Chapter 1

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Don't rain on my parade


Anyone with hair knew when the winds picked up in Santa Barbara it became a full-time job looking good. Windswept didn’t begin to describe the effect; think tousled, uncombed, or wild enough to send a well-appointed woman racing for cover. Stunning and gorgeous are instantly downgraded to “attractive” or worse… “interesting.”

Barely noticed, a flicker of sunlight reflected on the pavement at the 17th Annual Santa Barbara Dog Pageant, and a keen eye followed the luminous glimmer through a sea of spectators and quickly spotted a striking mane of long dark hair. Turned into the wind like a sloop on a leeward course, her coiffeur perfectly adjusted away from her face as a sail would from a mast. Piercing chestnut eyes squinted back from a pocket mirror, until finally a large Roman nose appeared. A set of full crimson lips reflected back as she touched them up with Chanel Candy Cerise.

Twenty-three years old, dressed in an ivory cashmere ruffled-edge cardigan, a rose pink T-shirt, and slim-jim jeans, Robin Dessein was as stunning as the three contestants accompanying her.

Catching a glimpse of her three tiny Shih Tzu pooches in the mirror, Robin twirled on her flats like a ballet dancer completing a perfect pirouette and furiously grabbed her hair before it attached to her tacky lipstick. Face to the wind again, she quickly stooped to fuss over her dogs.

GINGER

“Ginger, you look gorgeous! Here let me straighten your topknot.”

A classic-cut butterscotch and white show dog wannabe, Ginger survived the puppy mill with only one eye intact, causing her to often sport big, black faux Armani doggles. “Shy” easily described Ginger—until she had something to say, and then “little dictator” came to mind.

“Well? Where on earth have you girls been?” Hands on her hips like a stern schoolteacher, Robin waited patiently for a reply. “How about you, Hapi?”

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Hapi, colored brindle and white, often ‘saw’ things the others could not. A little pink tongue hung from her mouth—since most of her missing teeth were still wedged in the grooves of a previous owner’s tire—an attempt at revenge, after his careless driving once bounced her to the curb.

“And you, Missy?” Robin swiped the bottom of the third pooch’s feet with a light, comforting touch. “Is the cement getting hot?”

Missy came off as a bit of a wisenheimer, but only to hide her lack of confidence. Sportive, vigorous, and constantly on the go, she was a dynamo of energy and clearly missing the lap-dog gene. Her topknot, an enormous source of pride, flowed from the top of her head like a spigot of water someone forgot to shut off.

“You all look so cute! I love the gingham ruffle, Missy.” With a faintly toothy grin, Missy looked adoringly at Robin.

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“Ginger, your hat is so chic, so ‘Audrey H.’ You’re just an adorable knock-out like she was.” Robin lowered her sunglasses for a better view. “And what a looker, Hapi! That tie-dye T-shirt is sooo groovy!”

Forever in a constant one-way chatter with her three dogs, Robin continued the conversation without missing a beat, moving from one to the next, flouncing, primping, and fretting over each one, unaware of ‘him’ approaching from behind.

“Hey, I bought you a corn dog!”

Robin jumped up and whirled around to find herself eye-to eye with Sean, People magazine’s image of male perfection and her very own tall, dark, and handsome boyfriend.

“Corn dog, get it? Corny dog? Like this dumb doggie parade.”

“Oh, come off it, Sean. What’s not to like about a dog parade?” She glanced at the corn dog. “No thanks, it’s not on my diet.”

“Diet, schmeit,” grumbled Sean.

Robin rolled her eyes, then bent down to fuss over her dogs a little more and to have a moment to herself. Sometimes I wonder if having a boyfriend is even worth the trouble, she pondered. On the other hand, it’s one more thing I can check off the ‘to do’ list. If only they were as nice as they look.

Indulging in a few more quiet moments with her dogs, she considered her situation. It’s hard work trying to be together and successful at the same time. It shouldn’t have to be so hard! But Dad says I am ‘getting up there,’ so marrying Sean would probably be a lot easier than breaking up with him. Still, I can’t imagine either one.

She glanced toward Sean, whose back was turned to her as he munched the corn dog he’d bought for her. The wind had made a mess of his perfectly groomed hair.

What’s he gawking at? she wondered. Following his gaze, she realized he’d spotted a gorgeous female, who looked maybe eighteen, who was neither sweaty nor disheveled—the exact opposite of what she looked like at the moment.

“Interesting, huh?” she commented.

“Uh, yeah...great bunch of pooches,” Sean replied, trying to cover up what he was really thinking. “Uh, how much longer before the parade, sweetie?”

“Well, ‘sweetie,’ Robin replied, making no effort to disguise the sarcasm. “It shouldn’t be much longer. Besides, don’t you want to see if ‘the girls’ win?”

“Do you really think they have a chance?”

“Wow, thanks, Sean. I love your unwavering support.”

Not a moment too soon, the parade’s majorette blew her whistle, signaling a change in the music.

Missy, Hapi, and Ginger glanced back for one last look at Robin and then to the beat of the Pointer Sisters’ “Jump for my Love,” they leapt into action and joined the parade.

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The Shih Tzu trio were a big hit. Robin loved hearing the crowd’s comments, so she and Sean followed close behind them—but not too close.

“Look at those adorable little Yorkies,” cooed a stylish woman, holding onto her huge black hat as she simultaneously attempted to snap a picture. Robin was about to correct her when Sean lurched forward and threw his arm around Robin.

“Those are Shih Tzu, ma’am!” he informed her. ‘Shih Tzu’ means ‘lion dog’ in Chinese. They were a favorite of Chinese royalty, who kept them safely tucked in their long sleeves.”

The woman smiled broadly. “Well then, you are most fortunate to have such charming dogs.”

“Thanks, we really like them,” Sean replied.

Once the woman moved away, Robin pulled away. “I don’t believe it! One minute you can’t wait to cut out and the next you’re the world’s greatest authority on the breed!”

“I was just trying to be nice.”

Robin stared at him blankly.

Catching her annoyed stare, he turned away. “Quit looking at me like that.”

Still staring, Robin asked, “Why can’t you be nice to the people that really matter—like me?”

“But I am nice to you!” he retorted, turning to face her.

Embarrassed at his overly emotional response, Robin glanced around before giving him a perfunctory poke with her sunglasses. “Only when it’s convenient,” she hissed, “or makes you look good.”

“Oh, come on, Robin. That’s not fair. I’m here, aren’t I? At a Dog Pageant, just for you.”

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“You’re here alright, but why, I haven’t a clue. It’s like you’re here because you have to be—for appearances—like we’re all perfect and everything.” She emitted a low, frustrated growl and then turned to squint at the viewing stand.

“Well, I’d better get up there. Let’s talk about this later.”

She headed for the stage, then took two steps back and said softly, “I really hope we win. We came so close last year.”

Sean gave her double thumbs up. Robin forced a weak smile and then made her way toward the stage to promenade her little dogs in front of the judges.

On stage, queued up for their final viewing, Missy, Hapi, and Ginger chatted amongst themselves.

“Where in the world is she?” Ginger asked, nervously licking her lips.

“Talking to ‘The Loser,’ no doubt,” Missy replied, as she shook her head back and forth, trying to get her topknot to flounce just right. “This wind is terrible! I hope she has the brush. I could use a comb out.”

With one last twitch, her topknot flipped into place. “How do I look, Hapi?”

“Perfecto! Wouldn’t it be great if we won?” Hapi replied. “I’m getting a good feeling about this year!” She tugged at her outfit, trying to pull it over her little butt. “Ohhh, I wish I hadn’t eaten that last bowl of chow.”

Robin appeared. “Okay, ladies. One last comb out and then we’re on. I feel really good about us this year!”

Hapi winked at Missy and Ginger and mouthed the word, “See!” Any bystander would have assumed her gesture was a smile that enhanced her charm.

In one single, familiar motion, Robin moved from one to the next, adjusting their topknots and outfits. Finally, the entourage strolled onto the stage to rapturous applause.

“Obviously a crowd favorite,” proclaimed the announcer. “Robin Dessein and her tiny Shih Tzu are back after coming in second last year.”

In perfect show dog formation, the dogs pranced across the stage to the thunderous applause of the crowd—until the announcer held up both hands and called out, “Okay, okay, folks, that’s plenty. I’m sorry, but we have to continue.”

As they traversed the stage, the dogs were ebullient, their tails wagging like flags waving in a stiff breeze. They performed like seasoned pros, though barely able to suppress their excitement.

“Wow! They wouldn’t stop clapping!” Missy effused. “We’re stars!”

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Ginger flaunted a Hollywood pose. With her little tongue hanging out, Hapi gushed, “Even if we don’t win, we’re stars!”

Elated and excited to share her joy, Robin searched the audience for Sean, only to discover his seat was empty. Crestfallen, in a tone as flat as a drunken tenor, she told the dogs, “Come on, let’s go find Sean.”

Trotting off the stage behind her, the dogs hesitated. “Why does she want to spoil the moment?” muttered Missy.

Robin approached Sean after spotting him toward the back of the crowd, talking with the young woman he’d been ogling earlier. Sean caught her eye, bid a hasty goodbye, and retreated to the lawn in the middle of the audience—seemingly neutral territory.

Hardly able to contain her rage, Robin seethed. “Did you even see us up there?”

Sean pulled her close in a congratulatory embrace and countered, “Of course! You were wonderful—terrific! The crowd loved you!”

Robin accepted his gesture, but not enough to hug him back.

Still “on stage,” the dogs watched the “Robin and Sean show” like a tiny canine Greek chorus.

“He’s such a weasel!” Missy hissed.

“I can think of a lot nastier names,” growled Hapi.

Ginger chimed in. “As I said before…Loser!”

With the timing of a well-trained racehorse and after consulting with the judges, the smiling announcer suddenly bounced to his feet.

“After much deliberation, we have a winner—Robin Dessein and her tiny trio of Shih Tzu!”

Once more the crowd broke into thunderous applause. Like emerging from a dark musty basement into the sunlight, Robin broke into a broad grin after brushing away a tiny, almost imperceptible teardrop from her cheek. Sean attempted to pull her into a congratulatory embrace, but for the first time ever, Robin pulled away, completely aware the spotlight was on her and her magnificent dogs.

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