A New Leash on Life

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9780553586350: A New Leash on Life

Dog trainer Jane Connor has always preferred the company of canines, so when her kennel is destroyed in an Arizona wildfire, she finds her whole world in ashes. Jane managed to rescue all the animals, but her status as a local hero won’t pay the bills. Soon she’s reluctantly agreeing to work on a reality TV series about life on the dog show circuit–starring herself and her golden retriever, Shadow.

Jane has complete confidence in Shadow’s star quality–until she sets eyes on their chief competitor:an irritatingly perfect little papillon! Worse, the dog is attached at the leash to hunky Cole Forrest. Jane can hardly hide her attraction off-camera, so how will she conceal it from a national audience? It’s exactly the kind of distraction
she doesn’t need. But in a summer of surprises, Jane just might discover that an old dog learn new tricks–when love is the treat.

"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.

About the Author:

EMILY CARMICHAEL, the award-winning author of more than twenty novels and novellas, has won praise for both her historical and contemporary romances. She currently lives in her native state of Arizona with her husband and a houseful of dogs.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

chapter 1

THE DOG days of summer had begun in earnest--the true dog days, that is. Dog shows. Obedience trials. Agility trials, hunting tests, herding trials, tracking tests, and so on, all summer long. Not that these activities didn't pop up during the winter months. They did. But the true frenzy blossomed with the spring flowers, new grass, and tender green leaves, as dog fanciers everywhere planned their dog-show itineraries, packed collars, leashes, brushes, and chow, and looked forward to summer competition and fun.

June in Arizona brought soaring temperatures in the desert and a thaw of the last snow in the mountains. In those same mountains, the first dog show of the season took place outside among the pines of Flagstaff, where competitors gasped for oxygen in the seven-thousand-foot elevation. One of those gasping stood at the entrance to Ring 12, but her rapid breathing came from a case of nerves, not lack of oxygen. She was accustomed to the thin air. She was also accustomed to the tension of waiting to compete, but that didn't make the wait any easier.

Fun, Jane Connor reminded herself as she stood with her dog Shadow, waiting to go into the obedience ring. This is fun. Fun, fun, fun.

Of course it was fun. Dogs were the love of Jane's life. In fact, they were her life--her livelihood and her recreation. More than a hobby, dog training and handling were the things she did best. Competition was her life's blood, and winning was to her soul like air was to her lungs.

All in good fun, of course.

"This is fun," she repeated quietly to the alert young golden retriever sitting in perfect heel position at her left side. Shadow looked up at her with a doggy smile on his face. His dark brown eyes seemed to laugh. No matter the stress of the moment, Shadow always had fun.

The judge in Ring 12 was taking his time filling out paperwork. The ring steward had called Jane's number a good five minutes ago for this runoff--the American Kennel Club's version of a tiebreaker. Any bobble or hesitation in this performance could spell defeat, and waiting at the gate built tension to an almost sickening level. Jane could feel her focus slipping, minute by minute. Couldn't these people be a little more on the ball?

Finally, the judge finished writing, stuck the paperwork beneath a weight to guard it from the wind, and looked up at Jane with a smile. "Number two-five-one?"

Jane made the effort to return the smile. "Yes, sir. Two-five-one."

"Good. Come on in, please."

Quietly she commanded Shadow to pay attention, then they stepped into the ring and she surrendered the dog's leash to a ring steward.

"You are tied for a placement in this class," the judge told her, as if she didn't already know. Earlier that morning she and Shadow had done a bang-up job in Utility class, the most difficult level of obedience competition. She and Shadow needed a high placement in the class to earn points toward Shadow's obedience championship title. Today he really did deserve those points, because his earlier performance had been nothing short of flawless. Hand signals, scent discrimination, retrieving, jumping--he'd done it all with style and enthusiasm. The judge hadn't specified, but Jane suspected this was a runoff to determine first place.

"This will be a heel-off-lead exercise," the judge explained. "Are you ready?"

Jane took a deep breath. Glancing down at Shadow, she checked that the dog's attention was riveted on her. "Ready!" she declared.

"Forward," the judge ordered.

They marched around the ring at the judge's direction, performing the peculiar dance of the obedience competition ring. Forward, halt, fast, slow, left turn, right turn, and more of the same choreography--no vocal commands allowed in Utility class, only hand signals. But Shadow caught every signal, his eyes never straying from Jane. They moved together like experienced dance partners, never missing a beat.

If the dog faltered a bit in one turn, lagging just a hair, it was still only a sliver away from perfection. And his final slide into a sit might have been just a tad crooked. But all in all it was a superior performance, especially considering that the wind was wreaking noisy havoc with all the tents and shade canopies on the show grounds, threatening to turn them into kites, and worse still, a kid with popcorn sat not five feet from the ring, his aromatic bag of buttery treats held exactly at golden retriever nose level.

"Awesome!" Blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jenny Sachs clapped Jane on the shoulder as she left the ring. "Good going, Jane!"

Jenny had been standing at ringside with the other Utility exhibitors awaiting the presentation of awards and scores. This morning Jenny's little Shetland sheepdog had flunked the class when he had knocked the bar from a jump, but Jenny didn't seem to mind the zero score. She always seemed to have fun--win, place, or lose. Sometimes Jane wished she had Jenny's carefree attitude.

"You think it was good?" Jane asked Jenny.

"Excellent! Really."

"I thought there was a little lag on the about turn."

"Half point, if the judge saw it at all. Uh-oh!" Jenny's voice dropped ominously. "Look who you're up against."

Jane turned to watch her competitor walk into the ring. He had a smile on his face and a tiny black and white dog at his side. This puny little dog had earned the same score as Shadow? Jane thought. Amazing.

"A papillon, of all dogs!" she scoffed. "Give me a break!"

"This pap is very good," Jenny warned. "I watched her at the Albuquerque trials last month. It's just disgusting that a dog can be so cute and so smart at the same time."
Jane made a face.

"Well, Shadow, too," Jenny revised. "Shadow's smart, and cute as a bug, too."

Now Shadow looked disgusted.

"I mean, handsome. Shadow is handsome. Gorgeous. Oh, my! Get a load of that heeling."

Jane's heart sank as she watched. The papillon pranced at her handler's left side like an animated dust bunny, not budging an inch from perfection no matter what the man did. She looked like a gremlin wind-up toy with her delicately fringed butterfly-wing ears, her toothpick legs, and her perkily curled tail.

The man in the ring was not as accomplished as his dog, however. He clearly didn't have the practiced perfection of an experienced competitor. With such a small dog he should have shortened the length of his stride and taken more care to keep his big feet out of the little pap's way. His turns were not quite square, and he stopped too fast when the judge gave the order to halt. All of that should have put the little dog at a disadvantage, but instead, she compensated for his small blunders, adjusting herself flawlessly to the difficult pace and folding herself into a precisely straight sit when her master stopped.

The best part of the performance, Jane had to admit, was that the peculiar pair seemed to have such a good time together. The man positively beamed when he looked down at his toy-sized dog, and the dog's tiny jaws gaped in a self-satisfied grin. They were truly an example of what dog sport was all about, a pleasure for any obedience trainer to watch--unless that trainer happened to be in direct competition with all that perfection.

"Wow!" Jenny exclaimed as their performance ended. "Did you see that?"

"I did," Jane growled.

"Your handling was way better."

"You don't get points for handling."

"Well . . . I still think you probably won."

"Not a chance." Jane tried to sound casual. "That little papillon deserves first place." She glanced ruefully down at Shadow, who grinned up at her, his big tongue lolling from his mouth. Unlike Jane, Shadow didn't seem to care who won.

Jane's prediction was right on the money. Five minutes later she stood in the ring with six other qualifying exhibitors. Twenty dogs had been entered in Utility class, but only these few had earned the minimum score required to pass. Jane pasted a smile on her face while she accepted second place, applauding with the others as the papillon and her handler soaked up the glory of first place, along with the obedience championship points the win afforded them.

"Losing builds character," Jane told Shadow when they'd  returned to the relative privacy of her shade canopy. "It's an opportunity for us to show good sportsmanship, you know. You did your best, big guy, and so did I. That's the important thing."

Shadow pretty much ignored the lecture as he walked into his portable exercise pen, slurped a few mouthfuls of water, then curled up on his dog bed for a nap in the shade provided by the canopy.

"Fine. Be like that. You don't want to discuss it? Well, neither do I."

Jane had been on top of the heap for a long time. Ever since she had started training and competing with dogs as a teenager back in Wisconsin, she'd been a natural. She'd started out with a German shepherd, then had taken top honors with a sheltie. In her mid-twenties, she'd gathered titles and blue ribbons in both obedience and herding trials with her border collie Idaho, who now lived a life of retired ease at the Bark Park, Jane's kennel and training business in Arizona.

And then had come young Shadow, now eighteen months old and well on his way to earning his obedience trial championship.

"You'd be a lot closer to a championship today if you hadn't let that little sissy dog squeeze in front of you," she told the golden retriever.

Shadow opened one lackadaisical eye, then shut it. Jane snorted in disgust. She had gotten too accustomed to being the best. Sinking back into the pile of also-rans took some getting used to. Not that she intended to stay there. Dropping into a canvas folding chair, she took off her ball cap and scrubbed her hands through a bad case of hat hair. Hopeless. Her mop of red frizz was far less disciplined than her dogs. Not that she really cared. As far as she was concerned, an act of Congress couldn't make Jane Connor look like anything besides what she was--a horse-faced, frizz-headed woman rapidly closing on middle age. Sometimes she looked at herself in the mirror and wondered if a little more attention to femininity might be worth the trouble. But the answer always came up negative. She had more important things to worry about--like running a business, making a living, and winning competitions.

But not today, obviously. With a sigh, she scraped the thick mass of hair into a ponytail and fastened it with a rubber band.

"Hi there!"

Jane jumped up at the greeting, finding herself confronted by none other than the conqueror of Utility class and his little mouse of a dog, who had just popped around the corner of her enclosed canopy. Jane's face grew warm. She hoped he hadn't heard her crack about "that little sissy dog."

"Uh . . . hi." She tried for a smile but was only half successful.

"Absolutely gorgeous golden retriever."

"He thinks so."

"Well, he should. Handsome fellow."

Jane was surprised to find that the man topped her own five foot ten by at least four inches. When she had seen him in the obedience ring, she'd been so wrapped up in losing that she hadn't paid any attention.

Awakened by the arrival of an admirer, Shadow got off his bed and wriggled his way to the near side of the pen--wriggled because his tail worked so hard that the rest of him wagged back and forth as well. The man laughed.

He had a combustible laugh, Jane noted. It was one of those sounds that could spread like a wildfire, making everyone around him want to laugh also. She hadn't really noticed much about him during his victorious performance in the runoff. The disgustingly perfect little dog had captured all her attention--that and the man's less-than-perfect handling.

But she noticed him now. He was a man, she admitted, that most women would notice. He had an open, amiable face that probably made grannies want to pinch his cheeks. His black hair lay in a conservative trim that might have been a bit nerdy, but somehow fit him. Dark, deep-set eyes sparkled with good humor. Khaki slacks and a sweater didn't exactly show off his physique, but his shoulders stretched from here to there very nicely, and he had enough height to place Jane at an unexpected disadvantage.

Jane did not like being at any kind of a disadvantage, especially with some guy who had just left her in the dust in a competition.

"My name's Cole Forrest, by the way, and this"--he glanced at the little papillon who sat politely at his side--"is Dobby. We wanted to stop by and say what a nice job you two did in the ring today."

"Jane Connor." She nodded and stuck her hands in the pockets of her jeans. "And this is Shadow." Shadow waved his tail at the sound of his name. "Did you say the pap's name is Bobby?"

He laughed again. "Not Bobby. Dobby. My daughter named her after the house elf character in the Harry Potter series."

"Ah." A daughter.

"I saw you and Shadow in Open today and again in Utility," Cole said amiably. "Really nice performances."

The fellow was simply trying to be a gracious winner, Jane reminded herself, though the compliment sounded a bit condescending to her. As if she needed condescension from some dork whose dog had to save him from amateurish handling mistakes. But then, she might be a bit sensitive on that score.

"Thank you," Jane said, laboring to be polite. "She's a cute papillon. Did you show her in Open as well as Utility?" Open class was one level below Utility, and most truly competitive dogs showed in both classes. "I didn't see you there."

"We were in the ring early. Didn't qualify. Dobby stood up on the down-stay. She was distracted by a kid screaming at ringside."

"Oh. That's too bad. It's hard to prepare a dog for something like that." Jane managed to stifle a smug grin. "Your Dobby does very well," she added generously, "for a toy breed." It was her turn to be condescending.

If he noticed, he didn't take offense. "Not too many toys seem to be in competition. Dobby's my first try at this. Actually, she's my first dog since the collie I had when I was three."

His first dog. Criminy! Not only beaten, but beaten by a novice handler. How humiliating!

"Terrific," Jane choked out. "Congratulations on your win."

Shadow gave a soft woof, not loud enough to be rude, but a reminder that he deserved a bit of attention, too. Dobby's ears--easily the biggest appendages she owned--perked in the golden's direction. Cautiously the tiny dog eased forward and poked her nose through the wire exercise pen, just a millimeter or so, but enough to extend a friendly invitation to become acquainted. Shadow responded in kind, carefully touching his nose to hers.

Apparently satisfied that the big golden retriever posed no threat, Dobby squeaked out a little bark and commenced a delighted little dance. Shadow answered with a considerably more substantial bark. He bowed, his tail waving in anticipation of a friendly romp.

"Sorry, Shadow," Jane said, watching them. "You're too big to play with her."

"She's a flirt," Cole admitted, glancing up. "Never gets intimidated by the size of the competition. Dobby's willing to take 'em all on, both in play and in the ring."

"About this title" may belong to another edition of this title.

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