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CHAPTER THREE


Stardate 55724.9
Cardassia Prime
Culat Province
Temporary Office of Minister of Security


“I see that one of the new patrol ships has broken away from our border and has met with the Enterprise. Only time will tell, I think,” said Cacet as he took the seat behind his desk.

“Yes Gul,” replied Prethet. “We lost them on long-range scans but our intelligence reports have been reliable and they believe they are both heading towards their Starbase 214.”

“214?” he asked with some surprise, but then smiled weakly. “Good. Close. It will allow better monitoring.

“Yes Gul,” confirmed Prethet.

“Continue to report. I want to know every move they make, understood?”

“Yes Gul.”

“Fine. Dismissed.”



Stardate 55724.9
Starbase 214
Holosuite Atrium


Well at least there’s a silver lining to this cloud. A good ride is just the thing I need to help me get my mind off this damned detour!

Picard moved down the corridor of the Starbase towards the holosuites. The heels of his riding boots scuffed the carpet slightly and he carried his English saddle tucked at his side. I think I’ll increase the spirit level of the horse today. Hopefully Captain Steele is experienced enough to keep up!

He followed the bend in the corridor and smiled as the area to the holosuite gallery opened into a beautiful green and white-lit atrium. He was immediately approached by a portly Bolian woman in a vibrant blue dress that matched her skin tone perfectly. Picard was struck by how odd it made the woman appear – as though she had layers of strange, thin skin that flowed from her shoulders and hung to the floor. She smiled brightly when she saw his saddle. “Captain Picard, I presume?” she asked.

He nodded graciously. “I am, Madam.”

“Captain Steele has contacted us to ask you to forgive her tardiness. She should be here momentar…” Her eyes brightened and she gazed behind Picard’s position. “Ah, not too late at all, here she is!”

Picard turned quickly and was immediately taken by her as she approached. Her pitch-hued hair was pulled back loosely into a soft French-braided rope which rested over her shoulder. Her riding britches outlined what Picard now realized was a remarkably athletic and amazing figure. He freed his smile when he saw that she carried an English saddle at her side.

When Steele recognized he carried his own, she laughed gratefully. “And here I thought I’d be made fun of for bringing my own saddle!”

Picard shook his head fiercely and extended his hand. “Absolutely not Captain!” he said as he took her hand in his. Her skin seemed softer than it had the day before, or had he just noticed it differently?

“It’s Toni, remember?” she chided.

“Of course.” He grinned and found himself feeling better already. His disappointment over yet another delay to go exploring was beginning to fade slightly as he allowed himself to feel the excitement about the forthcoming ride. “Shall we Toni?”

“By all means Jean-Luc.” She followed the Bolian woman who led them to a holosuite on the third level of the atrium. She left them at the door and Picard approached the command panel and turned to his counterpart.

“Do you have a preference?” he smiled, “Or may I be allowed to choose a suitable venue?”

Steele grinned. “Will told me you have a preference for the French countryside, I was hoping to take in some of views of Burgundy.”

Picard’s heart fluttered with his satisfaction. “Excellent! What level and type of horse may I request for you?”

“Mmmm, thoroughbred stallion, something in a nice shade of brown. Level ten I think.”

“Ten?” he responded with great enthusiasm, “Good. I was hoping for a robust partner today! Computer. Terran horse riding program, France fourteen.”

“Select time of day, season and temperature,” the computer’s voice responded.

“Mid-day, early summer, twenty three point five degrees Celsius.” He smiled as Steele nodded her agreement.

“Number of horses.” The computer inquired once more.

“Two stallions. The first, a liver-chestnut thoroughbred. The second, a dapple-grey Arabian. Both level ten. Standard English tack minus saddles.”

A confirming tone chirped and Picard escorted his companion into the suite when the program was complete and the doors hissed open.

He was overcome with the smell of oak, maple and some pine as well as the earthy-loamy scents he remembered from his youth. He breathed in deeply as they walked to two horses tethered to a fence post on the summit of a grass-coated limestone hill that gently led down towards a slow-moving river. They began to saddle the horses immediately.

“Alésia.” Steele stated. “It’s magnificent Jean-Luc. There’s a great section that’s perfect for some mid-level jumping off to the east there correct?”

“You’re familiar with La Bourgogne?!” he asked with some surprise.

“Oui.” She smiled. “My grandmother rode here for several competitions.”

“Le Grand Prix d’Alise-Sainte-Reine?” he asked. “Your grandmother competed?”

“And won…twice.” She grinned mischievously.

Picard’s face contorted then he loosed an audible gasp. “Wait a minute. Only one person has ever won that competition twice. Your grandmother was Gabrielle L’Nui?”

“Oui.” She giggled as she pulled the cinch of the saddle tight around her horse’s midsection. She shook the saddle hard to assure its sturdy hold.

Picard’s eyes widened once more. “That means you’re…you’re Ambassador D’Nera’s granddaughter?”

“I am.” Steele smiled but then her face filled with confusion. “But you couldn’t have known him Jean-Luc…you’re far too young.”

Picard smiled. “Nice to know I’m too young for some things Ton…I’m sorry. I just can’t seem to make Toni work. Antoinette. It suits you more I think. You don’t mind do you?”

Steele smiled gently. “Of course not.”

He laughed and pulled hard on a leather strap, dropping the stirrup on his saddle to his preferred level. He stood to look at Steele as she deftly mounted her horse. He continued on his original train of thought, “However my parents did know Ambassador D’Nera.” He stopped briefly as his memories of his mother flew forward. “My mother used to speak of him frequently.” He laughed out loud. “Much to my father’s dismay I must add!”

Steele began to giggle again. “Yes, well Deltans have always had that problem with humans I’m afraid.”

"I seem to recall that your grandfather caused quite a stir with the Deltan government when he decided to remain on Earth and marry a human.” Picard stated.

Steele nodded briskly. “They never really forgave him. Deltans still find interspecies mating a taboo. When my grandmother got pregnant with my mother and they moved to North America, the Deltan side of the family refused to contact him. I still haven’t met any of my Deltan relatives.” Steele sighed then let her sigh roll into a laugh, “How my grandmother survived, not only being a human mate of a full-blooded Deltan, but having to beat off the constant competition, I will never know!”

Picard laughed heartily. “I can only imagine!” He mounted his horse and looked at her eye-to-eye. “It now explains your incredible beauty.”

Steele smiled brightly. “Why thank you Jean-Luc. I have to say, you are a very handsome man. With that beautiful bald head you could be easily mistaken for a Deltan yourself!” She picked up the reins in her hand and leaned towards him. Her eyes squinted with an impish glare. “First one to the statue of Vercingétorix buys!”

Picard burst with laughter. Kicking their horses, they rode hard along the sturdy limestone hills that lined the river.


__________



“Pardon me for intruding and please tell me if I’m being too forward but I didn’t realize that you and Will Riker were so close.” Picard looked to her lovely green eyes as he sipped on a glass of wine.

Steele smiled happily as she finished chewing a piece of baguette. “Well, I guess he’s like me. We’ve been close since the Academy, Jean-Luc. We dated for almost two years but final year did us in. For some reason, we’re the kind of friends that talk just to each other. It’s not that we keep our friendship a secret, but we don’t really announce it either.”

Picard nodded with appreciation. “I understand. I have many friends that roam outside my inner circle.”

“Exactly,” she agreed.

“It does however help explain Will’s reaction to the Yeager’s plight during the Breen raid.”

“How so?” A quick expression of confusion crossed her face.

“We’d been in many battles before, but he had never referred to the casualty lists before with such fervor. I must have caught him reading the Yeager’s list at least a dozen times at the XO console. Now I understand why.”

Steele rubbed her eyes softly with her hand and nodded.

Picard cleared his throat. “Antoinette, I can only say thank you and hope that you can appreciate the level of gratitude…”

“Stop Jean-Luc.” She raised her hand to cut him off. Blushing, she sat back in her seat, bringing her wine to her lips and taking a sip. “If it helps, you are very, very welcome, but there really is no further reason to thank me. My crew and I did what was necessary and that’s all. I told Will last night that I knew that both you and he would have done the same.”

Picard smiled and dropped his head reverently. She was right. He would have. He wouldn’t have flinched and if he were presented with the same situation, he would have moved the Enterprise in to take those torpedoes just like she had. It was the right decision. “Fine, Captain.”

“Good.” She smiled and brought her wine to her lips once more. This time Picard caught sight of the band on her finger. She set her glass down on the table and caught his eyes. “I see Will hasn’t told you that either.”

Picard shook his head. “No. I didn’t know you were married.” He allowed a strange and unexpected quality of disappointment cut through his voice.

“Why Jean-Luc…” Steele coyly pulled her head back.

Picard’s words stumbled out, “Sorry Antoinette. It’s just that...” He blew out slightly, “…if I were twenty years younger…”

“My...” She seemed genuinely taken with his compliment. “Thank you very much. I can only say if only I were twenty years…” She grimaced sharply and shook her head. “That doesn’t sound the same as what I meant.” She hid her face.

Picard chuckled and relaxed a bit. “Don’t worry, I will take that as a compliment as well then.”

“Good.” She smiled.

“Any children?” He asked, pulling a piece of bread from the loaf and resting it back on the table in the café.

“No.” She shifted quietly, “You see…I’m widowed, Jean-Luc. Eleven years ago. Captain Paul Rice was my husband.”

Picard sat forward and widened his eyes with recognition. “The Drake…” he whispered.

“Yes,” she answered, as lightly as possible. “Will chastised me last night for continuing to wear the ring. I think he was right.”

He brushed her comment aside. “Captain Rice was a fine officer, Antoinette. The Drake’s and Captain Rice’s loss were a blow for the Federation.”

She smiled gently and sipped her wine once more. “Yes. He was a very good man Jean-Luc.” She sighed slightly then forced herself to smile brightly. “But, enough of that. I wanted to get to know you a little better. The famous Jean-Luc Picard!”

“What would you like to know…?” he grinned and leaned into the table.

The two remained at the table talking for hours.


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