Cruising for Trouble

1

Alex Keys

“Hey girl! How’ve you been?” I raise my hand to the woman carrying the heavy cases of makeup. I would have recognized Alayah Collins anywhere.

“Alex? Oh my God, you should have told me you were coming on this gig!” Alayah sets her bags down on the side of the pier and throws her arms around my neck.

Chuckling, I hug her, inhaling the scent of her perfume, which is floral with a little hint of spice. I love how put-together this woman is.

“I got the call last week. Some big shot at the agency said they wanted only the best stylists. How’d you get called in?” I bend down, picking up one of the cases for Alayah.

She picks up the other two and we continue the mile-long trek down the pier toward the cruise ship. “Oh, same as you. I guess they only want the best stylists. Hair, makeup and well, I’d say you, but…”

I nudge her with my elbow, threatening to push her off the pier as the sound of her laughter fills the air around us. Several men stop to look at her; she’s a gorgeous woman. They look at me with envy, but what most of them don’t realize is that I’m checking them out while they scope her. I don’t fly that way, even as beautiful as Alayah is. I wink at one of them who turns my way, and he suddenly gets the dynamic between Alayah and me. Co-workers, best friends. He ducks his head shyly, and I might be inclined to pursue it further, but we have to get to the boat, and I have a killer headache.

“Did you hear me? I just asked you a question,” she demands.

“Huh?” I turn back to Alayah, who puts a hand on her hip and frowns.

“Alex Keys, where is your head at?”

“Oh, I was just thinking about this guy I met at a club last night. Sorry,” I grin, sheepishly.

“Oh, you better tell me!”

She continues walking and as I inhale the scent of fries, fried dough and the salt air blowing in off the ocean, I close my eyes and try to block out the images of the club from the night before. That mental path only screams public embarrassment and misery below the belt when I remember how erotic it was.

“Yeah, will do. But let’s talk shop first. What do you think they want the best stylists for? I heard it’s a promotional gig, but there are loads of crews who are looking for a breakout session to get into the business. Why pay top dollar for a cruise and the best representation when they could save on budget?” I wonder aloud.

“Maybe it isn’t about the money. Maybe it’s about who or what they’re promoting,” she shrugs. Business is business, I suppose.

“True. So what style are you opting for?” I ask her. Her heels click on the wooden boards and I look down at her caramel colored feet. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Alayah in anything other than heels, but she can have them. I don’t know how her feet can’t be in pain right now though. I only notice the heels because it’s my business to notice and I want to know what’s trending right now. She’s got a sleek, silver number going with some rhinestones on the buckle. Subtle with a little pop of flash.

“You know me, I brought all my makeup trays. I like to have all options available because we never know who we’re going to be working on. One shade here might not be the right shade for the next, right?”

“Very true.”

“Speaking of shades, you aren’t the right shade of perky, Alex. You look pale. Have you had enough water today?”

“Thanks for the concern, Mom, but I know how to do the hangover game.”

“Yeah, I bet you do. And I’m not your mom. She’d whoop your butt if she saw you with those bags under your eyes.”

I laugh, but only because Alayah is telling the truth. If my mom is anything, she’s always been stylish. It’s why she and Alayah get along so well. Alayah is like the daughter she never had. She loves my twin and me. But Aaron has been off the grid for a while and me being an openly gay man has not given her a lot of confidence in the prospects of granddaughters. Mom is a total diva and is anxious to glam someone up as much as she can. She and Alayah can talk for hours about makeup and hair styles. I add my two cents when they start in on the threads.

“The only bags around here are yours, Alayah. My racks have already been delivered to the ship last night. If you think I’ve got enough to carry, you can have this one back,” I hold out the large black tote bag, which is no doubt jam-packed with sample palettes and colors.

She wags a well-manicured finger at me and shakes her head. “Nope. You claimed it, you carry it.”

I grin at her and then my head does a double take. I catch a glimpse of a man’s profile, wearing a white hat, walking in the direction of the ship. My pulse pounds as I think of what happened last night and I’m reminded of the man at the club. My dick decides it’s going to wake up a little and the semi I’m sporting is a bit of a pain, but I walk on, shaking my head.

“What is it?” Alayah asks.

I glance over and she looks concerned, but I smile and catch my reflection in the metal paneling of a food truck parked on the pier. Tired green eyes stare back at me, while my sandy blond hair, tousled on purpose and sprayed into place, is on point. I’m sporting the casual look of khaki pants and a button-up dress shirt with some stylish loafers, but only because I want to impress the producer on the first day. After that my wardrobe is whatever I pick from my racks. I’d had four women’s racks delivered last night, plus four men’s. All the summer lines and three others, one for formal wear, a bathing suit line, and then off seasonal just in case. I’d packed a few things like shorts and t-shirts for myself, and I couldn’t wait to get into them because the Florida heat was a killer.

Alayah is right though. I do look peaked, but I’ll grab a water on the boat. The pier is so long it seems like it’s taking forever to get there.

“I just thought I saw someone I might know. It’s all good, just another tourist,” I shrug her question off. I’m not ready to drop all the details of last night. But the man in the white hat reminded me of the encounter. Although I don’t do the party scene much anymore, work keeps me busy dressing the bold and the beautiful for parties enough as it is, I was riding high on the endorphin hit and the man I hooked up with had been sporting a similar white hat. Déjà vu at its finest.

“You better freshen up before we get on that boat, Alex. You wouldn’t want to get kicked off before the gig even starts.”

“I’d like to think my ten-year reputation in the business is enough to stand for something, Alayah.”

“True, but we both know what a pain in the ass some of the Hollywood types can be. East Coast and West Coast are two different scenes. You’ve been out of the Florida game for too long, Alex.”

I hold up my hands in surrender. “Alright, alright. I’ll get with it. I’ve just got a killer headache.”

“Here,” Alayah reaches into her purse and pulls out a bottle of pain killers.

I pop two and pray the throbbing in my skull subsides within the next ten minutes as we make our way down the pier. Here on the pier, tourists are everywhere, not caring that we’re trying to push through with big, heavy cases. Alayah is all about confidence in her walk though. People automatically part for her as she keeps her head high and her gait steady. It’s one thing I like about her. At twenty-five, she already owns it, and everyone around her knows it.

I trail in her wake a little, letting the crowd spill in around us as we proceed. There are food vendors and crafters, kids’ games that blink with flashing lights and loud music. We pass several magicians and performers, and even a mime who mimics Alayah as she walks. She’s wearing a pencil skirt and jacket with navy-blue pinstripes. The dark color makes the dark tones of her skin stand out even more. She has on an ivory silk tank top and is the definition of professional. The only aspect of her outfit that says she is wearing something beyond her comfort zone is the heels. She normally goes for bright shirts and yoga pants with heels, but she’s dressed to impress.

“You do know whoever is shooting this gig is most likely going to yell at you, right?” I tease.

She glares at me over her shoulder. “Yeah, but at least I am going to look good getting chewed out. You look like a bum, Alex.”

I reach out and tug her ebony hair and she swats at my hand. She turns around and I keep walking. I catch a glimpse of the tourist in the white hat again, and it draws me back to last night. The man I’d hooked up with had used his white hat to hide his eyes, but I’d caught a glimpse of his face at the bar when I bought him a drink. The guy was clearly out of his comfort zone, maybe he wasn’t out yet. I’d chatted him up for a bit before we found some privacy and I’d gone down on him. I like the newbies to the gay scene. They never have that air of pretentiousness around them. At least, most of them don’t. I like helping them feel comfortable with who they are. The man I was with last night never openly admitted he was gay, but he didn’t reject my advances and I made sure to ask him if what I was doing was okay. He certainly enjoyed himself physically, and I haven’t been able to banish his face from my mind, the wonder he had when he looked down at what I was doing.

I accidently bump into Alayah when she stops to let a woman with a stroller cross in front of us. The woman is talking on her cell phone, not paying attention to the child crying in the stroller, and almost runs into us both. I can feel the tension coming from Alayah, and I’m grateful when I see the cruise ship up ahead. It’s only a few hundred feet away, and when we continue walking, I can see the banner for the cruise. It’s advertising Gail Winds and Seas, The Gay Couples’ Glamorous Getaway!

Alayah turns to me, grinning. “Oh, you are going to be so in your element on this cruise!”

I return her grin and shift the bag on my shoulder as we approach the plank that leads up to the ship. It’s a steep climb and as I approach I can see there’s a concierge standing at the entrance, greeting the guests and taking their names to check them in. When Alayah and I reach the top and give our names, the man, who’s young, maybe just out of college, checks his clipboard and finds us under the hired crew for the ship.

“I’ve been told to ask you to go to Conference Room Two when you board. The director would like to meet all the crew to introduce himself before we set sail.”

Alayah rolls her eyes but picks up her bags anyway. “Can’t even have a minute to freshen up before we’re being ordered around. That, and making us walk a damn mile before we get to the boat! This director better know what he’s about, I’m just saying.”

I let Alayah gripe and we make our way to the lower deck, where the concierge indicated we’d find the director. I have a strange feeling we’re congregating so far below deck because the new director doesn’t want the guests to overhear us, and that doesn’t bode well. He’s most likely going to start this cruise off by yelling, making unrealistic demands, or trying for some macho, holier-than-thou speech to assert dominance over all of us, to make sure we all fall in line. I groan on the inside.

We step into the conference room after another lengthy hike, and I’m grateful there are pitchers of water set out on the table, with cheese, fruit, and crackers laid out as well. I plop Alayah’s bag next to a chair and turn to the man in the business suit and white hat. It’s the same man we’d been following on the pier. I also realize, as I stare into his face, it’s the same man I gave head to in the club last night.