Part 19—Merry Christmas

"Thank you, God, for Christmas vacation," Noelle muttered after she dismissed her last class on the Friday before Christmas. "What a joke today was. Jeez." She grabbed her bag, stuffed a couple things in it that she might want over vacation, then exited her room, shutting the lights off on her way out.

The English teacher walked through the nearly-deserted hall on her way to the faculty room, intent on grabbing her coat and leaving. And I’m not looking back until next Wednesday!

It had been tough those first couple of days back after Mary’s death. There were times, things students said or did, that Noelle still wanted to call Mary and share them with her. And sometimes the looks, the sympathy that she saw on their faces and heard in their voices made her want to scream at them to just stop.

But it had gotten easier. And now she had a week and a half that she didn’t need to worry about grades, correcting papers, dealing with students… it would be a week with the most important person in her life. The thought brought a smile to her face. A whole week and change with Molly. I wonder if she’ll be able to stand it?

Noelle laughed out loud, her pace through the halls picking up until her pleated wool skirt was billowing out behind her.

The blond thought about the plans they had made the previous evening. That afternoon, they were going to get a tree for Molly’s house. They had decided that they would spend Christmas there. The memories were still too raw, the grief still too close to the surface, for Noelle to have Christmas at her house. So Noelle was taking Molly to dinner first and then to a Christmas tree farm on the outskirts of town where they could select, and cut, their own tree.

The two women weren’t meeting until late afternoon, both having things to do before dinner. Noelle had to finish shopping for Molly. She wanted to pick up a few more things for the stocking she had bought for the tall woman. She was also perplexed about what to get Molly, the "big" present. She had ordered something from a marine catalog, but it didn’t seem enough. And she had gotten her a pair of real winter boots, but she wanted something special, something that meant more than just a pair of boots or PFD.

Noelle dropped her bag on the floor by the coat-rack, slipping into her parka as thoughts raced through her head. What would she like? I don’t… hell, I don’t know what she likes. I think I need to spend more time getting to know Molly Cartwright. Does she draw? No, I don’t think so. Knit? HA! Yeah right. Boy, you know, sometimes I could smack her. You think she’d have left me a Christmas list or something. Jeez!!

The small woman shook her head as she stuffed her hands into her mittens and shouldered her bag once again. She stopped in the office on her way out of the building to wish Tony and the office staff happy holidays.

"We missed you at the party last night, Noelle," Tony said with a warm smile for his English teacher. The principal was truly glad to see Noelle back in the saddle.

He’d known she would bounce back quickly. She was a trooper, and he both admired and respected her for it.

Noelle smiled sadly and shrugged. "I just… I didn’t…" She paused, not able to finish as her throat clogged from the memories and sadness.

Tony laid a big hand on her shoulder affectionately. "It’s okay, Noelle," he replied softly. "It’s okay." Then the man straightened and folded his arms across his barrel chest. "Now go on home and try to relax this week, Ms. Potter," he ended with a smile.

Although tempted to salute the man, Noelle just grinned instead. "Aye, Captain!" Then she turned on her heel and marched out of the office with a final wave.

On the short, cold walk to the Jimmy, the blonde wondered briefly where Molly was. Probably took a half day and went… shopping! Which leads me right back to the dilemma of what the hell to get Molly Cartwright… She sighed dramatically; then the woman deliberately cleared her mind of all thoughts of Christmas shopping. But the non-Christmas-shopping thoughts led her to think of the night they spent together right after the first ball game.

Noelle smiled at the playfulness of that ni- "That’s it!" she screeched, spinning tires out of the parking lot, kicking up gravel and snow as she went. Just as Roger Whittaker, singing "Ding Dong Merrily on High", came blasting through the radio in the SUV, the idea for the best Christmas present ever in the history of the world was born.

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

"I, uh, need a little time, Noelle," Molly hedged into the phone later that evening. "Or, well… I suppose it can wait. Okay, be here in 10 and we’ll go eat and get the tree."

Molly smiled at the comment that came from the other end of the line. She nodded, even though Noelle couldn’t see her. "Sounds good to me. See you in a few." After the tall woman hung up the phone she just stood there, lost once again in the wave of motion and movement that was Noelle Potter. She’s back, Molly thought with a grin.

Then a tiny noise from behind her galvanized Molly into action. "Shoot! Gotta hide it. But where? Damn! Damn! Damn!" Molly scooped up the tiny noisemaker and put it gingerly into its box. Then she hustled the box to her room before coming back into the living room to gather up the other presents and accoutrements of wrapping Christmas gifts.

Molly had just finished tying her boots when Noelle burst through the door in a whirl of snow and icy cold air, slamming it behind her.

"Hi! I’m here," the smaller woman said breathlessly.

Molly laughed delightedly and slipped into her parka. "Hi, yourself," she answered.

Noelle stood in front of the tall woman, rather expectantly, her mittened hands clapping absently. "Mmhm."

"What?" Molly asked in confusion, the zipper of her coat up only halfway.

"Where is my kiss?" Noelle asked imperiously, her hands on her hips and the toe of her boot tapping impatiently.

"Oh, is that what you’re waiting for?" Molly teased, even as she took the woman of her heart into her arms. She placed a gentle kiss on the soft lips waiting for hers, but as she pulled away, a small hand in her hair stopped her.

Noelle deepened the kiss, her tongue softly, lazily tracing Molly’s lips until they opened for her. After a quick taste of the tall woman, Noelle sighed and stepped back. "Thank you. I needed that." Then she slugged Molly playfully on the shoulder. "Let’s go. I’m starved!"

Molly laughed again, shoving the other woman toward the door. "Get going then."

"Hang on. I have to use the little girls’ room." Noelle turned from the front door.

"Well, go then." But when Molly saw Noelle head toward the bedroom, she yelled for her to stop. "Wait! You can’t go in there! Umm… use the other one." Molly had moved between Noelle and the closed bedroom door. She pointed to the other bathroom. "That one."

"Yeah, I know the other one," Noelle answered, green eyes narrowed suspiciously. "Why can’t I go in there?" she asked, nodding her head toward the door.

"Because… it’s… it’s, umm… the toilet overflowed."

"Eww. That’s gross!" was Noelle’s disgusted reply, her face screwed up in distaste.

Molly just shrugged, Heh heh. I knew that one would stop her, then folded her arms across her chest, her legs splayed, eyebrow cocked. She looked ready to do battle; the only thing missing was a sword and scabbard.

"Well aren’t you going to… un-clog it or something?" Noelle asked gingerly.

"Uh-uh. I’m hungry. Now hurry up."

The blonde threw her hands up in the air in defeat. "Fine, fine. I don’t have to come home to it." She stomped to the bathroom, but just as she was about to close the door, Noelle looked back at Molly and stuck her tongue out.

Molly shook her head and finished zipping her coat. When Noelle came out of the bathroom, the tall woman grinned at her and asked, "Ready to get that tree?"

"Please," Noelle said haughtily as she strode past the waiting woman, "dinner first."

Molly laughed and shoved the shorter woman out the door and into the wintery evening.

"Damned well better stop shoving people, Cartwright, or I’m not buying you dinner," Noelle muttered, her breath making frosty swirls in the cold air.

It was a perfect winter dusk; the sun was just setting behind the mountains to the west, its light casting a faint reddish-yellow glow on the pure white snow. The shadows were growing, yet they were soothing, wrapping the two women in their dark warmth.

Off to the north, dark gray clouds, heavy with snow, were lumbering slowly toward them. They held the promise of a snowy weekend.

"Think we’ll have a white Christmas?" Molly asked quietly, the slow, soft feeling of the evening seeping through her thoughts and words.

Noelle turned shining green eyes to her companion. She nodded then answered, "Yeah, I do. It’s not quite Christmas without fresh, clean snow. I know it’ll snow."

She said it with such certainty that Molly prayed silently that it would snow for her. She didn’t want Noelle to be disappointed, she didn’t want anything to spoil their first Christmas together… and her first Christmas without Mary. Molly wanted to make it as perfect for her as she possibly could.

She grinned at the thought of the present in her room. I hope that does it.

"Just what’re you laughing at, Cartwright?"

The question shook Molly out of her thoughts. She looked down at the other woman and was just about to reply when a glob of wet snow hit her square in the face. She sputtered and spit and wiped it from her eyes before she glared with mock severity at the culprit.

"I’ll get you, my pretty, and your little dog, too," Molly cackled, causing Noelle to burst into laughter.

"Come on, you freak, let’s go eat."

The two women climbed into the Jimmy; Noelle would drive them because she knew where the tree farm was and it was just easier to drive than direct. Dinner was a quick affair, both women wanting to get to the tree farm before the imminent storm hit.

When they pulled into the parking lot of the farm, there were only a half dozen other vehicles there; all except one were pickup trucks. There were a number of people milling around the trees close to the wooden stand.

Noelle looked at Molly when she heard the other woman snort. "Don’t start," she warned. "It’s Redneck Country out here. Get used to it." The harshness of the words was tempered by the smile on Noelle’s lips and the sparkle in her green eyes.

They started through the snow-covered lot to the makeshift stand. After taking the ax from the attendant, neither woman spoke as they walked through the stand of pine trees, their steps not making a sound in the snow.

"Ooooh, this one's nice," Noelle said, stopping in front of a 6.5' Douglas fir. "Isn't it beautiful?" But when she turned to get the answer, Molly was nowhere in sight.

The blonde stepped around the full tree to find the tall woman critically studying a very obvious bare spot in the otherwise full tree.

Noelle heaved a big, dramatic sigh. "You know, it always happens… you find one you like then WHAM! Something's wrong with it. This sucks. Man…" Noelle moved on, fully expecting Molly to follow, grumbling as she went.

Molly shook her head. She's so much… fun, the dark woman thought with a grin, automatically following her smaller companion.

"Hey!" she called, stopping next to a tall, thin tree. "What about this one?" She waited until Noelle came back to stand next to her. "You like this one?"

"No." And with that, Noelle continued deeper into the stand.

Molly easily caught up with her, her long legs moving quickly. "What the hell was wrong with that one?" she asked.

"Too thin."

"It was not," was the indignant reply.

"Yup, sure was. I want a great big fat one," Noelle answered, rubbing her mittened hands together. "I'll know when I see it."

Forty minutes, and six arguments later, Noelle and Molly stood in front of a 7' blue spruce. They were alone now, the other tree hunters having made their selections and gone to the warmth of their homes.

"It's perfect," Noelle breathed. She stared up at it, her eyes big and shining, a smile on her lips. "It's perfect."

Molly looked down at her. "You sure?"

Noelle walked slowly around the tree, twice moving branches aside to check for fullness. When she completed the circle, she walked around it again. Then she dropped to her stomach on the snowy ground, craning her neck around to check the underbelly of the tree.

When she got to her feet, Noelle brushed the snow from her pants. "Yep, that's the one."

"Okay. Stand back so I can cut it down," Molly instructed.

Noelle looked at her askance. "Do you even know how to use that thing?" she asked.

The tall woman snorted derisively. "Of course I know how to use it. I spent summers on my grandparents' farm when I was a kid. Now step back."

Her grandparents' farm? I didn't know that? Hell, I don't know a lot of stuff about Molly Cartwright. The sentiment was repeated from the one earlier that afternoon. How totally not fair of me. She knows so much about me, yet I know next to nothing about her. High time I do some Molly investigating…

The musing was interrupted when Molly stepped into Noelle's line of vision. She watched as the bigger woman raised the axe and prepared to swing. Noelle's eyes swung to the tree that she had deemed perfect.

She watched in horror as Molly started to swing the axe, the action in slow motion.

"Wait!" she screamed. "Stop! Don't do it!"

In utter surprise, Molly dropped the tool in mid-swing. "Good grief! What the hell is wrong?" she asked, panic close to the surface.

"Well… nothing, really."

Molly looked at her in part annoyance, part humor. "Then why'd you scream at me to stop?"

"Well… you can't kill the poor thing, that's why," Noelle answered matter-of-factly.

The part annoyance, part humor changed to complete confusion. "Huh?" Molly looked at Noelle, looked at the tree in question, then looked back at Noelle, her brilliant blue eyes clouded with the confusion. "But… you picked… why can't I?" she finished lamely, her words dying in her throat.

Noelle cocked her head and put her hands on her hips. "Because it's perfect, that's why. You can't kill it. I mean, look at it," Noelle gestured with a hand toward the tree. "How high does the blue spruce grow? If you cut it down, you'll never know." Noelle sang the words to the Disney song at the top of her voice, throwing her hands out for emphasis.

"Yikes!" Molly covered her ears with her hands, her face a maze of pain and misery. "Stop singing," she begged, her voice nothing more than a whimper. "Please stop singing."

Noelle harrumphed, but she stopped singing. "It's not that bad," she muttered. "Anyway, you can't cut it down. Leave it."

Arms crossed over a coated chest. "Leave it," Molly repeated, almost as if she hadn't heard the blonde correctly.

"Exactly. It's perfect. We have to leave it. You can't just kill the thing." Noelle paused to look once again at the tree. "It's too pretty," she whispered, her voice holding a hint of… reverence.

Molly reached a hand out to briefly stroke the red-gold hair. "Okay, Noe," she said softly. "We'll leave it." She picked up the axe and tugged on Noelle's hand. "Come on. We'll find another."

They started to walk away from the tree, but Noelle stopped. She looked up at Molly. "What if someone else cuts it down?"

The tall woman thought for a moment. "I got it. Come on." Without explaining, Molly led Noelle back to the wooden stand where they first picked up the axe. She stopped in front of the woman behind the counter. "Excuse me," she began, the tone of her voice no-nonsense. "I would like to pay for my tree."

The young woman looked around, then back at Molly. "You want to tell me where it is?"

Molly nodded toward the stand of trees. "In there where I left it."

"Excuse me?" she asked. "It’s still in the lot?"

The dark head nodded. "Yes."

"Is it chopped?"


The woman rested her elbows on the counter and leaned toward Molly conversationally. "So you want to tell me why you want to pay for a tree you don’t have?"

Molly was tempted to hurdle the rough wooden divider and strangle the woman. Instead she took a deep, cleansing breath. "Because I want to, that’s why."

"That’s kind of silly, wouldn’t you think?" the other woman countered.

With that last statement, Molly reached the end of her patience. "Listen…" she growled, waiting for the woman to supply her name. When no name was forthcoming, she asked, "Your name?"

"Oh. I was listening. And it's Helen."

"Listen, Helen," Molly started again through gritted teeth. "I just want to pay for my tree and go home."

"But if you don’t have it, why waste the money?" the woman asked reasonably.

Just then, Noelle stepped in front of Molly. "Hi… Helen, is it?" Noelle nodded when the other woman did. "Good. Noelle," she introduced herself, offering her mittened hand. After shaking hands, Noelle continued. "See, we found the most perfect tree in the whole state of Pennsylvania, but when she started to cut it down, I just couldn’t bear to see it slaughtered right before my eyes. It’s just perfect; I mean, why cut it down, why kill it, for nothing? I mean, it’s for, what? A week or two of me looking at it. But it’s dead. If we leave it here, we can come back anytime we want and watch it grow."

Noelle looked at Helen, but when she saw her just staring at her, blinking in stunned silence, she thought for sure she had to continue convincing the woman. "Have you ever seen those poor trees at the curbs after Christmas? It’s the saddest thing you’ve ever, ever seen in your whole life. They just sit there, all naked and bare, used up and cast aside like yesterday’s… well, Christmas tree, for heaven’s sake! A strand or two of silver tinsel just hanging from the lifeless, balding limbs of that once proud and glorious tree."

Noelle drew in a deep, noisy breath and was about to continue when a hand smacked over her mouth.

"Thank you, Charlie Brown," a deep voice commented, a hint of laughter in the words. Pleading blue eyes turned to Helen. "Please, Heartless… I mean Helen, could you spare that poor, defenseless, innocent tree’s life?"

"Dear God," Helen uttered in shock. "Go. Just go… please."

Noelle pushed Molly’s hand from her mouth. "But my tree! Please, save my-"

"It’s saved. I swear to God no one will cut that tree down."

"A stay of execution! Praise Jesus and the saints above!" Noelle cried, a fist shaking in the air.

"Hallelujah!" Molly interjected.

"Bring my brown pants!"

Both Molly and Helen turned stunned eyes to Noelle, who just shrugged innocently. "It sounded good?" And with that, Noelle turned and walked off toward the Jimmy.

There was a moment of silence… perhaps for the tree that was just spared. Or perhaps because of the drama that had just played out before their very eyes.

"What just happened?" Helen asked incredulously, her eyes never leaving the retreating figure.

"Don’t worry, she won’t come back," Molly reassured the poor woman, patting her hand comfortingly.

Instead of answering her, Helen just held out her hand for the money, which Molly gladly handed over.

"Thank you ever so much, Helen. It was a pleasure doing business with you this fine evening."

"Yeah. Likewise, I’m sure," Helen answered, completely unconvincingly.

It wasn’t long before Molly was climbing into the SUV next to Noelle.

Big green eyes turned toward her, then both women burst into unrestrained laughter.

"That was great!" Noelle exclaimed.

Molly could only nod, laughter barring any words she may have said.

Noelle pulled out of the parking lot, still laughing about the "Tree Affair".

"Hey, wait a minute!" Noelle erupted, slamming on the breaks causing the Jimmy to fishtail slightly on the slick road. She pulled to the shoulder and swiveled to look at her passenger. "How the hell is Helen going to know which tree we just rallied around and saved? Did you tell her which tree?" she asked, glaring accusingly at Molly.

Molly laughed harder. "I… I doubt she’ll let… anyone cut another tree… there… after that!"

"Not funny, Cartwright." Noelle put the Jimmy in park, then spilled out, opening the back door.

Molly turned in time to see Noelle rummaging through her bag, coming up with a piece of paper and a black marker. She watched as Noelle scribbled something on the paper in bold letters.

When she finished, Noelle scrambled quickly back behind the wheel and cut a brody, heading back toward the lot. Not bothering to stop the engine, the blonde Abe Lincoln reached for the paper and jumped out. She marched toward the trees, striding purposefully past Helen, not looking her way at all, but showing her the sign.

Molly started laughing again when she saw the look of horror and fright on Helen’s face. She rolled down her window. "Whoops! I guess I was wrong," she yelled to her.

Helen just buried her face in her hands, shaking her head in disbelief.

"What’d it say, anyway?" Molly yelled conversationally. "What’s that? I can’t hear you."

Helen lifted her head. "Emancipated this day, 22 December, in the year of our Lord, 2000. Amen."

"Hot damn."

Noelle strode back through the parking lot, resumed her position, and pulled onto the highway once again.


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

Still chuckling when Noelle parked in the driveway at her house, Molly turned to the smaller woman. The smile softened, and love, desire, and friendship shone from the warm eyes. "I think you're wonderful," she said gently.

Green eyes lowered self-consciously. "No I'm not."

Molly reached out a hand and tilted the heart-shaped face up to her and looked into her eyes, studying the beautiful face for a moment. "You are wonderful. So enchanting…"

"But, I'm no-"

A finger against her lips silenced her. "Tell me thank you," came the soft command.

"Thank you," Noelle breathed, her heart in her eyes.

Molly leaned in and kissed the lips waiting for hers. When she broke the contact, a smile graced her lips. "You're welcome. Now let's go inside; it's freaking cold out here." Blue eyes turned to look at the snow that had started falling on their drive home. "We made it home just in time," she said softly. Then she opened her door and got out, waiting for Noelle to join her.

The two women went inside, the warmth of Molly's house surrounding them and warding off the chill from the night air. After taking off their outerwear, Molly asked Noelle if she was hungry.

"Got any popcorn? That's what I want," came the reply as Noelle followed the tall woman into the kitchen.

Molly rummaged through the cupboard, then pulled out a pack of microwaveable popcorn with a triumphant "Ah HA!".

"Oh good. How 'bout you pop that while I go see if there's a Christmas special on? It's not quite 8:00 yet, so there should be." Noelle lolled against the island, waiting for Molly's response.

"Yeah. This'll only take a second, then I'll be right in."

"'Kay." Noelle left the kitchen and moved into the living room. She curled up in her usual corner of the couch, picked up the remote and turned on the TV.

"Hurry up!" she called. "Nestor is on! Oh, you're here," Noelle finished, spotting the dark woman in the doorway of the room. She smiled and patted the cushion next to her. "Come on, it's just starting now."

After settling herself and covering them with the quilt, Molly asked, "Nestor? I know Rudolph. I know Frosty. I know the Grinch. But I don't think I've ever heard of Nestor."

"He's the long-eared Christmas donkey. It's the best Christmas story out there." The blonde paused, her hands playing absently with a loose string on the quilt. "But it's kind of… sad, too. Sometimes makes me… well, whatever."

"Please tell me, Noe," Molly coaxed.

Noelle kept her eyes fixed on her feet. "Nestor is a little donkey with great long ears, and all the animals make fun of him. Except his mama. They… he's never given food because he's… he's never picked to work. One night Nestor's thrown out of the barn and… and his mama follows him. She… she dies in a snow storm… protecting…him."

Molly listened as Noelle told the story of the little donkey in a halting whisper. She could hear the poignant sadness in her voice, see it plainly on her face.

"We don't have to watch it, Noe," she offered. "There's always next year."

There was silence for a moment before Noelle looked up at the tall woman next to her. "It's okay," she answered softly. "It's my favorite Christmas show. I'd like… I'd like to watch it with you."

Molly smiled. "And I'd love to watch it with you, Noelle Potter."

The two women turned back to the TV, neither one saying anything more. It was halfway through the show, after the baby donkey had just lost his mama, when Molly felt Noelle start to tremble; she heard the obvious sound of someone trying not to cry.

Without a word, Molly simply slipped an arm around the slender shoulders and pulled the blonde closer to her, letting her love comfort the grieving woman.

At the commercial, tear-filled green eyes turned up to gentle blue ones. "I miss Mary," Noelle whispered.

Molly nodded. "I know, love. I know. But she's watching you, she knows you miss her."

Again there was silence. "Can we… tomorrow can we go to the cemetery?"

The tall woman smiled and leaned to kiss the top of the tousled head. "You bet. I, umm… I took the liberty of ordering a grave blanket, a Christmas one, for her headstone. I was going to put it on tomorrow. I'd like for you to be there with me, Noe."

Amazement flooded the green eyes. "You did that for my mom?"

"She was my friend, Noe." Molly thought about Mary, felt Mary, for just a moment. "No, she was more than a friend."

Slim arms wrapped around Molly. "I want to go with you, Molly. Please."

"Only if you think you're ready. Let's not push it, okay?"

The blonde head nodded then snuggled into Molly's chest. "I like you, Molly Cartwright," was the softly spoken admission.

At those 5 words, a feeling so intense, so wonderful, so… big, filled the Molly's chest, causing her heart to swell almost painfully. Sometimes it seemed like the love she felt for Noelle would burst out of her chest and soar to the heavens, taking her heart with it. But it was a good feeling. As frightening as it was, as overwhelming as it felt at times, it was still one of the greatest feelings in the world.

Molly knew then, without any doubt, that she'd fight Satan and all the demons of hell for this woman, that she'd give her life for this one small woman. Noelle meant the world to her… Noelle was her world. But instead of being afraid of those feelings, instead of wanting to hide from them, Molly embraced them, let them comfort and sustain her.

She was brought out of her musings by a small sigh from the woman next to her. She squeezed Noelle a little closer to her, then kissed the top of the tousled blonde head.

Sad green eyes turned once again to Molly. "Can I stay tonight?" Noelle asked, her voice still not more than a whisper.

The dark head nodded. "Of course."

Noelle snuggled closer to the big body, relaxing into the warmth of the other woman. There was silence, then, the only sound coming from the TV. Eyes were on the TV, but thoughts were elsewhere, with the woman both Noelle and Molly missed terribly.

It was close to midnight when Molly felt Noelle finally start to nod off in sleep. I need to get her to be- Damn! Have to move the present first.

Dark brows furrowed in concentration, the dark woman trying to decide what to do with Noelle's present. "Ah! That's where I'll put it." Molly shimmied out from next to the small woman, lying her softly on the couch so she wouldn't wake. After kissing her lips softly, Molly strode purposefully to the bedroom, looking around for the present.

"There you are," she said, her voice warm and gentle. She moved the box that held the present into the bathroom, promising herself it wouldn't be for long, just that one night, and took care of the other things the present required.

When the room was tidied and the bedclothes straightened, Molly went to wake Noelle.

"Come on, Noe, let's go to bed. I want to hold you tonight," she crooned as she stroked the soft cheek.

Unfocused green eyes opened and looked around slowly before settling on the woman kneeling next to her. "Hi," she said, a small smile gracing her lips.

Molly smiled back. "Come on," she urged again, "let's get in bed where it's more comfortable."

The two women slept deeply through the night, their bodies intertwined even in sleep.

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

Noelle woke the next morning with the distinct feeling that someone was staring at her… and she knew just who was doing the staring.

"Why're you staring at me?" she groused, not bothering to open her eyes.

"Because I think you're beautiful," a familiar deep voice replied.

"Am not, so stop," was Noelle's reply. She rolled toward Molly, burrowing her head in the ample chest next to her. "Mmm," she hummed.

Big hands tangled in blonde hair. "What?"

"I like the way you smell… all warm and sleepy," Noelle mumbled into Molly's chest. Her hands wandered over the warm skin, pausing momentarily at a few choice locations. "Mmm," she continued to hum. Hands cupped firm breasts, feeling the weight of them. Thumbs caressed hardening nipples, causing the tall woman to draw in a deep breath.

"Don't start something you don't plan on finishing," Molly muttered, her blue eyes closing in ecstasy.

Noelle looked up at her, grinning wickedly. "Oh, I plan on finishing, all right."

It was much later in the morning when the women finally decided to get out of bed. Molly was up first, pulling on sweatpants and a plain white t-shirt, when Noelle rolled out of bed.

She slipped on Molly's much too large robe and looked at the closed bathroom door. "Is it safe?" she asked.

"Is what sa- Oh, uh, no. I didn't get around to fixing the toilet yet," Molly answered with a shrug.

Although her actions were nonchalant, Noelle could see the slight panic in the blue eyes. "Fine, I'll use the other one. But fix the damned thing, for pete's sake!" she yelled good-naturedly as she flounced out of the bedroom.

Molly quickly checked on the present she had hidden in the bathroom the night before. Seeing that it was just fine, she shut the door again and headed to the kitchen.

After a quick meal and shower, in which more playing than washing was done, Molly and Noelle bundled in their outerwear and headed to the cemetery. Molly noticed that the closer they got to the small church graveyard where Mary was buried, the quieter Noelle got. And it didn't escape her notice that Noelle chose to stay in the Rover when they stopped first at the nursery to pick up the large grave blanket.

They sat in silence when Molly stopped the SUV on the little paved road that ran through the small cemetery. Noelle looked out over the graveyard, taking in the small details.

There was a blanket of new snow, the storm from the previous night dropping another several inches on top of the old snow. The sky was a deep grey, the lighter grey clouds hovering close to earth as if they were too heavy with snow to lift any higher. Noelle understood; her heart was as heavy with sorrow as the clouds were with snow. There was a ring of leafless, skeletal trees towering over the stones that marked the graves, their darkness in sharp contrast to the snow. The asphalt road sliced through the white field like a deep, dark scar, a profanity marring the field, and the sight of it made Noelle's throat clench painfully.

The last thing, and perhaps the hardest to see, were the headstones that marked the graves of the deceased. Some, even from a distance, looked abandoned, and the small woman had to close her eyes against the thought of Mary ever being left alone. I won't ever abandon you, I promise.

The grayish brown of the markers, the ones that weren't covered by the snow, stuck out like horrible blemishes on the wintery perfection of the field. Although close together, each stone looked forlorn and lost, silent sentinels keeping watch over the graves they protected.

"It's so sad," Noelle whispered brokenly. When she felt a hand cover hers comfortingly, Noelle turned to Molly, not looking at her but rather at their joined hands. "I… I'll wait here."

Again not answering verbally, Molly leaned over and kissed the warm, pink cheek. She got out of the Rover, and, getting the blanket from the back seat, made the short walk through the field to the double grave. She set the blanket on the snow and brushed the headstone clean, taking a second to just look at the names. Mary and Joseph Potter, together in life… and in death.

Noelle watched Molly taking care of the grave. Then something compelled her to join the woman. When she got out of the SUV, the woman took care not to let the door slam, not wanting to disturb the silence. Yet it wasn't silent in the small clearing. The wind whistled eerily through the trees, the sound sending a shiver skittering down Noelle's back. There was a high pitched squeak when some branch rubbed against another. Together, the sounds made the cemetery seem… desolate.

Shaking off the feeling, Noelle walked through the snow, her tracks and Molly's the only ones winding through the field. The snow crunched under her feet and she listened to the rhythm it made. When she finally reached Molly, she stood silently next to her, watching as the tall woman methodically cleared a patch of ground in the shadow of the stone.

After placing the evergreen covering on the cleared patch, Molly straightened the red velvet ribbon that hung from the bow. Then she stepped back, standing next to Noelle.

"It's… pretty," Noelle finally said very softly. "Thank you."


The two women stood in silence, each lost in her own feelings, yet somehow connected to each other. They stayed that way for some time until Molly heard Noelle's teeth start to chatter a bit.

"Come on, Noe, let's go home." She turned to head back to the Rover, but was stopped by Noelle's next words.

"They look so lonely."


A small mittened hand waved slightly, the motion encompassing the entire cemetery. "Them… the headstones. They look so… forgotten."

The bigger woman moved to stand behind Noelle, strong arms wrapping around the small body, offering love and warmth. It was a moment before Molly answered, but when she did, her words comforted and eased Noelle's grieving heart.

"I don't know if the stones are forgotten, Noe, but I don't know that it matters if they are, anyway," Molly began softly, her tone pensive and introverted. "See, I kinda think like this… it doesn't much matter if I remember to get to the cemetery once a week or once a month, or even once a year. It doesn't matter because the people are in our hearts. The grave might be forgotten, but the people aren't."

The small body turned in her arms, the blonde head burrowing into her chest. "But what if the people are forgotten?" Noelle asked in a small voice, the words muffled by the parka.

Molly squeezed Noelle a little tighter when she felt arms wrap around her waist. They stayed like that for a moment before Molly answered.

"They can't ever be forgotten… God remembers all of us forever."

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

Later, on their way back home, Molly asked Noelle a question that brought a genuine grin to her face.

"So you want to go buy a Christmas tree? An artificial tree," she added quickly.

The blonde head nodded. "Heck yeah. Let's go to Wal-Mart. I bet they still have a good selection even though it's practically Christmas Eve. Speaking of, do you, umm… want to go to Midnight Mass with me?"

Blue eyes looked at her in surprise. "You're Catholic?"

"Nope, baptized Lutheran, actually. I just like Midnight Mass, that's all. So I go every year. Want to come with me tomorrow night?"


"Then after that you can give me my present. What'd you get me, by the way?" Noelle asked conversationally.

"A big bag of lumpy coal," was the positive answer.


Molly laughed. "What? Did you think I'd really tell you what I got you? Ha. Forget it, Potter."

"Jerk," Noelle mumbled, her amiable tone belying the harshness of the word.

Their shared laughter served to brighten the mood, not to mention the carols Noelle fairly shouted at the top of her lungs as she accompanied the radio. Her enthusiastic singing was occasionally punctuated by a rousing "HEY!" or "Ho, Ho, Ho!" from Molly. By the time they arrived at the store they were in high spirits and primed to take on the world, or at least the sea of shoppers and empty shelves that lay ahead. They emerged triumphant a short time later, with a big, fat, artificial blue spruce and such trimmings as remained this close to Christmas.

Molly pushed the cart out to the Rover, telling Noelle it was too heavy for her in the slippery parking lot.

"Yeah right, pal. You just want to walk behind me and watch my butt," Noelle retorted.

"And what a lovely butt it is, I might add," Molly said with a sleazy accent, curling an imaginary mustache.

Noelle snorted but led the way through the lot, conscious of blue eyes on her body. Blue eyes that saw everything. Blue eyes that made her body burn hot. Blue eyes that looked deep into her soul, never asking and never condemning.

By the time they reached the Rover, Noelle Potter was in sexual overdrive. She wanted to throw the tall woman down on the back seat of the SUV and have her wicked way with her. When Molly took her sweet time putting the tree box and the bags in the trunk, Noelle fairly growled in frustration.

"What's the matter, Noe? You sound a little… frustrated. You okay?" Molly asked, knowing perfectly well what the problem was. She started the vehicle and pulled out of the parking lot. "You feeling a little hot, maybe?" she asked. "Maybe a bit… wet?"

Molly's voice had dropped to a husky whisper, her deep voice sending bolts of lightening through every nerve ending in Noelle's body. She gritted her teeth and looked out the window, her frustration mounting when Molly started whistling happily. She jumped when a big hand came to rest on her corduroy clad thigh, the fingers caressing and kneading the firm muscle underneath.

"Relax, Noe," Molly whispered, never looking at the blonde she was touching. "Let me do this."


"Shhh," Molly soothed. "It's okay. Let me do this, let me make you feel good," she whispered, her voice taking on a hypnotic tone.

The fingers strayed closer to Noelle's need, and she let her head fall back onto the headrest. When she felt the hand urging her legs to spread wider, she complied, her breath quickening when the fingers trailed up her inner thigh. Through the heavy corduroy, she could barely feel the feather-soft touch, yet it was enough to heighten her arousal.

Molly could feel the heat of Noelle's desire, and it made her own pulse more rapid. She found the seam of Noelle's pants and used that to apply firm pressure to the little bundle of nerves underneath. She moved her fingers in tiny circles, relishing the sound of Noelle's very quiet moans.

"Oh, Molly…" the blonde whimpered.

"Mmm, you feel so good, Noe…," Molly continued to whisper encouragement, hot words of desire and arousal, until she felt the small body start to tense, the blonde's climax nearing very quickly. "That's it, Noe… come for me now, let me hear you. I want to hear you, hear your pleasure…"

Being in such a highly aroused state already, and with Molly's experienced fingers working their magic, all it took were those few words to push Noelle over the edge, the waves of desire crashing around her.

Finally Noelle grasped Molly's wrist, stilling the fingers that were still moving. "Stop. Please," she panted. She felt Molly's hand move back to her thigh, the movements now soothing when they were just arousing. She sighed deeply, her head still resting on the back of the seat.

A green eye opened and fixed a piercing green gaze on Molly. "I still want my Christmas present."

Molly laughed loudly, squeezing Noelle's thigh before releasing it and running a hand through her long hair.

"You're wonderful," she said, "Now, let's see… I need to tie up loose ends before we put the tre-"

"Oooh," Noelle interrupted. "Sounds kinky. Can I watch?"

Molly burst out laughing and popped Noelle playfully on the arm. "Real funny, chucklehead," she teased. "Now get serious."

"Yes'm," Noelle replied meekly, her green eyes sparkling with good humor. "So you were saying…?"

It was probably a good thing that Molly had to keep her eyes on the road, because if she would have seen the look in the green eyes, the pretty pink flush on the beautiful face, she would never have been able to take her eyes off of the blonde. She would have been totally enchanted at what she saw.

But as it was, she was occupied, pulling the Rover in the driveway behind Noelle's SUV. As she shut down the engine, Noelle hopped out and opened the back door, grabbing the blue bags and tromping inside.

Molly watched the familiarity with which Noelle unlocked and entered her home. It made her smile to realize that the blonde was that comfortable that she did things unconsciously.

Pulling the big box from the trunk, Molly slammed the door and followed Noelle up the steps and into the house.

Later that evening, when loose ends were tied and the tree was in its stand, Noelle sat on the couch with a mug of hot chocolate and marshmallows in her hands, shouting orders to Molly like an old, nagging wife.

"No! It should go further up."

"Look at that gap! You need to fill it."

"Oh for cripe's sake! It's crooked."

Finally, having had enough of the shouted orders, Molly tossed a sparkly, frosty, red and white candy cane at the other woman.

"Think you can do better, pal?" She stepped away from the tree and held both hands toward it, welcoming Noelle to it. "Be my guest."

Green eyes looked at her, a small grin playing about the perfect lips. Then the blonde head nodded slowly and Noelle got up off the couch. She handed Molly her mug and pointed toward the bedroom. "Go finish wrapping my presents and don't come in here until I call you. Got it?

The dark head nodded and Molly left the room.

Once she was gone, Noelle stepped to the stereo, cranked up the volume, and turned to the tree. She cocked her head to the side and stared at it for a moment before suddenly jumping into a whirlwind of action. She worked quickly, making brief stops to study her work.

Molly peeked her head in, her movements completely silent. She grinned and shook her head, enjoying the sight of Noelle in action. Deciding to leave well enough alone, Molly headed into the kitchen to make some soup and sandwiches for supper. That'll bring her out of the living room.

And sure enough, Noelle came streaking into the kitchen a few minutes later. "Yumm. It smells great. Whatcha making?" she asked, lolling against the island.

Molly readied a tray, placing bowls of steaming hearty chicken noodle soup, plates with turkey and cheese sandwiches, and glasses of kool-aid. "You finished in there?"

"Uh-huh. Want to eat by the tree? The lights look pretty."

"That's what I was planning," Molly stated. "Lead the way, woman."

When she stepped into the living room, Molly just stood there staring. The tree was absolutely stunning; it was breathtaking in its beauty. Noelle had decorated it so skillfully that it no longer looked artificial.

White lights shone brightly through the blue-green branches, tiny beacons lighting the darkness. There were silver and gold glass ornaments hung in various spots, and silver bead garland was strung around the tree. There was also thin red and silver garland, and tiny red velvet bows placed in the branches. Finally, there were the sparkly green and white, and red and white artificial candy canes hung on the branches.

"It's… beautiful," Molly said, her voice no more than a whisper.

Noelle nodded. "I know. Now let's eat, all this tree trimming stuff makes me hungry."

They ate their supper, conversation occasionally breaking the silence. When they had finished the meal, Noelle leaned back on the couch and sighed.

"That hit the spot. Thank you."

"It was my pleasure. Now what?" Molly asked.

Noelle shrugged, her eyes closed in satisfaction. "I dunno. You could always give me my present."

"Let's see… no. It's not Christmas yet."

"Damn. Oh well." Noelle shrugged again, entirely too complacent and well-fed to even argue or push the issue.

After cleaning up the dinner mess, Molly brought out extra blankets, a sleeping bag, and some pillows and spread them in front of the tree. The two women spent the night making love by the lights of the tree, until both fell into exhausted slumber.

Christmas Eve day was filled with food preparations for the next day's feast, and, even though it would only be the two of them, they had all the traditional dishes.

Early that afternoon, Noelle told Molly she had a few last minute things to take care of at her house before Mass that night, and, promising to be back by 10:30, Noelle left. Knowing that the last gift she bought for Molly would be ready, Noelle went there first, exclaiming over its beauty when she picked it up.

She kept the present next to her on the drive to her house, secure in its box. What a brilliant idea this was, she thought to herself with glee. "She's going to love you, I just know it," Noelle said happily, a grin on her face.

When she pulled into the driveway next to her house, Noelle gathered the box in her arms and hurried inside. It didn't take her long to gather the rest of Molly's presents and stack them by the door. She strode into her room, grabbed a small duffel bag from the shelf in her closet and stuffed in a change of clothes for tomorrow, knowing, without a doubt, that she'd be spending that night at Molly's.

Looking at the few things in the bag, thinking about the week's vacation from school, Noelle finally sighed. "Oh hell. Who am I kidding? I'll be there all week and we both know it." Having admitted that to herself, Noelle took out a couple days' worth of clothing and shoved them in the bag alongside the things already there.

Then she lay down for a nap, missing Molly's warm body. Her last thought, as she snuggled into her featherbed and pillow, was I hope she likes what I got her.

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

Midnight Mass was a solemn affair, the carols fitting the mood. The celebration ended on the strains of "O Holy Night". Molly continued to hum the tune until Noelle asked her to sing it for her. And in her rich, beautiful voice, Molly sang the words to Noelle's favorite carol.

O holy night, the stars are brightly shining

It is the night of our dear Saviour's birth.

Long lay the world ,in sin and error pining

'Til he appeared and the soul felt its worth.

A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices

For yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.

Fall on your knees

O hear the angels' voices

O night divine,

O night when Christ was born

O night divine

O night, o night divine.

Noelle's eyes filled with tears, and her heart with happy memories when she briefly heard Mary's voice singing instead of Molly's. But when Molly began to sing the next verse, a verse that Noelle rarely heard, her attention, and hearing, was brought back to the woman behind the wheel.

Truly he taught us to love one another

His law is love and his gospel is peace.

Chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother

And in his name all oppression shall cease.

Sweet hymns of joy, in grateful chorus raise we

Let all within us praise his holy name.

Noelle's eyes were fastened on Molly's face, listening and watching the woman as she sang the words to the inspiring, gentle hymn. Her voice lifted and carried, bringing the words to the heavens, a wonderful birthday present to the Lord.

When the last note ended, the two women sat in silence, contemplating the significance of the day. Finally Noelle shook herself out of her reverie and turned a soft smile to Molly.

"Merry Christmas, Molly," she whispered.

Blue eyes turned to look at Noelle. Finally, the tall woman spoke. "Merry Christmas, Noe." There was a pause as Molly turned into the driveway. When she had shut down the engine, she turned to Noelle more fully.

"Did I tell you how wonderful you look?" Molly once again took in what Noelle was wearing. She wore a long black pleated wool skirt, a dark green wool sweater over a Christmas turtleneck, and black stockings and shoes. Noelle looked sweet and demure, and the green of the sweater made her eyes sparkle.

Noelle blushed and dropped her eyes. "Thank you." Green eyes moved slowly over the taller woman. "You look pretty good yourself." It was Noelle's turn to re-familiarize herself with Molly's attire. The dark woman wore a pair of black slacks, a red silk shirt buttoned to the collar, and a cheery Christmas vest. On her feet were her usual black oxfords. She looked stunning.

"Let's go inside," Molly's husky voice whispered. "We have presents to open," she said gently.

As they made their way to the front door, the two women noticed the snow. It was starting to fall, light, fluffy, pretty flakes. They paused for just a moment on the porch, watching it fall.

When they had removed their outerwear in the foyer, Molly and Noelle quickly changed into more comfortable clothes. Then they sat on the floor by the tree, the presents in several small piles under the branches. Christmas music played softly in the background, and the only light came from a low lamp by the couch and the lights on the tree.

Molly picked up a present at random and stared at it a second before smiling and handing it to the woman next to her. "I… I'm sorry it's not wrapped better," she apologized.

Eyes wide with wonder and joy shone up at her as small hands accepted the gaily wrapped gift with the curly ribbon bow on top. "Thank you," she breathed.

Her hands closed around the small, flat package, but Noelle hesitated before opening it. She set the present in her lap and reached for a big, unwieldy box covered with bright red paper sprinkled with different kinds of smiley faces and a big yellow bow. She handed the box to Molly with a grunt, then grinned at the light blush that spread across her cheeks.

Together they opened their first Christmas presents to each other. Noelle ripped the festive paper off and laughed delightedly when she saw the computer sailing game Molly had gotten her.

"For when you can't go out because of the weather," Molly explained.

And Molly laughed loudly when she saw the black and silver Sorel boots after carefully unwrapping the big box.

"For when you can go out because of the weather," Noelle explained with a grin.

The thoughtfulness, the care Molly knew Noelle took to choose the boots, brought unexpected tears Molly's eyes. To cover the awkwardness, she slipped her stockinged feet into the boots and wiggled her toes. She cleared her throat before turning her feet toward Noelle.

"They fit wonderfully. And already my feet are warm."

"Oh, they'll be toasty, all right. You won't ever complain of your feet being cold, that's for sure."

The women continued to open their presents, taking the time to admire and comment on each, until there was only wrapping paper scraps, ragged bows, and presents strewn about the floor.

Noelle leaned slightly against Molly, reading the back of the game case. And Molly was casually flipping through her brand new copy of "Sailing for Dummies".

Her attention was taken from the book when Noelle burst out laughing. She looked down at the woman next to her, only to find a hand clasped over Noelle's mouth to keep the laughter in.

Blue eyes narrowed suspiciously. "What's so funny?"

Not able to answer, Noelle only pointed at her and laughed harder, tears leaking out of the corners of her eyes.

"What?" Molly demanded. "What are you laughing at?"

It took Noelle a minute to calm down enough to speak, but it was only long enough to say "You! You look… silly" before dissolving into laughter again.

Molly looked down. She had to laugh at herself at the sight she made. In addition to her new boots, she wore the new PFD that Noelle gave her, embroidered with "Gilligan" on the back, and one silk-lined wool mitten. The other mitten lay at her side. She noticed that the toes of her boots were tapping against each other, of course of their own volition.

"I guess I do." They shared the laughter for a bit before Molly suddenly stopped. "Hey, I have one more present, but I have to go into the bedroom to get it."

"Oooh, another present. Go get it. Please?" Means I can get hers.

Molly gracefully got to her feet and clomped down the hall and into the bedroom. She closed the door behind her and strode to the bathroom. She scooped up the present, not bothering with the accoutrements, and looked around for a towel. "Come on, it's your turn."

When she heard the door close, Noelle scrambled to her feet and ran through the kitchen to the basement door. She yanked it open, picked the present out of its box, and grabbed its bow. She put the bow on it and hustled back to the living room, seating herself just in time.

"Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas!"

Then there was utter silence. A silence so profound that Noelle was sure she heard crickets chirping. A silence so deep and complete as to be terrifying.

Or hysterically funny.

Both women burst into laughter, and Molly dropped onto the floor next to Noelle.

"How did you know?" Noelle asked between chuckles, handing Molly's present to her and picking her own up.

"How did you know I would get you a kitten?" Noelle repeated.

Molly laughed again. "I didn't. I got you one so you maybe wouldn’t be so lonely." She picked up the fluffy orange tabby that Noelle had just put in her lap. "Good God, how old is…" she paused, picking up the kitten and peeking between its legs, "… he? He's huge. And so fluffy. Look at this tuft on his ears," she commented, her voice as soft and sweet and gentle as her hands that stroked his ears.

Noelle snuggled her wee tiny kitten under her chin, its tiny claws digging slightly into her skin. She looked over at Molly using a piece of discarded ribbon to play with the kitten. "He is big. But he's just a baby. He's only 8 1/2 weeks old, but he's going to be really big. He's a Maine Coon, and they get exceptionally large. However," and here Noelle's voice deepened, sounding much like the narrator on some pet show, "Maine Coons are very good mousers, very loyal pets, and very playful companions." She grinned. "At least that's what the breeder recited when I picked him up."

"Well, I think he's beautiful. He looks scary already, and he's just a baby." To illustrate that fact, the baby climbed into Molly's lap, resting his little square head on his round paws and closing his eyes, the tell-tale, contented rumble beginning deep in his chest.

Noelle's present lay silently on the small swell of her breasts, kneading her skin gently, its eyes half-closed in pleasure. Noelle used both of her hands to stroke the tiny kitten, thoroughly enjoying the feel of the small, warm, furry weight on her chest. "Is it a boy or a girl?" she asked quietly.

"A boy. They said that, officially, he's 8 weeks old, but unofficially, he's barely six." Molly watched with pleasure as Noelle continued to love the little animal. "He was the smallest one there, but he was giving the bigger kittens a hard time, chasing them all over the cage, even when he couldn't get up where they were. It was great."

Noelle looked down at the silent kitten. "How come he's not purring? He looks happy so why's he not purring?" Concerned green eyes looked up at Molly. "You think his mama didn't get to teach him? He's so young…"

"He'll be fine, Noe," Molly soothed. "With you loving him to pieces, he'll be better than fine."

"He sure is pretty." The blonde looked admiringly at the white and black color coat. "His coat is unusual. And look, he's got three little black socks on."

"Yeah, I like his socks, too," Molly sighed. "He was so cute, all that white fur and those little black markings."

Noelle didn't answer, she just continued to pet the kitten. Then suddenly, "I'm going to name him…Cow."

"Cow?? That's the stupidest name I ever heard."

"Well, what've you been calling him?"


Noelle's answer was laughter. "Bingo? What possessed you to call him that?"

A slow grin spread over Molly's face. "It had nothing to do with his coloring. Wait'll you see him when he gets going. He rolls and pops around like bingo balls in the roller."

"I like it," Noelle exclaimed with delight. "Or," she teased, "I could always call him G47."

"Just stick with Bingo," Molly laughed. Then she looked down at the big baby in her lap. "So what about this boy? You got a name for him?"

Noelle nodded slowly. "Well, you see, I had him in the bedroom with me when I first brought him home Saturday, and he was sitting in a sunbeam, and his pupils were narrowed, his eyes were squinty, and he was lying there like a lion… but a pouty lion," Noelle explained rapidly.

Blue eyes looked at her in confusion. "So you call him Lion?"

The blonde head shook. "Rucifee," she mumbled, her eyes on the kitten in Molly's lap.

"Say again?" Molly asked in astonishment.

Louder this time, "Rucifee." A blush crept up Noelle's neck and onto her face.

"Where the hell did you come up with that?"

Green eyes snapped to her in defense. "Lucifer was the big, evil cat on Cinderella, but Gus and his friends called him Rucifee."

"Uh… sure. But who's Gus?" Molly was clearly enjoying the banter.

"One of the mice who befriended Cinderella. They had this love-hate thing going on with Ruci- Lucifer. But I always liked Rucifee better than Lucifer." She shook her head in chagrin. "You have to like Disney stuff, I guess."

Molly's face creased into a grin again. "Okay, then, Rucifee it is."

Before long, both women and both kittens were tucked tightly under a quilt on the floor of the living room.

Sleepy blue eyes looked at the other woman. Noelle's small hand was cupped protectively over Bingo's tiny body, and the wee cat looked more content than Molly would have thought possible.

"Merry Christmas, Noe," Molly whispered to the sleeping woman.

Continued part 20

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