My hands go to my waist when I make eye contact with a scrawny intern up ahead wearing gray slacks and a loose white button down. He’s carrying a clipboard and taps the guard on the shoulder, leans in to say something, and then the guard waves me through.
“Mr. Amato, I’m Blake,” he says. “I’ll be showing you to the studio today. If you need anything, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”
He speaks calmly and clearly, though his eyes are lit with excitement. Blake can’t be much older than twenty or twenty-one, but I can tell he takes his position here very seriously.
“Have you ever co-hosted with us before?” he asks.
We make our way to an elevator labeled “private,” and he punches in a code that opens the doors.
“We have you set up in one of the guest dressing rooms. I was told you didn’t have a rider, so I did my best to stock your room with the kinds of things most of our guests ask for. Bottled water. M&Ms. Pretzels. Fresh fruit. If there’s anything else you need, please don’t hesitate to let me know.”
We ride the elevator to the fourth floor, and the moment the doors part we’re greeted by a woman with wild dark ringlets and a wireless headset on her ears.
“He’s here,” she says into a corded microphone on her shoulder. “Mr. Amato, I’m Michelle. I run this ship. We’re glad to have you, but we need you in hair and make up immediately.”
I nod, stepping off the elevator and following Michelle and Blake down a dark corridor.
She spins as we’re walking, giving me a look from head to toe. “The beard. Is it new? You didn’t always have it, right?”
My hand drags through the wiry hairs that cover my face.
And the scar.
“It’s new,” I say.
Up ahead, the two of them come to a hard stop outside a door with my name on it. Blake raps three times before shoving it open.
“Oh, good, you guys are here,” he says before turning to me. “All right. Hair and makeup, and then I’ll be back shortly to go over programming.”
“Where’s Topaz?” Michelle asks, leaning in the doorway. I’ve yet to step inside.
“Long story,” a woman’s voice says. “I’m filling in.”
“You have a name?” Michelle squints. I don’t think she’s trying to be rude, she’s just one of those people who won’t have time for pleasantries when she’s about to put on a live show in the next half hour.
“Aidy,” she says. “Aidy Kincaid.”
Michelle exhales, lips flat. “Okay, Aidy, are you familiar with hot lights and studio makeup?”
“Yes, ma’am. Well versed,” she says, her voice laced in humble confidence.
Michelle gives her a thumbs up before hooking Blake’s arm and dragging him down the hall.
Pulling my shoulders tight, I take a deep breath and step in. There are two women on the far side of the small room, one wielding a boar bristle brush and a can of hair spray and the other, who is evidently the very same mystery woman whose kid handed me her business card just last night, hunched over a makeup case with her back to me.
“We’re doing hair first,” the first woman says. “Shouldn’t take long. Makeup’s the part that takes forever. These damn hot lights.”
I stand, eyes moving toward Aidy’s backside. She’s wearing white jean shorts that barely cover her ass, and they’re frayed at the bottom. Her legs are long and tan, muscled yet lean, like a runner’s. The off-shoulder blouse she’s wearing shows off her smooth back and her blonde hair is loose and wavy, dusting the tops of her shoulders when she moves.
“Have a seat, Mr. Amato,” the hair stylist says, draping a black smock around my shoulders and tying it behind my neck. “Make yourself comfortable. You need any water or anything?”
“I’m good.” My gaze is fixed on Aidy still, watching as her shirt rides up and gives a peek of her bare flesh, which is tan and contrasts against her distractingly short shorts.
“Love your hair. I’m Stacia by the way,” she says, dragging her fingers through my mane. “This cut looks fantastic on you. Wasn’t expecting you to come in with a full beard though. Most of my guys are clean-shaven. I can shave you if you’d–”
“Okay, no biggie,” Stacia says, crouching to a duffel back on the floor. “You know; I think I actually have some beard balm in here, believe it or not. We really want it to look soft and conditioned, but we don’t want it too shiny under the lights, you know?”
She’s talking to herself at this point, at least as far as I’m concerned, and my attention is still pointed at Aidy as she rifles through her makeup case.
“Found it,” Stacia declares a moment later. She returns to my side, a brush tucked under one arm and a concentrating expression on her face. Her hair is dyed platinum blonde, and she wears skintight leggings with some space-themed print on them. Stacia reminds me of a Swedish pop star with a Brooklyn accent. “Here we go.”
She runs her brush through my hair, shaping it in the direction she wants it to go, and then whips out a can of aerosol hairspray.
“Close your eyes,” she says.
My nostrils tickle and I cough up half a lung, waving the cloud of chemicals out of my airspace.