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Reawaken (Under My Skin #2)
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Losing his adoring husband shattered Tristan Rogers’s world. For the past few years, he’s been going through the motions, running their dog grooming business while hiding the loneliness he feels down to his bones. When he witnesses an ugly breakup between a pretentious customer and his boyfriend, Tristan can’t help but intervene. Something about the unassuming younger man calls to him, and he can’t help wondering if he’s experienced some heartache of his own.
Life took a tragic turn for Jonas “West” Hollis as a teen, and he’s felt indebted to his overbearing lover ever since. Tristan’s kindness draws him from the start, but with his dreams finally in reach, West can’t risk getting close to someone else. Not now that he can live his life and stand on his own merit.
From innocent texts to companionable rides on Tristan’s boat, what starts as an unexpected friendship between the men sparks into undeniable attraction. Neither are ready for anything deeper than a couple of passionate nights wrapped in each other’s arms but their connection becomes too intense for either to ignore. If Tristan and West want to heal their broken hearts, they’ll need a considerable amount of trust and courage—not only in themselves but also each other.
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I flipped the sign on the door to Closed at Doggie Styles, the dog grooming and day-care business I’d owned for the past eight years. It was our late night of the week, when we stayed open until seven. I had just gathered the receipts on the counter when the last customer walked through the entrance, the bell above the door jangling. Glancing over my shoulder, I bristled, even though I knew exactly who the owner of the two remaining dogs was. It was the customer we referred to as Mr. V—which stood for Voldemort—because of his combative and sanctimonious attitude.
“Cool, we’re just about to close up shop,” I remarked in a steady voice, when I really wanted to tell him that it was about damn time.
After he grunted in my direction, which was standard for him, I couldn’t help glancing toward the parking lot, where Mr. V’s younger boyfriend sat in the car parked on the far end of the small lot. I could barely make him out except for the black hoodie that seemed to engulf him and that he wore on regular rotation, whether purposefully or not. I didn’t know why I was so intrigued by him; maybe it was more so because of his relationship to Mr. V. They seemed like such opposites—Boyfriend’s worn hoodie versus V’s crisp, dark suits—but I supposed that wasn’t anything new.
My late partner, Chris, and I also had vastly different interests, but we seemed to work, had even opened this business together. I had met him when I was only eighteen and just coming out, and we had become fast friends first before falling helplessly in love a couple of years later. Guess you could say we’d been together ever since—until he died almost three years ago from brain cancer.
While I was snapping the leashes on V’s two six-year-old sibling pugs, named Coco and Chloe, V shifted around uncomfortably, like he was in a rush. He glanced at his shiny silver watch as if I was infringing on his time, so I moved slower to spite him. Self-important people were frustrating as hell, which was another reason why the boyfriend fascinated me—he seemed humble in contrast. Though he didn’t speak much the couple of times he’d picked up the pugs, and only once did I notice him smirking about something my employee Elijah had said, which made me wonder if he had an equally sarcastic sense of humor.
I watched V head to his expensive blue German car as my employees finished disinfecting the floors on the day-care end. We kept this place squeaky clean—a requirement of any business in the service industry, but with animals, who could spread kennel cough or any other contagious illness like wildfire, hygiene was mandatory.
We’d recently become paperless, or at least we were trying to, so I began scanning the receipts into a computer program Elijah had talked me into. As it turned out, he was great with record-keeping methods—go figure—and I was grateful for it; we’d sort of been a mess since Chris passed away. I glanced up just as Brin and Brooke removed their plastic gloves and threw them over the sink basin to dry. “Are we all good?” Brin asked.
My dog, Mack, a corgi-sheltie mix, nudged at my ankle beneath the desk, where he lay on a cushion. He was nine years old, and the energy at the day-care was too much for him most days, so when I brought him to work with me, he normally stayed underfoot and was always pretty chill.
“Yep. I’ll get the trash,” I replied, tipping my head toward the large black garbage bag we used toward the end of every day. “Have a good night.”
“See you tomorrow,” Brin replied, and I waved in their direction as they headed out the door. Those two had been goofy all day today, and it warmed my heart. Brin, blissfully happy with his new boyfriend, Nick, and Brooke, with her stories about her husband and kids, made our little family here complete. If there was one thing I felt settled about, it was that I had chosen good employees I could trust to get me through some rough times.
I got lost in methodically cleaning up the mess of paperwork spread across the desk, dragging my feet about going home to an empty apartment. It was lonely without Chris, but as the weeks and months went by, that bone-deep sorrow had abated a touch and became my new normal. The pain never really went away; you just learned to live with it.
I’d considered moving because so much of Chris was still inside that place, but I just didn’t have the energy to think about it most days. I had bagged up his clothes and donated them to charity in the weeks after. Chris would’ve rolled his eyes at me because that was my usual MO. I didn’t hold on to most things for too long. I was always cleaning out this or that, and I supposed I could blame my upbringing in the foster care system for that. Everything I owned was always reduced to one garbage bag as I moved from place to place.