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"Let's see if we can catch us a foal."
Sliding her arm into the sterile shoulder-length glove, Lexi Lawson slipped the neck strap over her head and faced Little Miss Confetti.
"Easy, girl." Billy Stevens led the white-and-black American Paint mare into the narrow wooden-and-metal crush and closed the front gate. The secured enclosure protected Lexi from the horse and the horse from itself during the procedure. Standing to the side, Billy whispered soothing words while gently rubbing Confetti's muzzle.
"Welcome to your first embryo transfer lesson-so come on back here for a ringside seat." Amused by Billy's stunned expression, she continued, "Equine care starts at conception, and there's more to horses than leg wraps and Coggins reports." Lexi was pleased at how proficient her protégé had become at aiding her with the standard Equine Infectious Anemia tests and the subsequent paperwork.
A year and a half ago Lexi wouldn't have considered Billy Stevens for an assistant. After escaping his abusive family, Billy ended up on the wrong side of the law when he and a few so-called friends stole some high-priced guitars from Ackerman's Music in town. A month in county lockup left him scared straight and completely alone once he was released. Never ones to turn away a person in need, the Langtry family offered him a place to live on the Bridle Dance Ranch in exchange for honest, hard work.
Cole, the oldest of the four Langtry brothers, took a shine to Billy when he noticed his interest in horses ran deeper than a paycheck. Without confidence in himself, Billy didn't believe he had a future in the veterinary field until Cole pointed him in Lexi's direction and offered to help finance some college courses this past semester. A natural, Billy instinctively sensed when a horse was even the slightest bit off.
"We'll be successful today," Ashleigh assured them.
Billy bashfully squeezed past Ashleigh and the crush. Lexi suspected he had a case of puppy love for her vet tech, but he'd soon come to realize no matter how endearing he might be, Ashleigh wasn't about to leave her husband for someone seven years her junior.
"Cole," Lexi said over her shoulder. "Have one of the grooms on standby to bring in Moonglow."
Before Cole answered, Shane Langtry cleared his throat in the doorway of the breeding area and casually leaned against the jamb.
"I'm headed out to pick up our first official rodeo student." Shane straightened and strode over to the mare and stroked her cheek. Responding to his gentle touch, she snorted against his hand and bobbed her head.
Dressed in faded jeans and a formfitting, abenhancing fitted gray T-shirt, Shane shouldn't make her breath catch, but damned if he didn't, even after thirteen years. Lexi may have put his cheating ways in the past, but no one said working near the man responsible for the toughest decision of her life would be easy. Of course, she had the option to start over somewhere else, and she'd done just that for a spell.
After a year at Colorado State, Lexi transferred to Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, where she completed veterinary school and her equine internship. She'd been set to stay in the upstate area, but Joe Langtry's call six months later with a job offer and the opportunity to branch out on her own was impossible to resist. The Langtry patriarch was a true Southern charmer who had a way with words, and the money sure didn't hurt, either.
While it was an adjustment from the bone-chilling northern winters, once Lexi moved back to her family's farm, she knew Ramblewood, Texas, would always be home. Regrets were a waste of time and Lexi wasn't about to let a moment pass her by. Jumping into the swing of things with her old friends, she learned to adjust to having Shane in her life again, but it wasn't until his brother Jesse's wedding last November that she and Shane had started chipping away at the pain of the past. Some memories may have faded, but one still haunted her.
"You've been waiting for this day for a long time." Lexi smiled up at Shane. "I wish you the best."
Needing to concentrate on Little Miss Confetti, Lexi shifted her attention away from the roguish cowboy. After administering lidocaine to relax the mare's hindquarters, Ashleigh wrapped its tail in pink, stretchy bandaging and loosely tied it to the crush's back-gate support.
"Most important-everything must be sterile," Lexi explained to Billy. In her peripheral vision, she noticed
Shane still watching her, making her acutely aware how many people banked on her success today. "We don't want any unnecessary risk of infection."
"I still don't understand," Billy said. "Why are we using a surrogate if Confetti's already pregnant?"
"She's our top cutting-horse competitor," Cole said. "Eleven months is too long to keep her out of the ring, and then we'd have to retrain and get her endurance levels up to par again. When she's older and no longer competing, we'll allow her to carry."
"Plus we can get two foals from Confetti this year if we use a surrogate." Lexi had read how some veterinarians were transferring up to six embryos a year from their donor mares by constantly manipulating their heat cycles. She didn't agree with the practice and was glad the Langtrys were equally opposed to it. She only dared so much when it came to messing around with Mother Nature. "We also use surrogates if there's an injury and the horse can't carry to term, or if there are problems due to a previous pregnancy. There are many reasons, but we make sure overbreeding isn't one of them."
Billy's eyes darted between the equipment and the mare. "Will this hurt her?"
"It may feel a little strange to her, but there's no pain," Lexi reassured him. "The process goes very quickly. Mystified Moonglow is our surrogate, but we had to prepare more than one mare in case she didn't ovulate the prerequisite two days after Confetti. The ultrasound shows we're right on schedule with both horses."
Ashleigh placed a white tube in Lexi's free hand. "This is a two-way catheter," Lexi said, turning her wrist over. "Ashleigh will attach one channel to the embryo flush."
Carefully inserting the catheter, Lexi inflated the bulb inside Confetti's cervix to prevent the flush from flowing out while Ashleigh connected the saline solution with long tubing and elevated it on a modified IV stand above Confetti's backside.
"Embryo collection is always done on day seven or eight after ovulation," she explained. "At six days, it's not quite viable, and once we reach the nine-day mark, the embryo is too large and we risk damaging it. Day eight is perfect, and once we know where it is in the petri dish, it will be visible to the naked eye."
"I hope this works," Cole said. "What's the saying, third time's the charm?"
"It's also the last," Lexi stated flatly. If she failed again, she would know this wasn't meant to be, and she didn't want to tempt fate.
"This isn't foolproof. We're looking at a fifty-to-seventy percent success rate. I've always collected them on the second go-round, if we missed the first, but Confetti's been my problem child."
Lexi released a small amount of fluid through the tube and into the horse. Opening the switch between the two channels, the solution flowed through the other side of the tubing and into a filter cup that Ashleigh held.
"The trick is to always have some fluid in the cup, never allowing it to drain all the way into the bucket," Ashleigh added. "We don't want the embryo to smack hard against the side of the cup on its way out."
A few minutes later, Lexi removed the catheter and transferred the collection cup to the Langtrys' lab area. None of her other patients had their own laboratories, but then none of them owned one of the state's largest paint and quarter cutting horse ranches.
Lexi was grateful that Joe Langtry had spared no expense when he built the facility, because it allowed her greater opportunities to expand her knowledge while working in the field.
A bead of sweat traveled down between her shoulder blades in spite of the room's cool climate-controlled air. Opening a grid-lined petri dish, Lexi meticulously poured the contents of the cup into it and turned on the microscope.
"We're using the stereo microscope today." She peered into the eyepiece and adjusted the focus knob. "Examining the cells in three dimensions allows me to grade the quality of the embryo."
Slowly moving the dish under the microscope, she scanned the solution, grid by grid, hoping they wouldn't come up empty again.
"We're in luck, folks." Lexi let out the breath she'd been holding since she arrived on the Bridle Dance Ranch that morning and smiled. "Cole, can you have someone return Confetti to her stall and move Moon-glow into the crush? Ashleigh will prep her.
"Take a look." Lexi slid over, making room for Billy, who hovered nearby. "We have a grade one embryo. See how the cells are compacted and all the same size? That's what we always look for."
A lot rode on this dream match between dam Little Miss Confetti and sire Dreamward Wink. The buyer, Blueford Thomas, was a longtime family friend, but Lexi had the feeling everyone was beginning to doubt her ability to get the job done, including Shane.
Seemingly satisfied, Shane turned and left the lab area without a word. Knowing full well this situation was different, Lexi couldn't help but think of the day he'd walked out on her so long ago. Ironically, an unborn child was involved, too.
"Let's transfer this baby into its new home for the next eleven months."
Shane cursed himself on his way out of the stables. Damned if the sight of her didn't still make his blood boil. It had taken a few years after she returned home for Lexi to warm up to Shane, but she still kept him at arm's length. And who'd blame her? The one time he'd cheated on her led to a two-year nightmare he'd rather forget.
A couple days before Lexi came home for winter break from Colorado State, buckle bunny Sharon Vincent knocked on his door and claimed she was five months pregnant with his kid. Their one night in Oklahoma shortly after high school graduation came back to bite him in the ass. Sharon wasn't just bad news when he met her, she was a hot mess and Shane didn't have the good sense to resist. Claiming she was on the pill, he'd learned the hard way not to trust a woman in the birth control department.
Pressured by his family to do the right thing, he immediately married Sharon, breaking Lexi's heart in the process. He'd never forget the afternoon he told Lexi the truth. Her hazel eyes flared at him like a cougar ready to attack. Only she didn't say a word. He had no choice but to walk away from her and they'd kept their distance from one another until his father enticed her to return to town permanently. Shane knew it was for his benefit. Joe Langtry loved to control situations and Shane believed his father thought he and Lexi would one day take another stab at what they'd lost.
Shane married Sharon, and for their son Dylan's sake he kept up the facade even though he didn't love his wife. Shortly after Dylan's first birthday, Tab Fanning, Shane's biggest rodeo rival, rode into town and turned his world upside down when he claimed to be Dylan's father.
Shane hadn't wanted to believe the child he'd grown to love wasn't his, and Sharon fed him lie after lie, swearing Dylan was his son. He convinced himself that it didn't matter. He loved Dylan and at this point didn't care who the father was, until a courtordered paternity test proved otherwise. Shattered when Tab took Dylan away, Shane immediately sent Sharon packing.
Before walking out the door, Sharon admitted she had only wanted the Langtry money and had intended to get pregnant that lone night with Shane. Her fatal flaw was sleeping with one too many cowboys around the same time. It took every ounce of Shane's strength and that of his brothers not to strangle her on the spot. From that day forward, Shane declared marriage and children off-limits.
Throwing himself into the rodeo and his work on the ranch kept his mind busy and there was no shortage of women to occupy his bed at night. His romantic relationship with Lexi was in the past but the memory of what they'd had plagued him.
They worked together, ran in the same circles and were usually found in the same places after the sun went down, but until Jesse's wedding, Shane wouldn't have even considered the possibility of a second chance. Maybe it was the clever way Miranda, Jesse's wife, paired them together during the ceremony and reception. Or, maybe it was the sight of Lexi in her beaded sage bridesmaid gown. Whatever the reason, the moment she took his arm during the wedding procession, Shane knew where his heart belonged-where it had never left.
"There's my elusive son," his mother greeted him on the dirt path leading to the stables. "I haven't seen you in two days. Thought I'd take a break from the ribbon-cutting preparations and see how Lexi made out." Kay peered up at him. "Have you heard anything yet?"
"It was a success." Shane tilted his hat back and grinned. "Had no doubt she'd get it this time."
"This whole embryo-transfer thing fascinates me. In my day, horses did their mating the old-fashioned way. Speaking of which, how is it going between you and Lexi? I noticed you came in very late the other night. Does that mean you two had a good date?"
"I wouldn't call dinner at the Ragin' Cajun with eight other people a date, Mom." Shane had hoped to get a little alone time with Lexi that night, but they were celebrating their friend Aaron's birthday, and while Lexi had agreed to go with him, she made sure they were never truly alone. "I wish she would trust me more instead of always doing this group thing."
"Give her time, honey." Kay placed her hand over her son's heart. "It wasn't that long ago that you were chasing any female with a pulse, and some of them didn't even have that qualification."
"Ouch, Mom." While he loved his mother for always telling him how it was, her words stung. "I haven't been with anyone since the wedding and it's not for a lack of available women."
"Okay, I may love you unconditionally but that doesn't mean I want to hear about your sex life." Kay wrinkled her nose and feigned a shiver. "You keep those bits and your own bits to yourself. Do you hear me?"
"Yes, ma'am." Shane threw his arms around his mother and gave her a hug. Since his father, Joe, died last year of a sudden heart attack, he realized how short life was and how much he took for granted. He swore he wouldn't repeat past mistakes, especially when it came to family. They meant the world to him and someday he hoped to convince Lexi she did, too.