Make sure you're fastened, Mom." She reached over to double-check the jacket.

Mary slapped her hands away. "Stop your fussing. I believe that I know how to put this on correctly."

Noelle growled in mock severity. "Keep it up, matey, and I'll be keel-haulin' yer sorry carcass," she said in her best salty captain's voice.

"Aye, Cap."

"Shet yer yap an' git goin', sailor." Noelle held the gunnels while Mary got in and took her seat amidships. Noelle unfastened the line from the cleat and quickly scrambled into the boat.

Together she and Mary hauled the main and jib, secured the sheets, and got underway. There was a nice wind, causing the small boat to quickly get to planing speed. Noelle sailed the boat out into the large lake, working the tiller with practiced ease.

Noelle and Mary didn't say much. They didn't have to. They were comfortable enough with each other, as mother and daughter, and as friends, to just enjoy each other's presence.

Noelle looked at the scenery that surrounded the lake. It was situated in the cradle of two mountains. The mountains caused the lake to be cast in shadows for much of the day. The wind blew through the trees, making the leaves rustle and dance. The breeze felt good on her face, and it made the mid-August heat more bearable.

While Noelle studied her surroundings, Mary studied her daughter. Mary loved this young woman more than she had ever loved another soul in her life. Since the death of Joe, she and Noelle became as close as two individuals could be. She accepted Noelle's sexuality, her lifestyle choices, and only prayed that she would find a woman who would make Noelle as happy as Joe had made her.

I wonder what this woman is like. I haven't seen Noelle this out of sorts since, well, since then. Mary ached for her daughter. She knew that Noelle's slightly wild exterior hid a tender, gentle soul, a soul that had been hurt almost irreparably not too long ago. She desperately wanted her daughter to find her soul-mate. She wanted her to be happy, to know that happiness that she had with Joe.

"Hey, Mare?" Noelle interrupted her heartspeak. "You got that water handy?"

Mary handed Noelle one of the bottles and opened her own. After taking a long draw, she trailed her hand in the water, feeling its coolness.

Noelle looked at her mother with such a look of adoration in her eyes that it made her heart swell. Mary worried for her daughter. She worried about the day it would be time to say good-bye. She was so afraid of what it would do to Noelle when the time came to say good-bye for a while. Knowing that having someone there for her would make it easier on Noelle. She blinked back the tears that came unbidden at the thought of her sensitive, wonderful daughter being left alone.

She shook her head slightly. Suddenly, she flicked a handful of water at Noelle, getting her dead on in the face. "Time for you to cool off, hot stuff," she called.

"Wha-! You?you?" Noelle sputtered, wiping the water out of her eyes. When she could see again, she grinned mischievously at her mother. "You are toast. Toast, Mary Potter." What erupted next could only be described as a water battle royale.

By the time they were finished, both women were soaked, and the sun had set behind the mountain to the west of them. They were laughing so hard that both Noelle and her mother were gasping for breath.

"Wow," Mary laughed. "You're such a brat." She tried to wipe the water from her face, but the task was near to impossible since she was already soaked. "I don't suppose that you've got a towel stowed somewhere, do you?"

Noelle laughed harder. "No?oh, Ma?no I don't?"

Mary sniffed. "I don't find it funny. Not at all," she said, turning up her nose at her daughter. Water dripped pitifully off of her face, forming a small puddle around the woman.

Noelle continued to laugh, but only because she saw the twinkle in her mother's eye. Finally she was able to calm herself down enough to man the tiller again.

Still laughing, she warned, "Coming about, Ma. Watch the boom." With that, she turned the tiller, heading back to the launch. The rudder kicked up as they got to shallower water, and she raised the centerboard. Noelle jumped into the thigh-high water. She grabbed hold of the tow line, and pulled the boat over to the side of the launch. After securing the line to the cleat, she scrambled back into the boat to begin lowering and tying off the sails and sheets. Mary picked up the water bottles, and helped coil and stow the lines.

Noelle splashed into the water when they had finished, intent on pushing the boat closer to the launch so that her mother could get out.

"Don't bother," Mary said dryly. "I'm already soaked, so a little more time in the water won't kill me."

Noelle chuckled. "Sorry, Mom."

"Sure you are."

Noelle just smiled and helped her mother into the water. "I'll be right back with the Jimmy." She jogged over to her vehicle and got into the vehicle. With Mary's help, the boat was soon loaded and secured. By the time they were finished, they were dry enough to make the trip home.

"Want to stop and grab something for dinner?" Noelle asked her mother. "We can stop at Marty's for burgers."

Mary nodded her agreement, and they stopped at the roadside burger place. Noelle got out and stood on line to place their orders.

A voice she recognized greeted her when she reached the window.

"Yo, Ms. P! How's it goin'?" A teenager with short curly hair, the beginnings of a mustache, and an engaging grin spoke loudly to Noelle.

"Tom! How are you? Wow, it's good to see you working here."

The boy beamed at the praise. "Thanks. I'm doin' good. I'm trying to save up some money for school shopping and stuff." He shrugged. "You know?"

Knowing exactly what he meant, Noelle made certain she left a tip in the jar by the window for the boy. She sighed as she got into her SUV and handed her mother her order.

Mary unwrapped her burger and took a bite of it. "Why the sigh?" Mary asked her daughter.

"That was Tommy Kline. Remember him? Remember I told you about him and his family?"

Mary thought for a minute. "You mean the boy who had to work before and after school last year to help his family make ends meet?"

"Yeah. I gave him lunch money at least twice a week last year."

"You gave it to him?" Her mother questioned.

"Well, no. Not exactly "gave". I had him work for me during his study hall if he had his assignments done. It seemed to work well." Noelle responded. Then more to herself, "May have to do that again?"

Mary looked at her daughter thoughtfully, seeing the compassion she had for her students. "I'm glad you became a teacher, Noe. You do so much for those kids and for that school. They're lucky to have you."

Noelle shook her head. "No, Mom. I'm lucky to have them. Some days I ask myself what the hell I was thinking going into education. But I love teaching. I love the look on their faces when they get Beowulf or when they understand Shakespeare. I love the hustle and bustle that a school year inevitably brings with it." Noelle paused to take a bite of her cheeseburger. "Yeah, Mare, I like my job," she mumbled with her mouth full.

"Good. And don't talk with your mouth full, Noelle Potter," her mother chastised.

Noelle took another bite. "Yes ma'am."

Mary rolled her eyes and finished her meal.

When they were both finished, Noelle threw the garbage away and they made the rest of the drive to her mother's house. She parked the car and got out to open Mary's door for her. She walked with her up to the front door of the little house.

"Bridge tonight?" she asked her mother.

Mary nodded. "Yes. What are you going to do?"

"Play catch up with my laundry and get some work done for school."

"Good. Have a good night, then."

"You, too, Mare. I love you." Noelle leaned over to kiss her mother good night.

Mary cupped her daughter's face in her hands and looked into her eyes. "It'll be okay. I promise," she whispered.

Noelle's eyes filled with tears suddenly. She nodded slightly. "I know."

Mary placed a tender kiss on the daughter's cheek. Then she patted it. "I love you, too, Noelle. Now go home." With a smile and a wave she disappeared through the door.

Noelle waited until her mother closed the door, then she walked to her Jimmy.

Continued in Part 2.

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