~ 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 2

Noelle arrived at school early on Friday morning. She stopped in the office to sign in and say good morning. As she put a check next to her name, her eyes unconsciously sought out another name near the top of the list.

Figures, she thought. She looks like a morning person.

Noelle picked up her briefcase then walked to her classroom. Once there, she became so intent on getting her desk organized and clutter-free that she didn't hear the footsteps stop outside her door. When she turned around, Noelle jumped when she saw the woman standing in the doorway.

"Jesus!" she exclaimed. "You scared me again." Noelle paused, waiting for Molly to say something. Finally, not able to listen to the silence anymore, she spoke. "Is there something you wanted, Ms. Cartwright?"

Molly shook her head amiably. "I just noticed your door open and light on. I'm heading down to the faculty meeting. Want to walk with me?" she asked pleasantly.

Noelle looked at her closely. What does she want from me? "It's not walking that I want to do with you," she whispered. Then she closed her eyes in embarrassment and groaned silently. Shit. I didn't just say that. I didn't. "Ummmm, no. But thank you," she said louder. "I, uh, need to do a, well, a few things. Thanks."

Molly smiled slightly at Noelle's apparent discomfort. "Okay, I'll see you there then."

Noelle watched as Molly left her classroom. She exhaled quickly in relief. Thank God she didn't hear- Noelle's thoughts were interrupted by Molly's face poking around the door.

"I heard that, Ms. Potter," she said with a wicked grin and a wink. Then she disappeared again, and Noelle heard her whistling as she walked down the hall.

"Jesus," Noelle groaned aloud as she hung her head.

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

After the short faculty meeting, the members of the SAP team met once again to discuss further the needs and problems of the school's student population.

"I thought about this last night," Noelle began. "Let me throw a suggestion on the table, and we'll see if we can't go from there. Okay?"

Waiting for all heads to nod, Noelle's eyes lingered on Molly, her eyes narrowing slightly at Molly's smile. She wants to play games, eh? We'll see who can play what games, Noelle thought wickedly.

Her attention was brought back to the meeting when she felt the silence around her.

"Oh, sorry. I was just thinking," she explained, a blush creeping up her neck.

"About what?" Sandra Relms, the guidance counselor, asked.

Noelle glanced at Molly quickly. "Ummm, nothing interesting. But here's what I was thinking about the team."

Molly raised an eyebrow at Noelle, but she kept silent. I know exactly what you were thinking about, Miss Noelle Potter. These other people might believe your little cover-up. But not me.

She tuned an ear in to what Noelle was saying, even as she studied her face closely. It fascinated her to watch the play of muscles and skin as Noelle talked and smiled and laughed.

"I was thinking sub-committees. I've thought of a couple of different subs that might be beneficial to the students. And to us." Noelle sat down heavily in her chair. "I don't want to forget us. We need… hell, we need something. Someone for us. Someone to whom the faculty and staff can turn for support." She paused for a moment looking at each team member.

Then she continued softly. "It's not easy. We have a tough job." Noelle paused for a minute, searching for the words. "What I'd like everyone here to know, I guess, is that we are here for each other as well as the students. I'd like to set up a time where we can come for some support. What I'm asking is this… Would you agree that we need teacher time? Time for US to be able to vent or talk with a professional?"

"What do you mean, Noelle?" Sandra asked.

Noelle sighed. "It's like this, Sandra. We've a fairly tough job. I don't know about the rest of you, but it's not something that I leave here. Most nights, yeah, it stays. But there are some times when it follows me home, it follows me everywhere." Noelle stopped talking and looked down at the pencil in her hand. A few of the members nodded in agreement.

"I just thought it would be beneficial to us to be able to talk either to each other or to an outside professional if we need to unload."

Sandra looked at Noelle and nodded. "Good idea, Noelle. We have a high-stress job, and it wouldn't be a bad idea to be able to talk with someone when necessary."

"My thoughts exactly. We could just leave it open to anyone who wanted to take advantage of it."

Noelle stopped talking. She sighed deeply before getting back to the sub-committees. "Okay. Then we'll leave that as it is for now. Right now, however, I'd like to discuss sub-committees. I'd like a committee on discipline, one to work with outside services and agencies, and one working directly with the students." Noelle pulled out a paper with the tentative committees, confirming the assignments. She informed the members of the committees that each should begin by choosing a chairperson. "You'll each get a chance to meet in just a bit to begin going over what needs to be done. I will have some info for you to get you all started. Is that okay with everyone?"

Molly waited a moment before asking a question. "I see that Carl Rahn and I are the only ones on the discipline committee. Is that wise? Shouldn't there be at least one other person?"

"You're right. Let's see…" Noelle looked at the assignments, trying to decide who could be moved to the discipline committee.

"Hey, Noe, you're not on any committee. I think you should sit on that one," Sandra suggested.

"Well, no, ummm, I thought that I would just float around to each committee when necessary," Noelle said quickly.

"But I think it's a wonderful idea, Ms. Potter," Molly readily agreed. "You're so good with the students that you're the perfect person to round out the committee."

Noelle felt the heat rise up her neck and to her face. What a bitch. Fine, I'll be on your damned committee. We'll see who gives in first.

"Why yes, Ms. Cartwright, I'd love to be on the committee with you," Noelle said too sweetly.

Sandra watched the exchange curiously. Huh. What's with these two? Sandra knew about Noelle's lifestyle. She and Noelle were good friends, and she had been there for Noelle when she was struggling with her lifestyle choice.

Noelle knew about Sandra, as well. She knew that Sandra had had a woman lover for almost four years before she met her husband and got married. They were close, the two women, and it looked to Sandra like there could possibly be sparks between these two women. She vowed to talk to Noelle, caution her to be careful.

Noelle dismissed everyone into his/her committee with a promise that she would meet with each shortly. The discipline committee remained in the conference room. Once everyone had left, Noelle turned to Molly. "Okay, Ms. Cartwright, it's your show now."

Molly looked at Noelle, gauging the situation. She nodded once, then focused on the task at hand. "Right. Why don't the three of us start by reviewing the student handbook. We should look over all the rules, both school-wide and district-wide. Then we can move on from there."

"Sounds like a plan," Noelle agreed. "We need a handbook then."

Carl spoke up then. "I know where there are a few copies from last year. Let me go get them."

Noelle nodded as Carl got up and left the room. As soon as he left, she felt the tension rise in the small room. She fiddled with her pencil and clipboard, anything to not look at Molly.

Molly's low voice interrupted her fidgeting. "I make you uncomfortable," she said as a statement.

Noelle looked at her sharply. "What the hell makes you say that?"

"You've said maybe 5 civil words to me since you met me."

"Considering, Ms. Cartwright, that we only met yesterday, how can you assume that I've made a decision about you already? Please. Give me some credit," Noelle snapped. "And, unless I'm wrong, I think I said plenty to you at the marina the other day."

The color of Molly's eyes deepened. To what, Noelle couldn't tell. Anger? Disgust? Shit… desire? Oh shit. No way. No way. Shit. What the hell do I do? SHIT! These thoughts raced through Noelle's mind in the second that it took her to blink her eyes. She felt the blush creep up her neck, damning her fair skin. Damn it!

Molly watched the blush redden Noelle's face prettily. God. Those eyes. They're so green, so beautiful. Jesus, she's beautiful. I'd like to kiss every one of those freckles. Wonder if there are freckles anywhere else on her body. Mmmm… I think I'd like to find out.

Noelle tried desperately to stop blushing, knowing that it was an exercise in futility. She knew it was her body's natural reaction to this over-powering woman. But it sure didn't make it any easier to accept. Noelle sighed.

Molly studied Noelle's face, enjoying her discomfort. Then she felt sorry for her. Noelle looked so uncomfortable, so achingly adorable. Jesus, I want her. But I'll wait.

The two woman didn't talk any more while they waited for Carl to return with the handbooks. When he arrived, they spent over an hour reviewing the rules and regulations of the school and the district. They ended the meeting by scheduling another for the end of next week.

Noelle gathered her things and quickly exited the conference room, needing to check on the other committees before she was done for the day. After checking with the newly elected chairs, she strolled slowly back to her classroom. Seems like everyone got a fair amount accomplished. Good. We really need to get going not too long after school starts. Noelle sighed. God, I hope it works.

Once at her classroom, she gathered her things and left the building. Instead of going home, though, she went straight to her mother's.

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

Noelle jogged up the sidewalk to the house. She slipped inside, kicked off her sneakers, and walked into the living room. Mary was sitting in the recliner, watching the Rosie O'Donnell Show. She looked up at Noelle as she walked into the room. Mary smiled softly and muted the TV.

Before Noelle sat in the rocker, she leaned over Mary and gave her a kiss on the cheek. "I missed you, Mare," she whispered.

Mary smiled at their love-game. "I missed you, too," she said in a soft, tired voice.

Noelle crouched down next to the recliner, looking closely at her mother. Although Mary's eyes were bright, there was a hint of fatigue in them that worried Noelle.

"Hey, Mare. You okay? What's wrong?" Noelle said with concern.

Mary nodded. "I'm fine. Just a little tired, that's all."

"You're not doing too much, are you?"

"No. The only thing I did today was two loads of laundry. I'd hardly consider that too much."

"Those stairs, though…" Mary's washer and dryer were in the basement. Knowing that the stairs were becoming harder and harder for her mother to navigate, Noelle thought for a moment about how she could help.

"Okay. How 'bout this? Tomorrow we go to Sears and get a portable washer and dryer. They'll deliver it and I'll set them up in the bathroom or kitchen or wherever."

"Now, wait-," Mary protested, but was interrupted by Noelle.

She shook her head. "No. I won't have you killing yourself over some damned dirty clothes when the solution is so simple." Noelle paused. "Argue all you want, Ma, but damn it, I'm doing it whether you come or not." Noelle stood and went to sit in the rocker. She began to rock gently, the back and forth motion of the rocker soothing her.

Mary studied her daughter as she watched the muted TV. Seeing the stubborn set of her jaw, Mary knew it was useless to argue when Noelle's mind was set. And it certainly seemed set at that moment. So she nodded in agreement. "Okay. But I'll pay."


Mary chuckled and shook her head. "Fine. I give up." With that she turned up the volume on the TV.

They continued to sit in silence, watching TV, until Noelle's stomach growled noisily. She clasped her hands over the offending part dramatically, the rocking becoming more frantic.

"Ye gads! I'm starving… wasting away to nothing! Help, Ma!"

Mary laughed loudly and shook her head. "You and that stomach. You're fine. Think you can wait until I fix something?" she asked as she slowly got up out of the recliner. She headed to the kitchen, intent on fixing something for dinner.

Noelle's words stopped her. "Nu-uh. Let's go to Tarred for dinner."

Mary hesitated. "Nah. It'll be quicker if I just fix something here."

"My treat," Noelle said with an engaging grin. "Come on, Ma. We'll eat, have a few drinks, and I'll have you home by 9:00. What do you say?"

Mary sighed. "Okay. You talked me into it. Let me go change my shirt first."

"You look fine. But I'll wait." As Mary walked to her bedroom, Noelle called, "Don't think I'm changing. I'm not. I like what I'm wearing just fine, thank you."

Mary turned to look at her daughter. Noelle looked the picture of summer. Her short hair was sun-bleached a very light strawberry blonde. Her face was deeply tanned, making the freckles stand out against the darker skin. The contrasting colors of her tan and her hair made her eyes look greener and even lovelier. Right then, they sparkled with mischief. Noelle wore cut-offs and a white tank top that had a touch of lace at the low neckline. She was fit and slim, and, to Mary's eyes, very beautiful.

Mary smiled gently. "You're right. You look fine. I'll be just a second, Noe."

"Well, hurry! I'm starving."

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

It wasn't long before mother and daughter were walking into Tarred and Feathered, a bar on the other side of town. As they walked into the main room of the bar, Noelle shook her head in amusement at the décor of the bar.

It was a typical rural bar. There were several trophy bucks mounted on the walls. There was a full-mount bobcat over the fireplace, it's green glass eyes staring spookily out at the room. There were even stuffed game birds caught in mid-flight on shelves in the corners of the room. It was dark, loud, and smoky in the bar, the TV turned to the Pirates game, the jukebox blaring loudly, and a dozen or so people laughing and chatting about the day's events.

Just past the bar was the dining room. Fortunately, it had a much nicer atmosphere than the bar. The lighting was brighter, but not so much that it dispelled the feeling of intimacy that the cozy room gave. It was a non-smoking room, so the air was much clearer, as well. No dead animals with beady eyes stared at the diners. Overall, it was rather pleasant. Noelle much preferred this room to the bar.

She and Mary sat at a small booth in the far corner. The waitress came over to hand them each a menu and take their drink order.

"What would you ladies like to drink tonight?" she asked pleasantly.

Noelle looked at her mother. "Go 'head, Ma. You order first."

"I believe I'll have a glass of white wine."

After jotting down Mary's drink order, the waitress turned to Noelle, firing a 1,000-watt smile at her. "And for you?"

"Gin and club soda, please. Would you toss in a slice of lemon, too?"

The waitress nodded once, then smiled again, her eyes lingering on Noelle before leaving to fill their order. Mary shook her head and chuckled softly.

"What are you laughing at, Mary Potter?" Noelle asked her mother.

Mary shook her head again. "That woman practically fell at your feet, and you never even noticed. You're kind of clueless, Noelle."

Noelle laughed, then she and Mary looked at their menus, but it was only a short time later before Noelle snapped it shut. "I know what I'm having."

"What's that, sweetie?" Mary asked absently.

Noelle smiled. "The big old steak. Potato, veggie, salad, the whole thing. Yumm. What about you?"

Mary studied the menu a moment longer, then she, too, closed hers. "The stuffed chicken breast."

"Good." Noelle looked pleased. "I'm glad you're eating."

"Hell, you're buying, right?" She waited for Noelle to nod. "Then I might even order dessert."

Noelle laughed in delight just as the waitress brought their drinks to them. She smiled at the two laughing women. "Wow. What did I miss?" she asked with a sexy little smile.

Noelle pointed at her mother. "She's funny."

The waitress nodded. "Oh. Well, you ladies ready to order?"

Noelle nodded at her mother to order first while she took a sip of her drink.

The waitress wrote down Mary's order then turned to Noelle again. "You ready?" she purred to her.

Mary coughed abruptly and covered her mouth with her hand, her eyes twinkling mischievously.

Noelle looked quickly at her mother and raised her eyebrow. Then she placed her order and the waitress took their menus, her hand deliberately brushing Noelle's. She winked at Noelle before taking their order to the kitchen.

Noelle and Mary chatted amiably until their salads arrived. Then all conversation was put aside as they attacked them with gusto. They finished their salads just as the waitress brought the steaming main course to the table.

After the waitress left with their empty salad bowls, the women ate their meal slowly, chatting about trivial things. Noticing, finally, Mary kept looking past Noelle towards the bar, Noelle asked in exasperation, "What the hell are you looking at, Ma?"

Mary looked at her daughter and swallowed her food before speaking. She nodded towards the bar. "There's a woman who keeps glancing our way. I believe she's checking you out."

"Checking me out? Gee, it sounds kind of high school-y, Mare," Noelle said with a grin. "Anyway, all she can see is the back of my head."

Mary laughed. "You damn well know what I mean, Noelle Potter." They continued to eat and laugh until Mary stopped talking and looked past Noelle again. "Don't look now, but here she comes."

Noelle paused briefly in her chewing, staring at Mary. "Damn," she whispered. She watched her mother watch the other woman's progress. She felt the woman stop next to her, but she didn't look up at her.

"Noelle." That voice was unmistakable to Noelle. She was almost ready for the shivers that shot through every nerve in her body. She closed her eyes quickly and groaned silently. Then she opened them and looked up at the other woman. Does she have to be so damned tall? Jesus. Like that's fair?

"Molly. Hello."

At the mention of the other woman's name, Mary's outlook on the situation took on a whole new perspective. So, this must be her. Mary studied Molly closely, seeing a tall, dark, very attractive woman. Mary understood now how Noelle could be attracted to this woman. But there was something about her that made Mary uneasy. The kind of feeling that a person got when she knew there was something to be wary of, but not afraid of.

Her attention came back to the conversation between the two younger women when she heard her name mentioned.

"Mom, this is Molly Cartwright, our new dean of students. Molly, my mother, Mary Potter."

Mary reached up to shake Molly's hand. "It's a pleasure, Molly. Noelle has told me so much about you."

Molly grinned warmly as she clasped Mary's hand with both of hers. "Has she?" She glanced at Noelle just in time to see Noelle grimace at her mother. Both older women laughed.

Mary, still chuckling, replied, "No. It's just the customary thing to say at this point." Both women laughed again.

"Mmhm. I know what you mean, Mrs. Potter," Molly said in amusement.

Mary looked up at Molly, suddenly serious. "Forgive me. Forgive US," she said pointedly, sparing a glance at Noelle. "Won't you join us for dessert?"

Noelle groaned silently again, shifting umcomfortably, praying that Molly would decline. Please say no. Please say no. Please say n-

"Yes. Thank you, Mrs. Potter. I'd like that." Molly pulled out the chair and sat down. Noelle just sighed.

"Please call me Mary."

I swear to God, I'd kill you if I didn't love you so much, Mary Potter, Noelle thought. She sat in silence, listening half-heartedly to the other women.

It wasn't long before the waitress came to clear their plates for them. She returned to take their dessert order, her attention once again focused on Noelle after giving Molly only a passing glance. As the waitress openly flirted with her, and she flirted back, Noelle snuck a peak at Molly.

Although Molly still chatted with her mother, she was no longer as relaxed as she was when she first sat down. Noelle noted that her back was stiff and her jaw clenched. She smiled and laughed with Mary, but it was a bit more forced than it was earlier. Pity she's not flirting with YOU, Molly. I bet that really pisses you off, huh? HA. Too damned bad.

Suddenly, Noelle found herself looking into brilliant blue eyes that sparked with… What? What is that in her eyes? What the hell is she thinking? Noelle swallowed involuntarily as she looked into Molly's eyes.

Her eyes widened as she watched Molly deliberately scoot her chair closer to hers, causing their knees to touch. A bolt of lightening raced through her at the soft touch of Molly's knee against her leg. She closed her eyes for an instant, her breath coming quicker. She took in a few quick breaths before opening her eyes again. She avoided looking at Molly, instead focusing on her cheesecake which had conveniently been placed in front of her.

When she did catch Molly's eyes it was with confusion. What do you want from me? What is it that you're looking for with this game? I don't understand you, Molly Cartwright. Not at all.

Molly continued to chat with Mary, never letting up on the pressure of her knee against Noelle's. She noticed with much amusement that Noelle was just pushing her dessert around on the plate. Apparently, Mary noticed as well.

"What's the matter, Noe? Why aren't you eating that? That's not like you at all."

"It's nothing, Ma. Just not very hungry anymore, I guess," she answered softly. Noelle's eyes strayed to Molly.

Molly looked intently at Noelle, forgetting for a moment that they weren't alone at the table. Sure you're not, she thought wickedly. You have no idea what to do about this, do you? You haven't got the first clue. And you can bet I'll enjoy helping you get it.

Mary gazed speculatively at the two younger, silent women. She saw how Molly looked at Noelle, and how she behaved when the waitress was flirting with her daughter. It was possessive, territorial almost. Much like Joe used to look at me, I would imagine. Her heart ached for her daughter, knowing the road for these two wouldn't be smooth. She offered a silent prayer that, should a relationship develop between them, they give it a chance.

Deciding that it was time to give Noelle some relief, Mary pushed her plate away with a sigh and picked up her coffee cup. "That was delicious, and it hit the spot."

Noelle pushed her plate away as well, having barely touched her dessert. "Mmmm."

Molly finished hers in another bite. Looking at Noelle mischievously, she stacked her plate on top of Noelle's. She smirked and raised her eyebrow when she saw the blush creep up Noelle's neck. She winked sexily at Noelle before she turned her attention back to Mary.

After Molly had looked away, Noelle put her plate back on top. Like she'd be on top for long. Whatever, she thought sarcastically.

Mary watched the antics of the women. Then suddenly she burst out laughing. Noelle and Molly looked at her sharply, both wondering what she was laughing at. They looked at each other, maintaining the eye contact for a long minute. The burning blue of Molly's eyes caused Noelle to look away to her mother.

Mary continued to laugh, neither of the other women knowing why.

"Come on, Noelle. Let's go home," she said, still chuckling.

Noelle caught the waitress' eye, silently asking for the bill.

She brought it over to the table, asking her customers if they had had enough. "Will that be all for you ladies tonight?" Her gaze once again lingered on Noelle, her brown eyes sparkling with desire.

Molly stood, moving around the waitress to pull out Mary's chair. Then she moved to Noelle's, pulling hers out, her hand resting possessively on the small of Noelle's back as she answered. "Yes. That is quite enough," she said deceptively softly.

A new understanding came to the waitress, causing her to take a small step back and grin in good humor at Molly. She handed her the bill. "Right. Well then, I hope everything was good. Please come back soon, okay?" Then she walked away.

Under her hand, Molly felt Noelle stiffen at the small exchange between her and the waitress. She didn't look at Molly, but she stuck her hand out for the bill.

"No. I'll take care of it," she said softly.

At that, Noelle whipped around to face her. "What?" she hissed. "Give me the bill now, Molly."

Molly just smiled and strode to the cash register at the bar to settle the bill.

"Jesus Christ," Noelle whispered angrily.

She didn't feel her mother step closer until she spoke softly in her ear. "It's best to just let it go, Noe, honey. Just let her do it."

Through clenched teeth, Noelle retorted, "Like hell I will." Then she, too, strode to the bar. When she arrived at Molly's side, Molly simply took her hand and held it firmly.

"Give me the goddamned bill, Molly."

"Going to cause a scene over a small thing like this, Noelle?" she asked without looking at her.

Noelle heard the humor in Molly's voice. She clenched her teeth again. "Fine. Thank you then." With that, she smoothly removed her hand from Molly's and walked out of the bar, leaving her mother to follow.

Mary waited for Molly to walk over to her. "You really ticked her off, Molly. You know that, right?"

Molly grinned wickedly. "Yup. And I can't wait to see what she does now."

Mary laughed loudly, patting Molly's arm. "She's not going to let it go easily."

"I'm counting on it."

Still laughing, the two women walked out of the bar. Noelle was leaning against the brick, waiting for her mother.

"Come on, Mare. It's late. Let's go home." She straightened from the wall. She looked expectantly at Mary, hoping she would get the hint to move it along faster.

Mary turned to Molly. "Thank you for your wonderful company inside. I hope we see you again, Molly." She patted Molly's shoulder and stood on her toes to plant a quick kiss on her cheek. Then she turned to Noelle. "Okay, let's go, sweetheart."

Not saying one word to Molly, Noelle took her mother's hand and the walked the short distance to the Jimmy.

Molly watched until Noelle pulled from the curb and drove away.

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

The drive to Mary's was silent, the soft music of the radio the only sound in the SUV. When they arrived at the little house, Noelle turned off the engine and got out of the vehicle. She walked around to open the door for her mother. Together they walked to the front door.

After unlocking it, Mary turned to her daughter. "Don't be angry," she said softly.

Noelle sighed. "I'm not angry at you, Mom." Noelle paused in thought. "She's just, well… hell, Mom. She makes me crazy. And I've only talked with her a total of, maybe, 3 hours, counting tonight." Noelle shook her head. "I don't know what she wants. I don't know what to do."

"One day at a time, okay? Just take it one day at a time." Then Mary reached up to kiss Noelle's cheek. "I love you, Noelle Hannah Potter."

"And I love you, Mary Estelle Potter." She hugged her mother tightly, then stepped back. "I'll see you tomorrow early, Mare. Now get some sleep. You look tired again."

"Mmhm. Hey, let's go sailing after, okay?"

"Heck yeah, Mare. You bet we will. I'll pack a lunch, and we'll sail someplace quiet. How's that?"

"Sounds good. See you tomorrow, honey." Mary stepped inside. But before she closed the door, she spoke quickly. "She's attracted to you, too."

"Like HELL she is!" Noelle heard her mother laugh as she closed and locked the door.

She shook her head as she walked down the sidewalk.

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

Noelle arrived at her mother's early the next morning. They hustled it to the Sears store about twenty minutes away. Once there, the two women quickly made their purchase, securing a delivery time for the new washer and dryer.

It wasn't long before Noelle and Mary were underway, stopping at Noelle's house only long enough for Noelle to hitch the trailer and put the cooler and PFDs in the Jimmy.

They drove to the launch, finding the lot almost completely full. Noelle didn't have to wait, though, to back into the water. Working as a team once again, Noelle and Mary got the boat into the water and tied to the cleat. Noelle slogged out of the water and unloaded the cooler and jackets from the SUV. She drove the vehicle and trailer to a spot at the far end of the lot. After parking and locking the vehicle, she put the long keychain over her head. Then she started jogging back to Mary.

As she got closer, she noticed that Mary was talking with another person. Who the hell is she talking to no- Shit! No way! Noelle stopped jogging and just stared at the two women for a minute. You have to be kidding me! Why today? Why ME? Jesus. Mary, I swear to God, if you invite her I AM going to kill you. Noelle shook her head and jogged the short distance to where Mary stood talking with Molly Cartwright.

When she reached Mary, she gave Molly a quick glance and curt nod before turning her attention to her mother. "Okay, Mare. Let's load up and suit up. We've got a date with a little peace and quiet, and I don't want to be late, lady."

Noelle picked up one of the PFDs and tossed it to Mary. Then she bent to pick up the heavy cooler but was stopped by Mary's words. "Wait a minute, Noe."

Noelle looked at her mother, waiting for her to continue.

"Molly here was going to rent one of the smaller boats over at the beach-"

"What?!" Noelle interrupted incredulously. She looked over at the tall, silent woman. "Are you KIDDING? You are, aren't you? Like HELL you're renting a boat… at least not while I'M on the same damned lake!"

Mary looked slightly confused at the short tirade. "Ummm, well, that's exactly what I was telling her. No sense renting one when we've plenty of room. She assured me she would be fine-"

Noelle interrupted her mother again, this time with a snort and derisive laugh. "Yeah right, Ma. Remember about 2 weeks ago I told you about the accident I almost had with the skipper who didn't even-"

"Know how to swim," Mary finished as realization dawned.

"Mmhm," Noelle said as she pointed to Molly.

Molly, for her part, just grinned widely at Mary. Then she shrugged, "Okay, so it was a bit of an, ummm, EMBELLISHMENT."

Mary laughed in delight. "You're too much, Molly. You'll definitely come with us then." She looked at Noelle. "Do you have that spare jacket with you?"

Noelle looked perplexed. "Well, ummm… no… I mean… we don't… ah hell," Noelle groaned. Then she sighed, in defeat it sounded like to Molly. "Yes, I do."

Mary nodded. "Good, then it's settled." Mary put her PFD on and zipped it up as Noelle threw the other one at Molly.

"Put the damned thing on and ZIP IT UP," Noelle barked. She bent to pick up the cooler, but found Molly there taking one side.

"Let me help," she said softly, looking into Noelle's bright green eyes.

Without a word, she and Molly picked up the cooler together and walked out into the water. They placed it in the bow of the boat and Noelle secured it in its spot with the bungee cords that attached to the coaming and deck. Noelle reached into the small storage area for the spare jacket. Then the two women walked out of the water.

Noelle turned her back on Molly while she zipped her jacket. She turned just in time to see Molly put the jacket on inside out, the zipper facing inside. She rolled her eyes and shook her head. Then she took the three steps it required to stand in front of Molly.

"Take the damned thing off," she ordered softly.

Molly raised her eyebrow at Noelle. "What? No FOREPLAY? Don't you think this is rather… sudden?" she whispered sexily for Noelle only.

"In your dreams, Cartwright, in your dreams," Noelle retorted just as quietly. "Just turn around."

"Uh-uh. In my dreams, I take YOURS off," Molly said under her breath as she turned her back to Noelle.

Noelle reached up to help Molly put the jacket on correctly, her hands brushing Molly's shoulders as she held the jacket for her to shrug into. A blaze of fire shot through her when she made contact with Molly's shoulders. She gasped softly at the sensation, causing a blush to cover her face. God, please get me through this day, she pleaded silently.

It was a good thing that Molly's back was turned because she closed her eyes as the fire spread through her as well. Her body thrilled at the touch of Noelle's small hands on her shoulder. Oh God, this is going to be so good, so hot when it happens.

Noelle slapped her on the back of the lifejacket. "There. Now just zip it up. ALL the way, Molly," she said with a warning glance.

"I don't know any other way, Noelle," Molly growled playfully, doing as Noelle bid.

Noelle rolled her eyes, then waded into the water to pull the boat closer to shore.

After zipping up the jacket, Molly stood ankle-deep in the water, watching as Noelle held the boat steady for her mother to climb in and get seated. She smiled when Noelle turned to look at her.

"You coming?" Noelle asked.

Molly splashed over to her, and before getting in, leaned over and whispered in her ear, "Not yet. But soon."

The combination of the words and the hot breath on her ear and neck caused Noelle to shiver. Another bolt of desire shot through every nerve ending in her body, centering between her legs with an insistent pulsing. Ohhh, she moaned to herself closing her eyes for a second. Damn it. I walked right into that one. Need to be more careful, obviously.

Mary watched as Molly leaned over to whisper in her daughter's ear. When she saw the blush spread quickly up her neck and onto her face, she grinned broadly, having an idea what Molly's response was. Poor Noelle. She doesn't know what hit her. But that's good. Molly will be good for her, if only she lets her. Mary shook her head.

She turned her attention to Molly as she tumbled into the boat, surprisingly graceful. Molly landed right next to her, then straightened up, looking at her expectantly.

"No, Molly," she said gently. "Sit opposite me, okay?" At Molly's questioning gaze, she expanded, "Balances the boat better… so we can go faster?" She saw the smile break out on Molly's face. Wow. She's certainly something to look at. No wonder she flusters Noelle like she does.

Molly scooted around to face Mary, their knees almost touching, their feet scattered pell-mell on the deck. They both looked over at Noelle as she shoved the boat hard a couple of times further from the launch. She silently handed Mary the mainsheet and pushed the boat faster until she was chest-deep in the water.

A good wind was blowing, fortunately, and it wasn't long before the luffing in the main sail stopped. The boat began to move slowly as the wind gradually filled the sail. Noelle kicked up into the boat, settling herself next to the tiller. She took the mainsheet from Mary, and looked hard at Molly. "Listen. When I call "Coming about", or any variation thereof, get your damned head out of the way because the boom," she pointed to the apparatus in question, "will swing around and knock you on your ass."

"I already am. On my ass I mean," Molly said good-naturedly with a twinkle in her brilliant blue eyes.

"Ha. Ha. You know what I mean. One second you'll be sitting right there, enjoying the scenery, and the next your ass'll be floating in the water with a goose-egg the size of a grapefruit on the back of your head," Noelle explained as if she was talking to a child. A very young child.

Molly grinned engagingly. Then she saluted smartly. "Yes sir."

Noelle shook her head. "No no no. Aye. The proper term on a ship is AYE. And you call me skipper or captain. Or you would on a bigger boat. Here just plain old Noelle will work fine."

"Aye, plain old Noelle," Molly said simply.

Noelle growled. "Shut up, would you? Let's just enjoy the water, okay?"

The three women enjoyed their time on the water. The sun was warm on their faces, the spray from the water cooled them, and they enjoyed each other's company. For the most part. Noelle took her time getting them to their lunch destination, taking a roundabout way. They just cruised around the lake a bit, not hurrying anywhere, the day completely theirs.

She looked fondly at her mother, who appeared to be dozing as they sailed. God, I love you, Mary Potter. Mary was her closest friend, and her favorite person. She would do anything to make Mary's life easier. She was the only family Noelle had left, and she planned on holding tightly to her. Many young women her age didn't have very good relationships with their mothers. But, of all the people Noelle knew, Mary is the one that she liked to be with the most. She could honestly say that Mary was her best friend. The thought of a companion her own age never crossed her mind. Outside of school, her life was Mary. And since her father died, they'd become even closer.

Molly caught the look in Noelle's eyes as she gazed at her mother. Noelle adores her mother, she thought in wonder. Molly found herself wondering for the first time in a long time what it would have been like had her own mother not died when she was so young. She gave a mental shrug. No matter. It wouldn't change anything.

Noelle's stomach just started to grumble noisily when Mary asked, "You must be hungry by now, Noe. Let's find a quiet place to eat and rest for a bit."

Noelle nodded, then she trimmed the sail and pulled the tiller back towards herself. "Coming about," she called. She watched in amusement as Molly made herself as short as possible, dropping face down on the deck, the boom still passing dangerously close over her head. "Nice job," she said to herself with a small smile.

Molly looked at her and grinned. "I heard that. And thank you. I think I'm getting the hang of this sailing thing."

Noelle raised an eyebrow. "Don't get too cocky, Molly. You'll get wacked one of these times. Not paying attention and POW! you're treading water," Noelle warned with a grin.

"I'll keep that in mind, Skip."

"-Er. SkippER."

"Mmhm. That's what I said."

Noelle just rolled her eyes and looked at the shoreline. "There. I see a spot over there." She trimmed the sail again and steered the boat as close to the shore as she could get. Before running aground, she pulled up the rudder. When she felt the centerboard kick up, she let the mainsheet out completely, thus stopping the boat. "Okay, it's lunch time, ladies," she said with a smile.

"Wonderful. I'm starving," Mary replied.

"Oh. You're not sleeping. I thought you were."

"No, but I will be after I eat. Tell me that you brought a sheet or blanket to lay on."

"Duh. Yeah, Ma. Of course I did. It's a wonderful day for taking a bitty nap in the shade. I can feel it now. Ahhh," she teased.

Mary laughed. "Uh-huh. I bet."

The three women slid into the water, Noelle and Molly once again sharing the weight of the cooler. Once the blanket was spread on the grass under a big pine tree, the women dug into the contents of the cooler. Feasting on tuna sandwiches, hard-boiled eggs, coleslaw, and chips, the only noise was the sounds that nature presented to them.

Noelle took one last swallow of her water. "Ahhh, that hit the spot," Noelle said contentedly. "Mmmm. I'm full. What do you say we just relax and let this digest a bit before we head out? How's that?"

Both older women agreed readily, and after cleaning up from lunch, Mary and the younger women lay on the large blanket. Mary closed her eyes and sighed in contentment. She enjoyed this part of their days sailing best.

It wasn't long, however, before Noelle was getting up quietly. She crouched down next to Mary and whispered in her ear, "I'm going for a walk, Mare. I won't be gone long."

"Mmhm. Just don't go too far, okay?"

Noelle smiled and kissed her mother tenderly on the cheek. Then she stood and strode into the forest.

Molly rolled over onto her belly and watched as Noelle disappeared into the woods.

"I bet she wouldn't mind some company," Mary said, knowing it was an outright lie. She turned her head to look mischievously at Molly. "Go on." Then she grinned.

Molly laughed softly. "You're not at all a good liar, Mary Potter. But I WILL go see if she would mind some silent company."

"Just don't get lost finding her. She's hard to find, but when you do, she's worth it."

Molly nodded, understanding that Mary wasn't only talking about right then. She got gracefully to her feet and silently followed the same path that Noelle had just taken.

Molly walked in silence for a short time, enjoying the quiet and solitude of the forest. She looked up at the blue of the sky that peeked through the dense treetops of the pine bosk. She stopped, closed her eyes, and took in a deep breath, smelling the pitchy-pine scent the forest gave. When she opened her eyes, the sight before her made her breath catch in her chest.

Noelle was sitting in a small clearing in the sunlight. There were wild daisies all around her, the white of their petals contrasting sharply with the deep green of the grass. Dragonflies were buzzing and butterflies flitting all around the tiny clearing. The sun shone brightly, again contrasting with the mysterious darkness of the surrounding forest. Pollen floated lazily in the air, creating a hazy look over the whole scene.

Noelle sat cross-legged in silence, playing absently with the daisy in her hands. She stared off to the side with that "thinking" look people get when they're not really in the present.

The sun seemed to take aim directly at Noelle. To Molly's eyes, the sight was almost ethereal in its beauty. The sunlight in Noelle's hair caused a halo effect around her head. Her hair was so light, not much darker than the daisies that sprinkled the clearing. She had removed her shirt and shoes, clad only in a bright white bathing suit and green shorts. My God, Molly thought in awe. She belongs here.

Molly just stood there, soaking in the beauty of the scene before her. She was afraid to breathe lest she disturb the scene in some way. She watched as Noelle absently braided a daisy chain. She waited, hoping that Noelle would put it in her hair. But Noelle just fingered the wreath, not really doing anything with it.

Molly let out a breath, not realizing until that moment that she'd actually been holding it. She stepped silently into the clearing, not wanting to startle Noelle. She walked the half dozen steps to stand in front of Noelle, who's head was bowed, studying the wreath.

Noelle saw the shoes, knowing exactly to whom they belonged. Slowly she looked up at the dark woman who towered over her. She smiled softly, not saying a word. She watched as Molly dropped to her knees in front of her.

Molly reached for the daisy chain, taking it gently form Noelle's hands. She leaned in slightly, placing it on Noelle's head. One hand dropped down to rest on her own thigh, but the other trailed down Noelle's hair to cup her cheek. Molly's thumb stroked Noelle's lips gently, feeling the heat of her breath.

Noelle closed her eyes and her lips parted slightly.

Oh God. Molly groaned audibly and slowly leaned in to touch her lips to Noelle's in the softest of kisses.

At the first touch of Molly's lips on hers, Noelle gasped softly at the feelings. Her gasp was swallowed by Molly's mouth. Her heart began to beat harder in her chest, her breathing became faster. She leaned in closer to Molly, making the contact between their lips more firm.

Molly used her tongue to taste Noelle's lips, wanting more. Needing more.

When Molly's tongue touched her lips, Noelle gasped and pulled away in confusion.

"Oh God," she whispered. "Oh God. I, ummm… need to… umm, get back…" Noelle got to her feet slowly. She slipped her shoes on, picked up her shirt and walked back towards her mother and the lake.

Molly stayed kneeling in the clearing, her breathing ragged. Her head hung low on her chest, thoughts racing through her mind. Jesus. How could one kiss, ONE kiss, do that to me? Jesus Christ. She sets me on fire. Her body…

Molly shook her head, trying to clear the fog that seemed to settle over her brain.

Finally, when her breathing was back to normal, she stood and headed back to the lake. And Noelle. Noelle.

When she arrived at their picnic spot, she saw Noelle and Mary folding the blanket in silence. Mary glanced over at her with a questioning look on her face.

Molly just shook her head, looking away quickly. She walked over to the packed cooler and carried it to the boat alone. She walked out of the water and picked up her PFD. After putting it on and zipping it, she waited patiently for Noelle to issue the order.

"I think we can go now," Noelle said quietly. She, too, had put on her lifejacket. She took one last quick look around for garbage, and then she splashed through the water to where the boat was moored to a large, partially-submerged branch. She pulled the boat closer to shore for Mary.

Mary climbed in, followed by Molly. Once again Noelle pushed the boat out until she was chest deep and the wind filled the sail. She clambered into the boat as it began to move. Noelle set a broad reach tack for the launch. The breeze was strong and it carried them quickly back to where they started.

It didn't take the three women long to unload and secure the boat to the launch cleat. Noelle got out of the water, took off her jacket, and told Mary that she'd go get the Jimmy. She set out across the parking lot at a slow jog.

Mary and Molly both took off their PFDs, and, having that accomplished, Mary turned to Molly.

"What happened?" she asked softly with real concern.

Molly shook her head, still watching Noelle's jogging form. "I don't know, Mary. I… well, I, ummm, kissed her."

"Wooo," Mary responded softly. "She didn't slap you or anything, did she?"

Molly chuckled then grew serious again. "No. I… I think she liked it. I did. Oh God, I did. And I think she did, too, Mary, but then she walked away," she said softly.

Mary considered the information for a minute. "No. Ran scared is more like it." Mary paused. Then she continued in a softer voice. "She was hurt almost beyond repair not too long ago. She's afraid of you, afraid of the attraction she feels for you." At the look on Molly's face, she said, "And yes, she's attracted to you."

"But how… how do you know?" Molly asked in bewilderment.

Mary smiled a gently, knowing smile. "She's my daughter, Molly. I know. Mothers can sense these things sometimes."

Molly shook her head again.

Mary looked at Molly speculatively. "Do you have dinner plans for tonight?"

Molly looked at the older woman quickly. "No. Why?"

"The new washer and dryer were delivered today. Noelle says she can move them alone. I say she needs help. She's going to hurt herself trying to move those damned things. So, what if you come over to help, and I feed you dinner as payment?" Mary paused. "It wouldn't take up your entire evening," she added with a grin.

Molly considered the proposal for a moment. "Won't Noelle be upset if I show up to help her? I don't want to upset her more than I already have."

Mary shook her head. "Don't worry. She'll be fine. She's not upset with you, she's upset with herself." Mary smiled warmly. "Now what would you like to eat?"

Molly chuckled and shook her head. "Italian. I like Italian food. And lots of it," she conceded in defeat.

The older woman laughed in delight. "Good. So does Noelle. How about ziti and a small salad?"

"Sounds good," Molly agreed with a smile. Then she grew serious. "As long as you're sure she won't be angry."

The look on Mary's face softened, and her eyes shone with love for her daughter. She reached up to caress Molly's cheek gently. "Just go slow, and don't give up if you're meaning to try, okay?" she asked softly.

Molly just nodded, not saying a word, trusting the other woman's wisdom.

Turning to see Noelle approach with the Jimmy, Mary quickly gave her companion directions to her house. "Come by around 4:30."

"Mmhm. I'll be there," Molly said softly.

They waited in silence until Noelle arrived and backed the trailer into the water. She hopped out of the vehicle and walked into the water after telling Mary that she didn't need to help.

Molly helped Noelle load the boat onto the trailer, neither woman saying anything to the other. After they bumped into each other half a dozen times, Noelle finally told Molly to get out of the way so she could secure the boat to the trailer.

Noelle pulled the trailer out of the water and parked the Jimmy in the shade. She got out and walked over to where her mother stood with Molly. She looked at Mary expectantly. "You ready, Mare? We've got a washer and dryer to move."

Mary nodded. "Mmhm." Then she turned to Molly. "Thank you, Molly, for coming with us today. I hope that you enjoyed yourself. Sailing can be a wonderful way to spend a day."

The mischievous look resurfaced in Molly's eyes. "And HOW! I had a terrific time. Thank you for inviting me, Mary." Then she turned to look at Noelle. "And thank you, Skip, for letting me ride in your boat," she said with a grin. "It was fun. More fun than when I do it alone," she said suggestively.

Inspite of herself, Noelle had to chuckle at Molly's last statement. "Yes, it's definitely better when you know what you're doing, that's for sure."

Molly's eyes blazed with desire. In a much lower, more seductive voice, she said, "Teach me to sail, and I'll teach you what you want to know. It can be mutually beneficial."

The tone of the words, and the words themselves, caused that ever-present arousal to flare up once again. Noelle swallowed nervously. She couldn't tear her eyes from Molly's, yet she wondered if she could handle the flame.

"I, uh… we need to go." She turned and walked to the Jimmy, leaving Mary to follow.

It wasn't long before the Jimmy, carrying two women and towing a sailboat, left the boat launch.

Continued in Part 3.

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