Second Skin

Second Skin by Alex Whitehall
eBook ISBN: 
978-1-62649-416-9
eBook release: 
Apr 11, 2016
eBook Formats: 
pdf, mobi, html, epub
Word count: 
24,500
Page count: 
103
Type: 
Cover by: 
Ebook $2.99

When Jay heads to the university’s learning center for help with his math class, he doesn’t expect his tutor to be tall, dark, and handsome. But Roswell is all that and more, and their instant connection over cult movies, books, and TV shows quickly evolves into dating.

That’s when things get tricky.

Roswell might claim he doesn’t have issues with Jay being trans, but when he’s constantly insisting they “take it slow,” Jay’s not so sure. He’s been hurt before, and he's not going to let it happen again.

But then Roswell reveals that he, too, has a few secrets under his skin.

This title comes with no special warnings.

Caution: The following details may be considered spoilerish.

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Chapter One

The spring breeze ruffled Jay’s short hair as he followed the brick trail through campus, his messenger bag on his shoulder and the last class’s notes humming in his head.

On a normal day, he would grab lunch before heading back to his dorm. Today, he detoured to the library, home to the various tutoring and help centers.

The front desk directed him where to go. He wasn’t sure if it was commentary about math or about people who needed math help, but math’s tutoring rooms were in the very back, downstairs, in a windowless hall. It was an intimidating location, but the door, covered in brightly colored construction-paper numbers, was cracked open. Jay knocked gingerly, nudging the door to let the guy inside see him when he looked up from the screen.

“Um, hi? I’m looking for math tutoring?”

“Come on in.” The guy spun in his seat and stood.

He was tall and lithe, with ebony curls, a dark complexion, and green eyes that glittered in the overhead light. Everything Jay wanted.

“How can I help you today?”

Wasn’t it obvious? “I’m here for tutoring.”

“What kind of tutoring are you looking for?”

“There’s different kinds?”

“Sure. Are you just having trouble with the current chapter? Are you struggling with math in general? Is the professor going too fast and you need some extra explanations?”

“Oh.” Wow. He hadn’t thought about it. In fact, he hadn’t really considered getting a tutor until his friend Connor had mentioned it. He wasn’t doing great in the class, but he wasn’t failing. Usually he thought he understood what was going on, but at the end of every section, when he handed in a paper, the grade he got back told him that he was missing something. And it wasn’t that the professor was going too fast. It sort of felt like he was moving too slowly sometimes.

Jay must have spaced out, because the curly-haired cutie in front of him smiled, and damn if that didn’t make him twelve times hotter.

“Well, I can walk you through figuring out what you need. What class are you taking?”

“Theoretical and Philosophical Math.”

The guy laughed, and Jay was ready to bolt until the tutor said, “Sorry! Not laughing at you. You’ve completed my set. You’re the last one in the class to come down for tutoring. Dr. Riahn always gives me the class list to know who to expect. I was wondering if I’d get to meet you.”

Jay stared. Just stared. Everyone else had already come in for help? He wasn’t sure if that made him the smartest in the class or the dumbest. “Oh.”

“Though, I thought . . .” The tutor went over to a filing cabinet and shuffled through, then pulled out a thick folder and a sheet of paper. He skimmed it, his brow furrowing, and his eyes rose back to Jay. “Um, are you Jenna Watkins?”

Jay cringed. “I go by Jay. But, yeah, Jenna’s my given name.”

There was a moment of visible confusion before understanding lit the guy’s face. “Gotcha. Well, let’s take a look at the schedule and see where we can fit you in.”

“Thank you. So, um, you’re the tutor for the class?”

“Yes. I’m the only one who has taken Riahn’s theoretical class. It’s not a requirement. Hell, it’s barely math. I think most math majors go running the other way when they see Borges on the book list.”

“Well, the class doesn’t deal a lot with numbers, that’s for sure. It’s sort of why I took it, but now I’m regretting it,” Jay admitted.

“Don’t worry. We’ll help you figure everything out. It’s not an easy class, but Dr. Riahn is a fair grader, plus coming in for tutoring gets you extra points in his book.”

“Now I wish I’d come in earlier.”

“So do I.” The guy winked. Flirting? Although it looked a little forced. Maybe it was just playful. Yet the smile that went with it . . . “Here are the days I’m in. Any of the times work for you?”

Jay hoped he wasn’t blushing and focused doubly hard on the schedule the tutor had pulled up on the computer screen. Strangers didn’t usually tease him, especially after they found out he’d been assigned female at birth. Well, at least not teasing in a friendly manner. “Um, Monday at seven?”

A few clicks and Jay was entered into next week’s schedule. “Okay. Do you want me to save that time for you every week?”

How he wished that was as much of a come-on as it sounded in his head. “Probably should. I don’t see myself suddenly having an epiphany.”

“Entered and entered. Mondays at seven. I’m looking forward to it.” He held out his long-fingered, slender hand and beamed a smile. “Roswell, by the way.”

Jay accepted the handshake, heat tingling down his arm at the warm, firm hold. “Thank you. I mean, I’m Jay. Which you know. Um, so, I guess I’ll see you on Monday?”

“Yep.” Roswell nodded. “Unless you’re grabbing lunch after this? I get off in five. We could go together.”

Jay clenched the strap of his messenger bag and forced himself not to look down as heat crept up his neck. “Um. If you want. I mean, yes, I’m getting lunch and I’d like you to join me.”

Could he curl into a ball and hide now? Did he have any control over the words coming out of his mouth?

But Roswell’s face lit up. “Excellent. You don’t mind hanging around? I’d sneak out early, but the girl who comes in after me doesn’t have a key. Feel free to pull up a seat.” He gestured to the basic student chair on the other side of the desk. “And tell me to shut up if I ramble.”

“Go ahead.” Jay plopped into the seat and swung his bag onto his lap, fiddling with the zipper. “It’ll keep me from inserting a foot in my mouth.”

“Is that an opening for an inappropriate comment?”

He must be glowing red by now. He thumped the heel of his palm against his forehead. “See what I mean? Jeez, you’d think I could have a normal conversation without making an ass of myself.”

“No, you’re fine! I’m just teasing.” Roswell stood and circled around the desk to casually lean against it. Jay kept his eyes locked on Roswell’s knees, trying to ignore the long, slender legs they were attached to. “So what’s your major?”

Jay shrugged. “Undecided. Though I’m pretty sure I can cut math out of the running.”

“You never know. I’ll give you a full assessment on Monday. Anyway, Riahn’s class is heavy-duty—it’s not anything to judge math on. Trust me, I’ve taken most of the classes.”

“So, a math major, right?”

“Through and through. I actually came here for anthropology, but it’s more fun to study people as individuals.”

“So why not psychology?” Jay’s eyes snuck upward until he was actually looking at Roswell’s face. Roswell was openly studying him, and while it made his heart pound, he didn’t turn away.

“That’s mainly studying screwed-up people. And I’m not great with understanding people. But I want to learn about them. I figured I could become an actuary or do people’s taxes or something, and honestly, I’m good at math. Numbers are the universal language. So what are you good at?”

“Besides fitting my size eights in my mouth?”

Roswell chuckled, shaking his head and tossing his glossy curls. “Yes, besides that.”

“I like drawing, and I’m pretty good at it, but I can’t imagine making a job of it. Unless I plan to make being unemployed a job, you know? And science . . . well, I don’t know which field I’d specialize in, and it takes so many years to get a degree that’s worth anything, right? Unless I want to teach high school, and I think if I went that route, I could become an elementary school teacher instead.”

“So when you say ‘undecided,’ you mean it.”

“One hundred percent.”

“Hey, that means you’re able to do anything. The potential!” Roswell flashed a grin, then a look at his watch. “And we are five minutes closer to lunch.” He gestured, palm up, at the door, and on cue, a redhead in pigtails, thick black-framed glasses completing the ensemble, bounced through. “Right on time, Becky! And we’re out of here.”

Jay didn’t miss the questioning glance Becky tossed Roswell, but he looped his bag over his head and stepped into the hall. Roswell followed, and they went to the cafeteria. There was some brief confusion as they went in different directions to get their food—Jay for the imitation Chinese food and Roswell for the vegetarian platters—but they eventually found each other again and grabbed a table.

“Hey, that doesn’t look half bad,” Jay said, eyeing the salad smothered in cheese, eggs, and some unrecognizable sauce. “Wait, is that a burger?”

“Portobello mushroom, actually.” Roswell folded back the bun to reveal the obviously-not-burger. “And it’s tastier than it looks. Maybe you can try it sometime.”

Jay stabbed his lo mein. “I guess it’s better than eating this shit every day.”

That,” Roswell poked toward Jay’s platter with his fork, “gets old fast. Though I won’t deny sneaking some when they have their veggie stuff out. It’s questionably even vegetarian, but what can I say? It’s a weakness.”

His self-deprecating smile made Jay’s skin warm. “As weaknesses go, that’s pretty tame.”

“Well, good. Or should I be working up to bigger ones?” He took a crunchy bite of salad. “But I must say I love my greens.”

“So you don’t mind that I’m . . .” He tapped his plate with his fork.

“A dirty flesh eater?” Roswell asked with a wink. “No. I don’t like eating animals myself, but I don’t feel qualified to tell people what to do in their dietary habits. Unless you’re a cannibal.”

“No cannibalism here.”

“Glad to hear. Though I will say there are health benefits to a vegetarian diet . . .” Roswell trailed off, and when Jay motioned for him to go on, he grinned, which shouldn’t have made Jay’s pulse race. “It’s lots of lean proteins, and you always get your daily servings of fruits and vegetables. Super healthy as long as you’re eating well-rounded and not, like, cheese pizza and french fries.”

“Wait, that’s not a well-rounded meal?” Roswell’s eyes bugged, and Jay chuckled. “I keeed, I keeed!”

“Jerk.” A moment’s uncertainty before Roswell was grinning again. “I’ll shut up now. Just, when I got here—to college, I mean—I studied what people ate and thought about what I should be eating, and about my previous diet. I swear I’m not fanatical or anything.”

Jay thoughtfully chewed a bite of egg roll. “Sounds like something a fanatic would say.”

“Damn, you’re onto my master plan.”

“To be a fanatic?”

“And convert the rest of the world without them knowing.” Roswell cackled. It was the dramatic cackle that did it. Jay slapped a hand over his mouth so he didn’t choke or spit out egg roll everywhere. Of course, that set Roswell off laughing, which didn’t make it any easier for Jay to swallow what was left in his mouth and clear his throat.

“Jeez! You’re a dangerous man!”

“Who, me? Harmless, absolutely harmless. Mostly.”

Jay gulped down his water and had to catch his breath. “Mostly harmless, huh?”

Roswell waggled his eyebrows. “Mostly.”

That shot them into a discussion of Douglas Adams, the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy movie, and the direction it went. And that led to the age-old debate about books becoming movies and the inevitable changes that happen. Roswell was disgustingly in defense of the movies.

“It’s not that I don’t see your point,” Jay grumbled, standing and slinging his messenger bag over his shoulder. “But it’s hard to see something great turned into something good because of media constraints. Why tarnish the quality just to open it up to a wider audience who most likely won’t take the extra step to appreciate the brilliance of the original?”

“But they still get to experience the good of the movie, don’t they?”

“Assuming the movie is good. Did you see—gosh, what did they call it—The Seeker? Great book. Horrible movie.”

“Never read the book it was based on, but yeah, I see your point there. But even that could make friends start talking about the book—if some read it and others didn’t—and then maybe those friends would also want to read it!”

“You are way too optimistic.” Jay playfully bumped his shoulder against Roswell’s, like he’d do to Connor, and before he could be embarrassed at the assumed familiarity, Roswell grabbed him around the neck, pulled him under his arm, and gave him a noogie. “Gah!”

Roswell released him with a laugh and shuffled his feet. “Uh, sorry. Guess I got carried away.”

“It’s fine.” Jay combed his hands through his hair, trying to flatten it again. “My friend Connor is a tank. If I roughhouse with him, I’m a pancake. This just needs a comb.”

Roswell eyed him appraisingly. “Maybe you look good with messy hair.” Jay flushed, but before he could stutter out a reply, Roswell said, “So where are you headed now?”

“Back to my dorm. You?”

“I have class in an hour.” He paused, as if waiting for something. “Want to hang out?”

Really? Jay almost asked, which was pretty pathetic. But when an older, cuter guy suddenly started paying him attention, it tended to make his brain go on vacation. At least he managed to not actually say it.

“Sure.” He just wouldn’t think about the last guy he’d insta-crushed on and how well that had turned out. “Um, my dorm has a common area we could go to.”

“Sounds good.”

So Jay led him toward the dorm. “Um, can I ask a question?”

“Yes?”

“Roswell. Is that a nickname?”

“No. No. Um, my parents were conspiracy theorists, and when they had me, they thought it would be a perfect name. They might have been high at the time too, but I don’t have any proof.”

“Did you get a lot of flak for it in school?”

“Not as much as you’d think. Most people call me Ros.”

“Do you prefer that?”

Roswell shrugged. “Doesn’t really matter. It’s my name, I’m used to it, but calling me Ros does cut down on the strange looks I get from other people.”

“I bet.”

“So, can I ask you a question?”

Jay took a deep breath in preparation for what was coming. “Sure.”

“Did you go with Jay because it’s so close to your given name?”

Not as bad as he’d feared. “Pretty much. My parents weren’t really thrilled when I told them I was a guy, and we have kind of a don’t-ask, don’t-tell rule in my house. So they’ll call me Jay like it’s short for Jenna.”

“That stinks.”

“Hey, it’s not too bad. Yeah, they don’t want to talk about it, or think about it, but they love me.”

“Is that the name you want, though?”

“No.” He opened his mouth, ready to overshare about how it was a child’s name and was about the same as calling him by his given name and how sometimes he hated it. Instead, his shoulders rose and fell. “Like I said, I’m willing to do it to keep the peace. They’re . . . getting better. In a birthday card—’cause they couldn’t say it to my face, I guess—they said that they’d help me with transitioning if I need financial support.”

Roswell’s steps faltered. “So, they don’t . . . But then they . . .”

“I think it’s more that they can’t understand how I’m a guy, and it just freaks them out a little to think about. So yeah, they think of me as Jenna, but they still want me to be happy.”

“That’s . . . actually kind of enlightened.”

“It is. I love them. You know, as much as you can love your parents while they’re terribly embarrassing.” Jay flashed a grin, but it faded when Roswell didn’t return it. Shit. He’d put his foot in his mouth again, hadn’t he? He should have known better than to assume Roswell was still on good terms with his parents—or that his parents were alive. Shit. Shit. Shit. “So . . .”

And he’d be damned if he could think of anything to say after that.

Roswell didn’t seem to notice. His eyes were focused ahead, staring at something that wasn’t there. Jay shoved his hands in his pockets and walked beside him, letting the silence linger and deaden between them, hoping it would lighten as time passed.

It didn’t.

“Oh.” Roswell blinked and glanced around. “Sorry, I think I, uh, was daydreaming there. What were we saying?”

“I was just talking about my god-awful English class,” Jay lied. Roswell slid a half smile his way—sad, but appreciative. “What about you?”

“Math, math, and more math. And a theater class because I put off my arts requirements out of sheer fear.”

“Really? You seem like you’d be a natural. You’re so—” he gestured, but Roswell didn’t fill in the blank “—exuberant.” Jay covered his face in embarrassment.

Roswell playfully elbowed him in the side. “That’s a compliment, right? No, I’m fine in small groups, but more than three people and I get stage fright. Like they’ll see me for the—the thing, uh, the dork that I am.”

“Yeah, I can understand that.” Another reason he planned on taking a drawing class, despite the expense and amount of time it took. He was not doing any type of performance thing. “So are you surviving the theater class?”

“It’s not too bad. We do most of it in smaller groups. Though, of course, all the scored stuff is the whole class. Our professor works hard to make everyone friendly with each other, so it doesn’t feel like you’re going to be laughed off stage. Most the time.”

“Yeah. I still couldn’t do that.” He exaggerated a shiver.

When they reached Jay’s dorm, Roswell let Jay swipe his card and then held open the door for him.

“Thanks.”

Up five flights, then down a hall plastered in pinks and purples to the slightly less color-offensive common room. A bony dorm couch was flanked by two equally stiff lounge chairs that sat opposite a television that only ran the school’s station. On the other side of the room, a table and four chairs waited for people to study. They were all empty.

“Uncomfortable couch or unforgiving chairs?”

“I’ll take column A, Alex.”

Jay headed for the couch. “The answer is, ‘Forty-two.’”

Roswell flopped down beside him. “Oh, that’s a toughie. Ummmm . . . What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?”

“Ding-ding-ding! Now tell him what he’s won!”

“I think you’re mixing game shows.”

“God, I probably am. I never watch Jeopardy. It just reminds me how much I know nothing about.”

They discussed what shows they watched and complained about ones that had been canceled. Standard stuff Jay often talked about with friends, in real life and on the internet. He’d met other nerds on campus, good friends, but he hadn’t found anyone he clicked with quite like Roswell. He’d never imagined a guy could come in such a perfect package.

Roswell was funny and nice, just awkward enough not to make Jay feel outclassed, and he liked the things Jay did—or could argue a good reason why he didn’t. And that wasn’t even touching on his looks. He definitely didn’t look like a stereotypical geeky math major. Except for maybe one they’d put in a hot-guys calendar, where wearing glasses indicated nerd status.

That made him wonder what Roswell would look like in glasses. He tried to envision it. Elegant wire frames or big, black horn-rims? Jay had to suppress a grin.

“I didn’t think time-travel theories were that funny . . .” When Jay’s grin stuck, Roswell shifted, seeming uncomfortable. Jay felt bad, but now Roswell looked more like that nervous geek. “What’s so funny? Do I have something on my face?”

“No. No! I just . . .” He shook his head and waved a hand. No way was he admitting to picturing Roswell shirtless with dorky glasses on. “Just had one of those random thoughts pop into my head. Go on.”

Roswell let it go, the discomfort melting into amusement. “Well, as I was saying . . .”

And the moment was saved.

Unfortunately, the hour passed quickly. Too soon Roswell had to leave for his class, and Jay made his way down the hall to his room. Thankfully, his roommate, Tara, was out. He got along with her well enough, he guessed, but he would much rather spend some time alone thinking about Roswell and if that farewell had been as flirty as he thought.

from Love Bytes Reviews

[A] thoroughly enjoyable story.

from Crystals Many Reviewers

[T]he author’s writing is strong and the storyline flows well.