By Carol Sandford


Chapter 01


Cigar smoke lay like a heavy hand in the small back dining room of the Troi mansion. Three men, one woman, sat around the table, cards in hand, their dark gazes intent on the current deal. Sergeant Tang, the crusty looking, ageing man, frowned at his luck while Mark Roper, considered the possibility of drawing another king for a pair. Beside him, the sole woman of the meet, smiled inwardly at a pair of jacks and deuce wild, while Will, all but did mental backflips over the three queens in his hand.

The foursome made an unlikely quartet. Each holding a quality that one another admired, and each trying their damnedest to produce the most perfect poker face - and succeeding. Sly glances occasionally broke the concentration as they vied for something, anything, that would give an opponent away. All failed.

The woman studied the man opposite her for longer, his features likeable enough to capture many a look. He had eyes that made women forget to breathe. Startling blue, like a mountain lake fed by the purest of waters, and curtained with sweeping lashes. And that smile. That smile of his could charm the stripes of zebra.

It also didn't hurt that he was six foot four, with a physique to match his height. He was all male. It didn't matter that he was an off-worlder. Her people had long accepted that they needed aid from the outside. The small army that resided not too far away from this very room, somehow, seemed calming. Safe. William Riker was one of those soldiers, he was also a formidable poker player, and was happily piling up her precious chips before him as he waited for his Lady Luck to wave her magic wand his way, again.

"Five dollars says that pot is mine." Will grinned.

Tang glanced up from his hand of cards and bit down on his own cigar. "The hell you say..." he glanced red-faced towards the female of the group, "sorry ma'am - I'll see your five and double it."

"Too steep for me." Mark threw his cards down and pushed away from the table. "Gotta go, folks. Need to check on that daughter of mine - see if she really is tucked up in that bed of hers. I doubt it it though, she's probably harassing some poor soldier into giving her a good time."

Will continued to stare at his cards. He still had a game to win and the last member of the group didn't look like she was about to fold. He caught her eyes with his own, "Looks like it's just you me." Will tipped back his chair on two legs while the men pulled on their jackets. "I see you...." he tossed a few more chips into the pile. "....and I-"

The door to the dining room flew open, creating an instant draft that lifted the cards already placed on the table top.

"Mother, this has got to stop immediately!"

Will swivelled to look at the woman standing in the doorway.

Deanna Troi.

Deanna's ebony hair tumbled around her flushed face and fell in riotous waves over the shoulders of the purple dressing-gown she wore, its lapels overlapping and pulled tight around her slender figure, and then held fast with a belt, the sleeves, so long they completely covered her hands. But it was her eyes that held Will's stare; black orbs that matched her mothers, blazed with thunderous emotion. She was livid.

"Little one, I can explain..."

Lwaxana Troi took the unlit, enormous cigar daintily from between her lips and put it onto the table. It fascinated Will to watch her play the game with the huge six inch cigar stuck between her teeth. She'd never lit it, not even once, but for whatever obscure reason, she found the smell and, or the taste of it comforting. Either that or she just liked to be, 'one of the boys'.

Dropping the chair onto all four of its legs, Will glanced forlornly at the queens in his hand, sighed, then threw his cards down, folded his arms and rested them on the table and waited for the show to begin.

Flopping back into her chair, Lwaxana turned her attention to her daughter who was moving stiffly out of the way as the departing men bowed uneasily and silently as they made their escape. Will would have done the same, but his perverseness at watching the two women argue kept him planted in his chair.

Hell bent on bending her mothers ear, Deanna ignored the man sitting opposite her. But even though she didn't even glance in his direction, she could not ignore the sheer power that oozed from his direction. Damn him, he was going to listen to her rant and rave at her mother, and once more, make herself look the bad guy. She hated that.

Will studied Deanna's flawless features as she ripped into her mother. Something about that haughty, patronising air of hers, quite often made Will want to grab her by her cute chin and kiss her senseless. She rattled him, big time. But she was her mothers daughter. She was a dignitary. She was as good as a princess. She was off-limits.

And he'd wanted her as soon as he'd laid eyes on her.

But sitting here, watching her blow a gasket, with her hair all rumpled, dressed in her robe and fluffy slippers, Deanna didn't look quite so starched, or quite so stiff, or quite so regal. She looked kind of...soft. Soft and cute. He began to wonder what she was hiding beneath the sack of a bathrobe. Was it a sexy little see-through number. Or maybe a virginal white shorty? Nah, it was probably some god-awful frumpy thing that she'd inherited from some maiden aunt or something similar.

Startled by his thoughts, and the silence that now surrounded him, Will looked first to her mother, and then to Deanna and noticed the rigid lift of her shoulders and the tight press of her lips. He shifted uncomfortably in his chair remembering, belatedly, that he was in the presence of a powerful telepath and an empath, and his thoughts of moments ago would have been as vivid to them as watching a movie show.

It was time to leave.

Hastily pushing himself to a stand, the chair scraping in protest at its harsh treatment, Will scooped his healthy pile of chips into his hands. "Time to go, ladies, I know you both need your beauty sleep. Thanks for the game, Mrs. Troi, look forward to doing it again sometime." He mentally kicked himself as he found himself bowing as he backed his way towards the door, "Deanna. Good night."

Too late.

"Stop right there, Lieutenant Riker!"

Just two more steps and he would have been home-free. Framed by the doorway, Will stood his full height, the small tuft of his hair lightly grazing the top of the doorway. How the hell Homn walked around the house, still bewildered Will.

He watched Deanna's small frame approach and his body went tense with inner dread. But when she spoke, he couldn't have been more surprised if he'd tried.

"I see you've lost a lot of money tonight, Mr. Riker, and I feel bad about that. How about a rematch - just you and me?" she challenged.

He eyed her suspiciously, drowning himself in her dark eyes, "What's the catch?"

She seemed to already looked triumphant, "If I win, you must promise never to play anymore poker while you're on my planet, or include my mother in any of your"

"And if I win....?"

"You get to play poker whenever you like...and I'll come and work for you for..."she tapped her chin as she pondered the option, "two weeks."

"You'll cheat."


"You'll read my mind. I won't stand a chance."

"I thought you were good at this, Mr. Riker."

"I am!"

"Prove it."

"Okay, you're on."

They both made their way back to the table. Lwaxana Troi stood and stretched her arms high above her head, her voice high and full of shameless pretence, "Heavens, is that time? I think I'll retire and leave you young things to battle it out."

Neither Will nor Deanna expected her to stay as they moved either side of the table and sat down, but with Lwaxana's parting words, they both looked up at her with determination, fire and a touch of fear in their eyes.

"May the best man win, darlings. Good night." she ended on a sing-song tone.

Deanna stared across at the man that sat opposite her, her muttered, "Good night, Mother, I'll see you in the morning." slipping from her lips, devoid of emotion. Will's own half-hearted, "Good night, Mrs. Troi." also drifted off as he watched Deanna collect up the scattered cards and begin to shuffle them as well as any card dealer could.

He was in trouble.

He also made a mistake when he asked what game she'd like to play as she placed the pack in the centre of the table," So what's it going to be, Deanna?" he was sure she was going to say Go Fish, or Crazy Eights, but when he watched her sit up in her chair and her hands lace delicately on the table in front of her, he knew he was sunk.

"How about five card stud, one-eyed jacks wild?"

"You want to play poker!?"

"Of course! My father taught me to count with a deck of cards when I was two. When the other kids were playing kiddy stuff, I learned how to double down with an eleven in blackjack." She smiled and held her cool eyes steady with his. "Now deal the cards, Lieutenant, I'm about to kick your butt."

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