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July, present day
The stallion's scream of sexual frustration ricocheted off the walls of a shed that smelled like fresh lumber and honest sweat, both human and horse. The Last Chance Ranch baked under a sun that shone with uncharacteristic ferocity. Clay Whitaker, who'd recently been put in charge of the ranch's stud program, wiped his face on his sleeve.
The new shed could use an air-conditioning unit humans would appreciate it, at least. The horses probably wouldn't care, judging from the ardor of Bandit, the black-and-white paint that claimed a higher stud fee than any other stallion in the Last Chance Ranch.
Despite the heat, Bandit seemed desperate to mount the mare contained in a small pen only a few feet away. He would never get the chance. The pretty little chocolate-and-white paint named Cookie Dough was a decoy. Instead of mating the old-fashioned way, Bandit would have to make do with a padded dummy so that Clay could collect the semen, freeze it and ship it to a customer in Texas. Shipping frozen horse semen promised to add an increased revenue stream to the ranch operation, or so Clay projected it would.
Nick Chance, middle son of the family that operated the ranch, was on hand to help. A large-animal vet, Nick, co-owned the Last Chance along with his older brother, Jack, his younger brother, Gabe, and their mother, Sarah. Clay had known all of them for ten years.
Theoretically, sperm collection was a simple task. Nick would keep a firm grip on Bandit's lead rope as the stallion mounted the dummy, and Clay would move in with a collection tube. Instead, Bandit seemed determined to get to the mare, and both men's yoked Western shirts were stained dark with sweat.
Nick glanced around the small shed. "We need to get us some air-conditioning in here."
"That's exactly what I" The rest of Clay's response was drowned out by another scream from Bandit, right before he did exactly as he was supposed to and mounted the dummy. Grasping the tube, a twenty-five-pound piece of equipment designed to keep the semen at an even temperature, Clay moved in for the crucial part of the operation.
When Bandit was finished, both men stood back to let the stallion rest on the dummy for a moment.
Nick glanced over at Clay. "Shall I offer him a cigarette?"
"I invited Jack to watch, but he declined."
"I'm not surprised." In fact, Clay would have been amazed if Jack had shown up for Bandit's session. Jack didn't much like the idea of collecting and shipping frozen semen, but he recognized times had changed and had agreed to let Clay put his animal science degree to good use.
Still, Bandit was Jack's horse, and Jack thought the collection process was completely undignified. Maybe so, but Jack couldn't argue with the income it would generate. Being in charge of this new operation meant Clay had an important job at the ranch he loved so dearly, but it also allowed him to give something back to the only real family he'd ever had.
Orphaned at three, he'd been shuffled through a series of foster homes until turning eighteen. Then he'd come to work at the Last Chance, where Sarah and her husband, Jonathan, had treated him more like one of their sons than a hired hand. But he'd formed the strongest bond with Emmett Sterling, ranch foreman and the closest thing to a father Clay had ever had. Emmett had recognized that Clay had a brain, and encouraged him to save for college.
Working while he attended school had meant taking six years to complete a four-year program, but now he was back. Jonathan Chance's death from a truck rollover almost two years ago had shocked Clay and made him even more determined to use his education to benefit the family.
Bandit slowly lifted his head as if he'd recovered enough to dismount from the dummy.
"Guess we're about done here," Nick said. "I'll take him back to his stall and then get Cookie Dough."
"Thanks." Clay hoisted the canister to his shoulder and left the shed. On his way to the tractor barn and the incubator he'd set up there, he had to pass by the horse barn, and he glanced around uneasily.
Emmett's daughter, Emily, had arrived late last night so she could help celebrate her dad's sixtieth birthday tomorrow. Her white BMW convertiblesporting a California vanity plate that read SURFS UPsat in the circular drive, top down and tan leather upholstery exposed to the sun. Well, that fit the impression Clay had of herspoiled and irresponsible.
He'd met her at her father's fiftieth birthday, soon after he'd come to work at the ranch; but Clay hadn't seen her since. She might have visited while he was away at college, though she'd made it obvious ranch life didn't suit her.
Emmett had sent her large chunks of his paycheck every month when she was a minor, so the guy was always broke. After she came of age, everyone expected Emmett to have more money. He didn't, and eventually it had come out that he was still writing sizable checks to his daughter.
Although Clay would never say so to Emmett, he along with most everyone at the ranchresented the hell out of the ungrateful little leech. When he'd first met Emily, he'd done what any normal eighteen-year-old guy would do when confronted with a gorgeous blonde. He'd flirted with her.
She'd said in no uncertain terms that cowboys weren't her style. The rejection had stung, but her disdain for cowboys in general had to be even more hurtful to her father. Clay had vowed to forget her hot little body and continue about his business.
Unfortunately the image of her Daisy Dukes and low-cut blouses had stuck with him, no matter how often he'd tried to erase the memory. He could still close his eyes and see her prancing around like she was in some beauty pageant. With any luck she'd packed on some pounds in the past ten years and wouldn't look like that anymore. With any luck, he wouldn't have direct contact with her at all.
So much for luck. Here she came, long blond hair swinging as she walked out of the horse barn with Emmett.
Clay swallowed. Sure enough, she'd put on a few poundsin all the right places. Her black scoop-necked T-shirt had some designer name across the front and, to Clay's way of thinking, the designer should've paid Emily for the display space.
Her Daisy Dukes had been replaced by cuffed white shorts that showed off a spectacular tan. She'd propped oversize sunglasses on her head and now she pulled them down over her eyes as she glanced in his direction.
Clay had no trouble picturing her wearing a bikini and sipping an umbrella drink while she lounged by the pool in her hometown of Santa Barbara. He imagined her smoothing coconut-scented suntan oil over every inch of that gorgeous
Whoa. He'd better shut down that video right quick. No way was he lusting after Emily Sterling. That was a mistake on so many levels. For one thing, he didn't even like her, and he prided himself on only getting involved with likable women.
Emmett looked at him and nodded in approval. "Looks like you got 'er done."
"We did." Clay dredged up a polite smile as he drew closer. "I'm glad your daughter arrived okay." He made out the letters on the front of her shirt. BEBE, with an accent mark over the last E. Probably French for babe. Appropriate.
"She showed up about eleven last night," Emmett said. "I never thought I'd be grateful for cell phones, but I sure am when she's on the road. Emily, do you remember Clay Whitaker?"
"She probably doesn't." Clay adjusted the collection tube, that was getting heavier by the second. "That was a long time ago. Anyway, nice to see you again, Emily. If you'll excuse me, I need to"
"Do what?" She motioned to the metal tube balanced on his shoulder and grinned. "That thing looks like a rocket launcher."
"Um, it's not. Listen, I really have to"
"At least tell me what it is, then."
"Semen collector," Emmett said helpfully.
"Really?" Emily took off her sunglasses and peered at the tube. "So did you collect some semen just now?"
"Yes, and I need to get it into the incubator."
"And then what?"
"Oh, it's a whole process," Emmett said. "Clay studied how to do it when he was in college, and now the Last Chance can ship frozen semen all over the country. All over the world, if we want."
"Flying semen." A ripple in her voice and a glitter in her green eyes suggested she was trying not to laugh. "What a concept. That canister is pretty big. Is there that much of it?"
Dear God. Clay couldn't have come up with a worse topic of conversation if he'd tried all day. "Not really. There's insulation material, and and "
"The AV," Emmett said.
"What's an AV?"
Of course she'd ask.
"It's an artificial va" Emmett stopped and coughed, as if he'd finally realized this really wasn't a fit subject to be discussing with his daughter, who hadn't been raised on a ranch and wouldn't be used to a matter-of-fact discussion of female anatomy.
Clay stepped into the breach. "Artificial vacuum," he said. "It's an artificial vacuum."
"Huh." Emily's brow furrowed. "I'm not sure I understand. Something's either a vacuum or it's not."
Emmett put his arm around her shoulders. "It's complicated. And very technical. Anyway, we need to let Clay get on with his job."
"Right." Emily flashed her even, white teeth and winked at him before replacing her sunglasses. "I don't want spoiled semen on my conscience. See you later, Clay."
"You bet, Emily." He headed off, cursing under his breath and trying to ignore his gut response to that smile. If he didn't know better, he'd classify that wink as flirting; but that couldn't be right. She'd told him once that she was a city girl who had no intention of getting mixed up with a shit-kicking cowboy, and he wasn't about to make the same mistake twice. The perception that she'd flirted with him just now was only wishful thinking on his part.
Stupid thinking, too. How could he have sexual feelings for a woman who continued to bleed her hardworking father for money while sneering at that good man's lifestyle? A woman like that shouldn't interest Clay in the least and definitely shouldn't stir his animal instincts. Ah, but she did. Damn it, she did.
Maybe she presented a challenge to his male ego and all he really wanted to do was take her down a peg. He was far more confident around women now than he had been ten years ago, and he realized that they found him attractive. Could be he'd like to prove to Miss Emily that a shit-kicking cowboy could ring her chimes better than any city boy.
He wouldn't follow up on that urge, though. Emmett had been like family. The guy was his idol. That meant Clay wasn't going to mess with Emily. End of story.
"Clay Whitaker seems to have turned out okay." Emily congratulated herself on sounding vaguely interested, when inside a wild woman shouted Take me, you bad boy! Take me, now!
She watched Clay walk across the open area between the horse barn and the tractor barn. A girl could get used to that viewtight buns in faded jeans and shoulders broad enough to easily support a large canister of horse semen. Horse semen, of all things!
She was dying to know how that process worked. Biology had been her favorite subject in high school, but her mother, a buyer for Chico's, had steered her into fashion design. Unfortunately, she had no talent for it.
Collecting horse semennow that would be interesting. Apparently it was a sweaty job. The back of Clay's shirt clung to his sexy torso and the dark hair curling from under his hat made him look as if he'd stuck his head beneath a faucet. The guy was hot in more ways than one, and pheromones had been coming off him in waves.
He must have had those same deep brown eyes when he was eighteen; but, if so, they hadn't registered with her. Today was a different story. Looking into his gorgeous eyes had produced an effect on her libido that was off the Richter scale. Either Clay had acquired a boatload of sexual chemistry over the years, or she'd been a stupid seventeen-year-old who hadn't recognized his potential.
She wondered if she'd been rude to him back then. At the time she'd been full of herself and full of her mother's prejudices against cowboys. If she had been rude, she hoped he'd forgotten it by now. He probably had, after not seeing her for so long.
"Clay's developed into a top hand." Emmett studied her as if trying to guess what was going on in her head.
"That's good to hear." She didn't want him to figure out what she was thinking, either. "I know you're
fond of him." In fact, she'd been a little jealous over the years when he'd bragged about Clay, although she'd never admit that to her dad. On the other hand, knowing Emmett had Clay had eased her conscience about not visiting more often.
"He's a good guy," Emmett said. "So, do you still want that coffee?"
"What? Oh, right! Yes. Absolutely." At home she'd developed a midmorning Starbucks habit, something she'd confessed to Emmett during their tour of the barn when she realized she was running low on energy. But the encounter with Clay had boosted her spirits without the benefit of caffeine. Still, coffee was always welcome. She fell into step beside her father as they continued on to the house.
"I don't know if I told you that Clay got his degree in animal science this spring."
"I don't think you mentioned that." She knew he wasn't comparing Clay to her, but still, she'd dropped out of college because she couldn't see wasting the money when she didn't know what she wanted to study.
Her mother kept pushing retail, preferably involving fashion. Emily's heart wasn't in it, and finally she'd told her mother so. She'd briefly considered marine biology and had volunteered in the field, but that hadn't felt quite right.
Her current receptionist job couldn't be called a career decision, either. She sighed. "When I see somebody like Clay, who has his act together, I feel like a slacker."