Taking over as the new head of a department came with challenges. Besides learning names and personalities, there were office politics to consider. I’d managed people before, but never a whole department.
The company partner who hired me suggested I attend the department Christmas party. I figured that would be a good way to get to see a different side of the employees. And since no one at the party knew who I was, people would be relaxed and more themselves, rather than trying to impress the new boss.
A few minutes early, I walked through the venue until I located the ballroom. I slipped in through the open door in the back and surveyed the room. Holiday music blared from the speakers. An attractive woman walked beside the buffet table, checking a clipboard in her hand as she went. Her light brown hair danced on her shoulders as she moved her head back and forth. “Once Santa gets here, everything will be ready. I can’t believe he’s late. People will start showing up any time now.”
Another woman with short blonde hair handed over a glass of punch. “Martha, relax. Have another glass of punch. It all looks great. People will have fun. They always do.”
Martha? In my head, I ran through the list I’d received earlier in the day, which had the names of all the employees in the department. A Martha had been Bob’s personal assistant, which meant she was now my personal assistant.
“I’m glad we’re having the party earlier this year. Having it the first Saturday of December should give us better attendance.” Martha sipped the cranberry-colored beverage. “This is fantastic. So much better than last year.”
“That’s because I made it.” The second woman leaned in closer but didn’t lower her voice. “Did you hear the news? They let Bob go.”
Martha hugged the clipboard to her chest. “It’s so shocking.” She didn’t seem all that shocked.
“It happened yesterday afternoon. I’m guessing there will be an official announcement on Monday. I heard he was dating someone else in the department. Totally against company policy.” Liza flashed a wicked grin. “I have no idea how management found out.”
I had a pretty good idea. And now I knew to watch out for Liza. Not that I intended to date anyone within the department or even within the company.
Martha smoothed her red velvet skirt. She was much too young to be Mrs. Claus, but she gave festive a whole new meaning. Thoughts like that would get me fired before I made it to my first full day on the job.
She downed the rest of her punch. “Would you mind getting me another glass?”
“Sure.” That devilish grin plastered itself on Liza’s face again.
As Martha turned on the tree lights and continued marking items off her list, I popped a soft peppermint in my mouth and slipped out of the room. Once the party got into full swing, I’d make an appearance again, but I wasn’t ready to get caught standing in the corner. And Martha or Liza would spot me if I hung around any longer.
When I’d accepted the job, I’d been told all about Bob’s violation of company policy. What I hadn’t been told was who he’d been dating within the department. That last exchange made me curious about what Liza knew.
Standing near the back entrance of the venue, I crossed my arms, regretting my decision not to wear a coat or jacket. A jacket seemed too formal based on what the partner had said about the party, and I didn’t want to keep up with a coat. But the sweater I’d worn wasn’t warm enough for standing outside. Walking all the way to my car to get my coat out of the trunk seemed like too much effort.
After only twenty minutes outside, I pulled open the door and slammed right into Martha.
She grabbed my arm and huffed.
Immediately I understood Liza’s devilish grin. She’d spiked the punch.
Martha teetered and grabbed onto me with her other hand. “You’re late. Where’s your suit?”
Late for what?
“I don’t have a suit.” I hovered my hands near her waist, not wanting to touch her but ready to catch her if gravity pulled her down.
“Lucky for you, I keep a Santa suit in my trunk during this time of year. Just in case.” She spun around, then leaned back against me. Quiet for a second, she stayed with her back smashed against my chest.
Her mint-scented shampoo made me crave another peppermint.
I convinced myself that the only reason I remained still, my heart thumping against her back, was because if I moved, she’d fall. And I didn’t want that.
“I’m so nervous about impressing our new boss, I think I’ve made myself sick. Don’t tell anyone, but I think he’s planning to show up tonight. Arranging everything for this party was my job. And it’s important to me that it goes perfectly.” She tilted her head and looked up at me. “You’re a horrible Santa.”
Never before had I cared about how well I could imitate the jolly man in red, but now, I had a strong desire to be a great Santa. “Get me that suit.”
She turned to face me. “We need to hurry. Santa is supposed to kick off the party. People are hungry and ready to eat.” She grabbed my hand. “Follow me.”
I let her drag me out to the parking lot. Clearly, I’d taken leave of my senses.
She opened the trunk of her Volkswagen—I assumed it was hers, but it looked just like mine—and lifted out a big box. “You carry this.” After closing the trunk, she fanned herself. “It’s a little warm for December. Don’t you think?”
“It’s in the forties.” I was getting the impression Martha didn’t imbibe often and that her glasses of punch were catching up to her.
We walked back into the building and I carried the box into the men’s room. Martha walked in right behind me.
“We need to get that sweater off you. The collar will show above the red coat, and that would look horrible.” She lifted the hem of my sweater.
I grabbed her hands and lowered them to her sides. “How many glasses of punch did you have?”
Her brow furrowed as she reached for my sweater again. “How did you know I had punch?”
“How many?” We played the same game with her hands.
“Four.” She fanned herself again. “Why?”
“I think Liza spiked it.” I yanked off my sweater without her help.
Martha propped her fists on her hips. “Why would you think that?”
“Because you don’t know me, but you followed me into the men’s room and tried to take my clothes off.”
Tears pooled in her eyes, and she pressed a hand to her mouth. Was she embarrassed or about to be sick? “I have to get out there. She’ll get everyone drunk.”
“You are going to stay right there.” I spun her toward the door. “Once I change, we’ll go in there together. But right now, face the door and do not turn around.”
I dropped my slacks and slid into Santa’s red pants. The belt needed extra cinching to guarantee they wouldn’t fall down around my ankles during the party. I hadn’t even pulled the coat all the way on when I realized my undershirt would be visible. Martha would only try to take it off, so I beat her to it. My undershirt fell to the floor, and I slipped my arms into the red coat.
“There is a back office where I have my purse and coat. We can put your clothes in there.” She turned around without asking. “Wow! We should keep that chest covered. It’s not that kind of party.” She fumbled as she buttoned up my jacket.
When I tried to help, she swatted my hand.
“You’re a skinny Santa. You should probably find a different line of work, but right now, you’re all I have.” Tears slipped down her cheeks.
I had not come prepared for this.
“Please don’t cry. I’ll be a good Santa.” I lifted her chin until her gaze met mine. “I think the party is going to be very merry.”
“Say ho, ho, ho. I want to make sure you can at least do that.”
I wasn’t used to anyone having such little faith in me. After a deep breath, I belted out my best Santa impersonation.
She shrugged. “It’ll do.” After two steps toward the door, she stopped and grabbed my arm. “I can’t go back in there. I’m tipsy. What am I going to do?”
“Stay close to me. And pretend you didn’t drink spiked punch.” I patted her shoulder. “But whatever you do, don’t drink anymore punch. In fact, don’t drink anything unless I give it to you. I’m not sure how trustworthy your coworkers are.”
“Liza thinks I turned Bob in, but I didn’t. She’s trying to ruin the party.”
I brushed a tear off her cheek. “You can’t cry at a Christmas party. Show me your merry face.”
Smiling, Martha looped her arm around mine. “I guess I’ll be Mrs. Claus for the evening since you said to stay close. And Liza is a bad apple. She’s the one with short blonde hair. You didn’t hear it from me, and I would never say that to management or the new boss because I wouldn’t want to cause trouble for anyone.”
“But . . .” I wanted to hear what she never planned to tell the boss.
“She was dating Bob. And I think she wants my job.” Martha smiled up at me. “Your eyes are really blue.” She trailed a finger along my unshaven cheek. “And you don’t even have a beard.”
“I’ll have to work on that.”
Her lips brushed against mine. “Mmm. You taste like peppermint.”
It was time to leave the bathroom because I was way too tempted to kiss her back.
“Everyone is waiting on Santa. We should go to the party.” I peeked out the door to make sure the hall was empty. “Okay, let’s go.”
After stashing my clothes, I followed Martha toward the ballroom. Before she opened the door, she shot me a quick panicked glance, then a wide smile spread across her face. “Be merry.”
I’d definitely regret playing Santa for the evening, but Martha needed help, and I was the man for the job. All I had to do was entertain the crowd and keep Martha out of trouble. How hard could it be?
She pushed open the door and threw her arms open. “Merry Christmas, everyone! Look who I found.” Her arm looped around mine, and she leaned on my arm. “Santa’s here.”
“Ho, ho, ho!” I patted her hand on my arm and led her around the room, greeting several employees.
Martha warned each of them about the punch.
After a few minutes, she patted my chest, which made me wonder what she was like when she hadn’t been drinking. “Now it’s time for pictures. I have that corner set up for photos. People always want their picture taken with Santa.
My evening was going from bad to worse.
Before I could suggest we skip pictures, she was dragging me across the room. She eased up next to me and smiled. “Say cheese.”
I tucked an arm around her waist and flashed an obligatory smile.
The camera flashed, and my Santa impersonation was now captured on film. I’d probably already been broadcast on social media.
Because I liked the feel of Martha pressed against me a little too much, as soon as she’d gotten her picture, I stepped back.
The double doors opened at the back of the room, and a large, bearded man in a jolly red suit stepped in. “Ho, ho, ho! Merry Christmas!”
Martha teetered on her shiny black heels.
I grabbed her around the waist. “Careful.”
“If he’s Santa, who are you?” Her green eyes focused on me.
Martha passed out in my arms.