Ghosts of Christmas Past
Ghosts of Christmas Past at the Aquarium
Lula glared across the burbling margarita fountain at Santa Claus. The fumes of tequila tickled her nose. He was lounging on a dolphin throne usually reserved for the weekly aquarium story time downstairs. Peggy, their most active volunteer and grandmother of seven, donned her homemade octopus hat to read Adventures at the Aquarium every Saturday morning before the tours began.
But this was no Saturday morning. And that was no Peggy. No, Santa Claus was the epitome of evil. Behind that fluffy white beard and red velour suit beat the heart of an asshole. Max Robespierre was the bane of Lula’s otherwise perfectly enjoyable existence.
She had a smart, funny ten-year-old daughter at home and parents that lived to babysit. She’d fulfilled her dual childhood dreams of wanting to be a veterinarian and feed seals for a living by becoming the staff veterinarian at the Taco Bell Amphitheater and Aquarium in Tampa, Florida.
It had been a dream job until he had shown up. Why someone who seemed to hate animals and water as much as Max did took the director job here was a mystery to Lula. Here he was literally surrounded by penguins, sharks, and sea turtles enjoying millions of gallons of water.
Sure, he’d been instrumental in the relocation of Fart Face, the last dolphin they’d rehabilitated and returned to the wild—also the last dolphin they let the Taco Bell Aquarium Kids’ Club name. But looking at him, you’d think he would have rather ground up Fart Face and stuffed her in a can of tuna. The bastard.
He questioned everything she did. Every med she dispensed, every therapy she scheduled. He acted as if he didn’t trust her to do her job. A job she’d been doing for nine years now. Max Robespierre was ruining her professional life. Also, he was disgustingly good-looking. Yet another tic in the Why Max is an Asshole column.
And now he was sitting there smugly playing Santa in the Private Dolphin Pavilion whose halls were properly decked for the employee Christmas party.
Humpy Gilmore—the affectionate yet accurate nickname for their new resident dolphin—swam over to check out the lights on the Christmas tree before executing a perfect backflip and swimming away. Neatly wrapped gag gifts for the Chinese White Dolphin exchange—that’s what happened when a bunch of scientists and animal lovers organized a gift exchange—were stacked under the artificial tree decked with sea mammal ornaments. The food table sagged under the weight of the taco and burrito bar provided by the aquarium’s sponsor and namesake, Taco Bell. Lula reached for a soft taco and shoved it in her mouth. She needed something to soak up the tequila from the margarita fountain.
Grandma was keeping Betty tonight and with Lyft on standby Lula was free to pretend she wasn’t a single mom for the night and enjoy the hell out of the tequila fountain. However, at thirty-six, hangovers had become a three-day, flu-like experience.
“Dr. Livingston, it’s your turn to sit on Santa’s lap!” Peggy, even bubblier now that she was drunk, hooked an arm through Lula’s and started towing her in the direction of her nemesis. Peggy was wearing a Santa hat tonight instead of her octopus creation.
“Oh, no. I’m good. I don’t need to visit Santa,” Lula protested.
“You have to if you want your Christmas bonus,” Peggy whispered. Her breath was nearing one thousand proof and Lula hoped that when she snuck out by the trash receptacles for her cigarette the woman wouldn’t catch fire. “He’s handing them out of his sack.”
“I don’t need a bonus this year,” Lula protested, wondering if Peggy knew how funny it was to talk about Max and his sack.
It wasn’t her fault she was now picturing Santa’s package. She hoped it was karmically tiny.
“Here’s your next good little girl,” Peggy chirped, shoving Lula at Max.
Lula tripped over Max’s stupid Santa boots and landed face down on his lap. She never should have worn the sparkly stilettos. But she spent most of her days in scrubs and wetsuits and she’d wanted to rub her not awful figure and heavily-reliant-on-Target wardrobe in Satan Claus’s face lest he think she was only a scrub wearing doctor.
She struggled to right herself, realizing that she’d singlehandedly just taken the office Christmas party into spanking-orgy territory. The soft taco threatened to make a reappearance. She felt a gloved hand on the back of her thigh.
He was touching her. She should head butt him. Snatch off his beard and slap him in his stupid, sexy face. Kiss him until he stopped breathing…
Peering over her shoulder she saw that Max was holding the hem of her short tulle skirt down, to keep her from flashing the rest of their coworkers.
“Smile for the camera.” Tucker, the stoner photographer who took pictures of kids next to the penguin habitat ten hours a week, snapped a picture.
Wait. Was that? Something was poking her in the stomach.
Either Satan Claus had a monster dill from the assorted pickle platter squirreled away in his pants. Or he was…
Max cleared his throat and, with those big, gloved hands, righted her on his thigh.
She tried to stand up, but he held her in place. She could still feel the hard prodding against her thigh. Great. So, the man had a sexy face and what felt like a huge burrito in his pants. Too bad he had the personality of the dead fish they fed to the penguins for breakfast.
“Hello, Tallulah,” he said gruffly. He always called her by her full name. It irked her like everything else about him.
“You mean, Santa,” Max corrected her.
“No, I don’t.” She’d never made her opinion of Max a secret. In fact, when the two of them ended up in a room together, all other occupants usually fled before the inevitable fight started.
“What do you want for Christmas?”
“I’d like a director who trusts me to do my job.”
“Ho ho ho.”
“What did you just call me?” She gripped him by his faux fur lapel.
Max yanked his beard down revealing his own neatly trimmed facial hair. “It’s Santa’s laugh, not an insult. Although if the shoes fit…”
“You know, making everyone sit on Santa’s lap is straight out of an HR harassment scenario video,” Lula pointed out. She wriggled higher on his thigh as the material of her dress threatened to have her sliding off onto the floor.
Oh, yeah. The man was definitely packing a burrito. It must be the tequila that made her flush. The tequila that had her lady parts waking up and tingling. Definitely the tequila that had her shifting just an inch higher.
“It wasn’t my idea,” he said dryly. “In fact, I feel like the victim here.”
He felt like he was the victim of some pretty excellent wood. “Peggy?” Lula guessed.
“It’s hard enough to say no to sober Peggy. But get some booze in her and she’s a freight train of bad ideas. What is in that fountain over there?”
Lula shrugged. “Mostly tequila.”
“I need it.”
“I need my bonus,” she reminded.
“Right.” He shifted under her and grimaced.
“Problem?” Lula asked sweetly.
He gritted his teeth. “Nothing I haven’t dealt with before.”
“Really?” she asked skeptically.
“Shut up, Tallulah.”
“You have the manners of a hungry polar bear.”
“And you have the grating voice of a mating penguin.”
Lula gasped. She had a lovely speaking voice, thank you very much.
“Look, if I give you your bonus and we drink a whole lot of tequila can we pretend this never happened?” His hands were still on her waist, keeping her from plummeting to the floor and flashing the room her Unwrap Me Christmas thong.
“That’s the first thing you’ve ever said that made any sense.”
“You know what Santa wants for Christmas?” Max snapped.
“A new staff veterinarian who isn’t a megadick.”
“Megadick?” Max was a buttoned-up, stuffed shirt suit who probably slept in a necktie. Megadick shouldn’t have been in his vocabulary.
“Sorry. My son is thirteen. Sometimes the vocabulary is contagious.”
“You’re married?” Lula wasn’t sure why that idea horrified her. She’d spent the entire year since Max had joined the aquarium ignoring all information about him. She just assumed his dastardly personality had prevented any woman from ever considering him for relationship material. Bed warming material was different. Lula had to admit she’d had a few angry fantasies about her jerk of a boss naked and tied to her bed.
“I’m divorced. A single parent. Just like you,” he pointed out. “You got your degree from North Carolina State University. You have a dog named Mango. And you and your daughter live over a candy store downtown.”
“How do you know that?”
He rolled his eyes. “Not everyone is as disinterested in their coworkers as you are.”
“Oh, so you’re interested?” Her eyebrows had a mind of their own, winging up to tangle in her hairline.
“In a strictly professional way,” he added quickly.
It was the tequila that had her looking down at his crotch and then looking back up into his brown eyes.
“Speaking of megadick—”
He stood up so suddenly Lula fell on the floor in a heap of black tulle and sparkly shoes.
Max hauled her to her feet and stalked off toward the bar without apologizing.
“You forgot my bonus in your sack,” Lula called after him.
Her statement had the effect of a record scratch. Everyone turned to look at her. She waved at her coworkers and then unceremoniously dug through the envelopes in the red velvet bag next to the dolphin throne until she found the envelope with her name.
Bonus secured between her boobs, Lula marched off in search of tequila and tacos. She was filling a new cup from the fountain that had given up all pretense of containing any margarita mix and was just spewing a golden-brown stream of booze.
She turned around and smacked into Satan Claus. He’d ditched the beard and apparently the wood. Ignoring her, refilled the two empty cups in his hands.
“You have a date?” Lula asked, eyeing the second cup.
Max downed first one and then the other, hissing through his teeth.
“I don’t date. I work fifty-five hours a week and have a teenage son. There isn’t time for complications.”
“Well excuse me for taking an interest in a co-worker,” she snipped, throwing his own words back in his face.
He scoffed. “You are the most oblivious woman I have ever met.”
“Oblivious?” she refilled her cup defiantly.
“When did we meet, Tallulah?” he asked.
“On your first day on the job.”
She frowned and closed one eye trying to focus on his face.
“Seventeen years ago at the Myrtle Beach Animal Rescue beach party.”
Lula blinked. “Seventeen years ago? I was on spring break.”
“I was the guy with the kittens.”
Lula’s hands clapped over her mouth. “No! Nope nope nope. No! Hot Kitten Guy had tattoos. He had his nipples pierced!”
Max reached for the top button of his Santa suit.
“Don’t you dare! You are not Hot Kitten Guy.” She grabbed his arm and pulled him away from the crowd at the bar and toward the dolphin tank.
“I was volunteering with a rescue organization. My roommate and I were fostering a litter of kittens,” he continued. “You told me your name was Fiona and that you were a hand model from Poughkeepsie.”
Lula covered her eyes. “I was nineteen and on spring break. Not a great combination of decision making.”
“You gave me a blow job in a Denny’s parking lot.”
Horrified, Lula slapped a hand over his mouth. “If you want to live beyond tonight you will stop talking right now.”
He pried her hand free. “You didn’t remember me. When we were introduced you gave me that professional smile and went back to weighing seals.”
“This is why you hate me?” she hissed. “Because I was an idiot at nineteen you don’t trust me to do my job?”
“I don’t hate you. And you’re perfectly capable of doing your job. But I don’t think very highly of a woman who forgot that she participated in one of the greatest moments of my life. You took that Denny’s parking lot memory and tainted it.”
“It was already tainted! It was a Denny’s parking lot!”
People were looking in their direction.
Lula smiled warmly at Vincent, the sea lion trainer, and shot pistol fingers at Persephone, the marketing director. Playing it cool. So, so cool.
When they looked away, she shoved Max back until his heels hit the low Plexiglas divider surrounding the dolphin tank.
“Every day, I’ve had to look at you knowing that I meant nothing to you.”
“Hot Kitten Guy meant the world to me!” she stabbed a finger into his fluffy suit. “I was an English major when I met you. Seeing your work at the rescue reminded me of how much I loved animals. I changed majors because of you!”
“You’re welcome,” he snapped.
It happened so fast that it didn’t register until it was too late. Something solid knocked into her from behind. Lula remembered his eyes going wide as he held out his hands to catch her as she pitched forward, but gravity worked a hell of a lot faster in four-inch heels. The two foot Plexiglas barrier wasn’t enough.
Together, they tumbled into the water, a tangle of red velour, limbs, and tulle. Harvey, everyone’s favorite penguin and master escape artist waddled his way over to the taco bar.
Lula surfaced first, her hair sucked fast to her face like a lamprey eel. She sputtered and scraped her hair back. The shrieks of laughter from one floor below let her know that the rest of the party was getting an eyeful of her festive thong.
“Max?” she spun around treading water.
Satan Claus had yet to surface because Happy the dolphin was doing what he did best.
“Humpy Gilmore! You stop that right now!”
Lula slapped the water with both palms until Humpy stopped humping. She dove down and hooked her arms under Max’s armpits, dragging him to the surface.
“Max!” She slapped him in the face.
“I don’t want to live anymore,” he moaned. “I was sexually assaulted by a dolphin.”
Lula dragged him to the side of the tank and handed his dripping corpse-like body to Freya the aquarium’s guest services director. Freya was a body building champion on the weekends and hefted Max out of the water like he was a sack of flour.
A tall blonde with short hair and a bottle of wine sauntered up. “Oh yeah. Partying hard, right here,” she said, raising the bottle and taking a swig. She wandered off to eye up the chalupas with Harvey the penguin.
“Cameron Diaz,” Freya filled in. “She’s a donor. Big fan of stingrays. She just bought the abandoned cabin on the property behind us so we can break ground on the Cameron Diaz Stingray Petting Pond.”
Max was back on his feet, coughing up dolphin water, and lamenting his life choices.
“Come on,” Lula said. “Let’s find some dry clothes.”
They limped and sloshed their way down a level into the employee locker room.
“I never should have taken this job,” Max muttered. He sank down on the wooden bench and pried off his water-logged boots.
Lula started opening lockers and ransacking them.
She found a Taco Bell Spice Level Hot t-shirt in Peggy’s locker for her and a pair of potentially used gym shorts and tank top for Max.
She turned to hand him his new wardrobe and froze. He’s stripped out of his Santa jacket and undershirt. Bare to the waist, Lula’s gaze hungrily devoured his trim abs and muscled chest. Familiar ink covered both forearms.
“Oh, crap on a cracker, your nipples!” Slim silver hoops glinted under the fluorescent lights. “It’s really you!” His hair was darker now and shorter. Gone was the bleach blond man bun and surfer shorts. Hot Kitten Guy had grown up and put on a suit. But underneath…
Lula reached out and flicked one of the hoops. Max hissed in a breath. “Don’t start something you won’t remember.”
His hand closed over hers and then the tequila took over.
Lula was back in Santa’s lap, only this time she was straddling him. He kissed her as if he’d been saving up for decades and she let him. Max stroked his tongue against hers and she purred, tasting tequila.
The burrito was back. OMG, was the burrito still pierced?
“I thought of you every day for a year after that night,” he growled, biting her lower lip. She tilted her head back and basked in the warmth of his worshipping mouth.
Lula sank her teeth into his bare shoulder. She was a single mother in her mid-thirties with a fancy job, but the bad boy with tats and piercings was still her go-to fantasy thanks to the man she was currently dry-humping.
She kissed him and brought his hands from her waist to her soggy breasts. When he squeezed them, dolphin water rained down between them.
He groaned. “We can’t do this.”
“Definitely not,” she said, reaching down between their bodies to palm his erection.
“Fuck. Tallulah.” He kissed her until she thought she would black out.
“This can’t happen. You’re my boss. This is a Christmas party. We don’t like each other.”
“Exactly. Worst idea ever.”
But neither of them seemed capable to stop the kiss. Lula rocked against his hard-on.
He groaned and pulled back. “Do you want to get out of here? Maybe get some dinner?”
“How do you feel about Denny’s?”