Seven stories, from tricks to treats: A man discovers the benefits of autumn cologne; a haunted Broadway-themed house; a witch in some trouble; Lucifer’s daughter has a surprise for dear old dad; a pair of pre-teens on an autumn treasure hunt; a costume party; and a broken down car, a thunderstorm, and a creepy mansion.
Brady tipped his head back as Liora ran one perfectly manicured nail along the side of his neck and down his chest. She paused with her hand at the waistband of his pumpkin-colored bikini briefs, her lips parted in a sultry O. The soft lace of her bra teased his right nipple.
"Aaaaand...perfect!" The flash and click of the camera.
Several more poses, and at last they were finished. Brady yanked his clothes back on as soon as he could, barely registering someone telling him he'd done good work. Once Liora was ready, they walked out together.
"I smell like a freaking latte," he griped. "I don't see why we had to actually wear the damn cologne just for a photo shoot for the ad."
"Briseida said it would help create the right mood. And she's the best in the business."READ MORE
Briseida Mueller, the photographer. Brady sighed. "Whatever. I also don't see how this gross stuff is going to sell enough to break even on what they've spent on the ad campaign, but I guess it's not my call."
"Be grateful. They could've used stock models."
"Yeah, yeah." Secretly, Brady thought they should have. "See you next week?"
"Yep. Bye, Brady!" Liora waved cheerfully before sliding into her car.
Time for job number two, the coffee shop. Brady supposed it was a good thing he was heading to somewhere a cologne called Autumn Blend wouldn't be so noticeable among all the other pumpkin spice aromas. Customers would just think he'd been hard at work in the kitchen.
He arrived a few minutes early and was tying his apron when Rustik stepped out of the kitchen. He paused, and his expression went from puzzled to sly.
"Mmm, Brady, you smell amazing. God, I could eat you up."
Brady rolled his eyes, mostly to cover his pleasure over the compliment. Rustik was a Level-Ten Heat Wave kind of gorgeous, and Brady might've entertained a stray thought about him once or twice. Or more.
"It's this new cologne. I posed for their ad today, and they made us try it."
"Uh huh." Rustik took another deep whiff, his eyes half-closed. He opened them and gave Brady a long, smoldering look. "You ever change your mind about going out sometime, let me know."
"You have a boyfriend!" Brady exclaimed. "Um. I mean, would he be okay with that?" Not that Brady was serious. Mostly.
Rustik winked. "Baby, he'd join us if you wear that scent again."
Brady chuckled. Rustik was a flirt, but Brady knew perfectly well he and his man really only had eyes for each other. He was probably just having some fun at Brady's expense over the Autumn Blend thing. Brady chuckled and slapped Rustik on the back before slipping past to start work.
While he was making someone's latte, Maybry bustled past on the way to the kitchen with some dishes. On her way back out, she paused beside Brady.
"Dude, I think you've been working here too long. You're starting to smell like the muffins. You wanna switch and I'll do the order?"
Before he could finish his sentence, Maybry took a long sniff. Her eyes went a little crossed, and she looked like she might swoon.
"Holy shit!" she whispered fiercely in Brady's ear. "You smell fucking amazing. What the hell is that?"
Brady stared at her while she fanned herself. Okay, Maybry was also impossibly pretty. In fact, Brady worked with a whole lot of attractive people. As in, all of them. Most of them, like Brady, worked for the coffee shop and moonlighted as dancers or models. Because, of course, that's what coffee shop employees do.
He shook his head. Maybry was beautiful, but she'd never so much as glanced Brady's way. She was in a long-term relationship. He frowned. Was this some kind of payback for having inappropriate thoughts about his coworkers? Maybe he deserved it, but he couldn't help enjoying the view while they were working. It wasn't like he'd ever said or done anything; admiring was all right, wasn't it?
Maybry hadn't moved from her spot, so Brady waved a hand in front of her face. "You okay?" he asked.
"Yeah, sure." She cleared her throat. "Probably just need...a distraction. Yes, that's it. Here, you go out there, and I'll finish up what you were doing."
"Is that a good idea?" He thought she still looked a bit stunned.
"Just go," she muttered.
It was definitely better out front, although Brady did notice several people eyeing him from their tables. It sure would be nice to get home and take a shower. He sighed and tried to focus on his job so he could get out of there on time.
Which was easier said than done. Brady barely made it inside his apartment after work, slamming the door and leaning up against it. It had been a trying day, and all he wanted was a hot drink---not pumpkin spice anything---and bed.
He was still in the same spot when Ember, the love of his life, emerged from the bathroom, rubbing their hair with a towel. Seeing them erased all the unpleasantness of the previous several hours. Brady smiled; they'd dyed their hair again, a sort of electric teal. He liked it.
"Hey," Ember said.
Brady pushed off the door and went to stand in front of Ember. He tilted their chin and kissed them, slow and sweet.
Pulling away a little, Ember said, "You left your computer up, so I heard the ping when the email came through. Something from Briseida Mueller?"
"Ah, probably the photos. She said she'd email a couple of nice ones I could have."
"Ooh, cool. Let's look!"
That was the last thing Brady wanted to do, but Ember was so enthusiastic, he couldn't resist. They went into the tiny second bedroom they used as an office, and Brady opened the email.
And immediately groaned.
"This is...ugh!" he exclaimed. He couldn't even formulate real words.
"Babe?" Ember peered around him. "What's wrong with it? I think it's sexy."
"Gah!" Brady slumped to put his head in his hands. "This has been the worst day ever, and now these stupid pictures."
"Aw, hon." Ember pulled up another chair and put their arms around Brady. "Come on. Tell me."
"First, they made us actually wear that nasty cologne. And then I reeked like it all day. At the coffee shop, Rustik hit on me, and I thought it was a joke, until Maybry did too, and then half my coworkers were sniffing me. People kept staring at me like I was edible. On the way home, I got followed by three dogs, a cat, an old lady, and two kids who asked if I had any more cookies I could share with them!" He exhaled forcefully. "And now I'm looking at pictures of my mostly naked, headless body with all the hair edited off my arms. I look naked because they stuck a pumpkin in front of my---okay, the bikini was kinda skimpy, but still. A pumpkin!"
Ember stared at him for a second, and then a tiny giggle escaped. It was obvious they were trying to hold it in, but it was no use. After a brief struggle, Ember doubled over with laughter.
Eventually, they straightened up and wiped their eyes. "I'm sorry, babe. That is really terrible. Except maybe the part about Rustik. He is freaking hot."
"I know, right?" Brady paused and then chuckled. "Fine. It's a little funny."
"It's hilarious," Ember said, nodding as if they were in agreement. They peered at the screen again, bending close. "Mmm. You do smell really nice, though."
"What? No! It's..." The scent had faded and mellowed, and Ember wasn't wrong. It was actually pleasant now.
Nearly as pleasant as the soft lips kissing their way up his neck to his ear. He relaxed into Ember's touch. They slid their hands down his chest, inching lower and finally cupping him through his trousers.
"It's a damn good thing I'm the only one who gets to know what's behind your pumpkin," Ember whispered.
With a naughty laugh, Brady reached up and yanked Ember into his lap. He cupped their rear end. "Hm. I think I'd like to know what's behind your pumpkin, if you know what I mean."
"I'll show you mine if you show me yours."
Maybe Autumn Blend wasn't so bad after all.COLLAPSE
Let me start by saying I don’t like short story collections. Yes, some authors excel in the genre, masters of the difficult craft that is short fiction, and I can appreciate short stories as a one-off, quick read. I very much love having them read to me on podcasts like LeVar Burton Reads. But usually, I find that sitting down to read collections of short fiction falls a little flat for me. It’s nothing against short stories. There’s something about the genre that eludes me. I can’t write them either.
With all that said, I loved this collection. Each story of the seven stories felt unique and had tight, well-written language and plots, good style, and a few had characters that I wanted so much more about. They all felt like they contained an entire world and I wanted more from each world. I also liked that the characters spanned different races, cultures, genders, and sexual identities without feeling ham-fisted about how much diversity they could cram into one collection.
This is my first read from Leibowitz (which is sort of a crime, I’m starting to realize) and I’ll definitely seek out more from this author. I would recommend this to anyone who’s still yearning for the fall and isn’t quite reading to let the winter holidays take over (like me), or to anyone who wants a couple of sweet, short reads that will generally make you feel better than you did going into it.