From the start of her day, Jean had been prepared to race against the first signs of a head cold. Before it got too serious, she simply had to get all the washing done. Thankfully, Lucien had moved the remainder of his belongings in by now, and he insisted on sorting through all of that himself. Pinching the bridge of her nose over an untouched fried egg and toast, Jean didn't mind one bit.
"Jean? Is something troubling you?" Lucien asked, his teacup frozen mid-lift.
Jean tried to smile, but judging by his furrowed brow, it emerged as a grimace. "I've just got a headache," she insisted. "My sinuses flare up every once and a while. It's nothing. Ask Danny—it's a family affliction."
Danny, mouth full of bacon, only rolled his eyes and nodded.
Lucien wasn't satisfied. "Would you like to take the day? I could prescribe you something for that."
Pushing back from the table, Jean shook her head. "Thank you, but I think I'll just work quickly in the hopes of calling it an early night." She cleared the table of her unappealing breakfast, ignoring Lucien's steady gaze. Since he'd asked her to stay on with him, they had slowly grown more comfortable around one another, but there was no reason for him to be so concerned. "Don't fret. Your father gave me some allergy medicine to take when this happens. Usually does the trick."
Before Lucien could argue, Mattie appeared, miraculously sunny for so early in the morning, and her banter with Lucien and Danny freed Jean from any obligation to speak, much less stay in the room. She'd barely stripped the sheets from Danny's bed before Lucien was called to the station, and she was grateful to spend her day in peace. Without the thumping of the boxes of his belongings, tinkering at the piano, or experimenting in the study, Jean's headache dissipated, though she repeatedly sneezed into her handkerchief. She was almost relieved when Lucien didn't come home for lunch so that she could work uninterrupted. When he didn't return for dinner either, however, Jean stabbed at her food silently, wishing for the umpteenth time that he would pick up a phone.
"Jean, don't take this the wrong way, but those allergies look like they've taken a toll." Danny spoke slowly, as if the right pacing of the words could prevent him from sounding patronizing.
When Jean's fork clattered against her plate, Mattie reached across the table for Jean's hand. "What he means is that he's concerned about your health, Jean." She nodded toward the doorway. "How about you pop off to bed, and we can handle the mess for once?"
Jean gave Mattie a tight-lipped smile, knowing she and Danny were right. Her foul mood only reflected her body's state of unrest. "If you insist."
"I'll make you a cup of that vinegar, lemon, and honey nonsense that soothes the throat, shall I?" Danny offered, already rising to clear Jean's plate.
Bless him, for what he lacked in words he made up for in actions.
After an hour of winding down, dressing for bed, and sipping the bitter home remedy Danny concocted, Jean succumbed to the reality of a lingering infirmity, praying it wasn't contagious. As she reached for her bedside lamp, however, someone knocked on her bedroom door. Sighing, she reached for her robe, which she had carelessly discarded at the foot of her bed. "Yes?" To her horror, she sounded like a hoarse frog.
Lucien poked his head into her room and immediately blushed, having found her in bed. "I'm sorry, you're ready for bed—"
"I'm not going to nod off in the next minute. What is it?" When Lucien stumbled over his own feet, Jean regretted letting him in. She could smell the Club on his clothes. Even so, she couldn't very well send him away like this. "Rough day?"
Lucien sighed heavily and plopped into the nearest chair. "I'm afraid so. But I just came to ask you if you felt any better. It sounds like you're worse."
Jean swung her legs over the side of her bed and stood slowly, surprised at the lightheadedness that accosted her. "Nothing a good night's sleep won't fix. I think the same remedy will help you, come to think of it." She tugged on his arm. "Let's pop downstairs, hmm?"
"Smashing idea, but you—you should stay in bed. You're unwell," Lucien said, even as he allowed his ill housekeeper to hoist him to his feet.
"A lone walk down a flight of stairs would do you more harm than it would to me," Jean said, trying to sound pleasant. If only he could talk without drowning his demons in liquor.
As they swayed toward the staircase, Lucien sighed again. "I am sorry. I'm sure my father never made you do this. He was quite the tidy drunk, so by default, I've got to be the opposite."
Almost immediately after Lucien moved in, Jean realized that it was a bad idea to discuss Thomas Blake at any point, especially while Lucien was intoxicated, but for whatever reason—her sinuses, spite, stubbornness, the sobering effect—she made the comparison anyway.
"When your father had too much to drink, he'd only talk endlessly about you."
Lucien snickered as they descended. "Oh, I bet he did," he muttered. "Hard to think about a son you abandoned when you're sober, eh?"
Whatever Jean's desired effect had been, bitterness directed at the dead had not been it. She should have dropped it, let him wallow until he passed out, but Thomas Blake had respected her too much for her to keep silent. "Lucien, speaking ill of your father won't do you any good."
"I wish you'd stop defending a man who couldn't be bothered to secure your job with me before he died," Lucien spat.
For a moment, Jean froze at the bottom of the staircase, shocked by his unabashed chauvinism. She recovered quickly, disentangling herself from Lucien. She crossed her arms over her chest and pursed her lips, daring him to look at her, but of course he wouldn't show her the respect of looking her in the eye while hurling such insults at her. "Your father cared enough about me to know that I was not his property to bequeath."
That sobered him up faster than anything else she'd tried since he moved home. "Of course, Jean," Lucien said, his eyes drifting tentatively to her face. "I'm sorry—"
"Lucien, Jean is ill. Why did you wake her?" Mattie demanded, stalking out of the living room.
"I wasn't asleep yet, Mattie," Jean said, confused by her compulsion to defend Lucien. Perhaps because checking on her had been the least of his crimes.
Mattie's pink cheeks led Jean to believe that she'd overheard their last exchange, so Jean decided Mattie would condone the sudden exit she'd been desperate for. Still fuming, Jean stormed up the stairs, cursing her body when she began to cough. By the time she returned to her bedroom, she was too exhausted and confused to replay the situation over in her head. Jean shucked off her robe, switched off her lamp, and burrowed under the covers for fitful slumber.
Mattie woke her the next morning with a hand to her forehead and a breakfast tray on the bed. With the curtains tied closed, Jean couldn't ascertain the time, but it must have been late in the morning for Mattie to wake her with breakfast.
"Mattie," Jean murmured, "shouldn't you be at work?"
"Called in—told them I had a patient at home," Mattie explained. She held up a thermometer, which Jean batted away.
"Mattie, they know you live in a doctor's home, don't they?" She glared playfully at the nurse when Mattie slipped the thermometer into her mouth.
"Dr. Blake is at the station, and I didn't see any need to drag you down to his surgery for an examination," Mattie explained, dropping two sugars into Jean's tea. Taking advantage of Jean's inability to argue, Mattie paused, her pale brow furrowed. "I wasn't sure that you'd…particularly want to see him this morning."
As soon as Mattie plucked the thermometer from under Jean's tongue, Jean opened her mouth the scoff, but, as Mattie handed her a cup of tea, thought better of it. "Mattie, thank you for being so thoughtful," she said, placing a hand on Mattie's arm. "But I assure you that I am perfectly capable of handling Lucien."
"Oh, I didn't mean to imply that you couldn't," Mattie said, the troubled crease deepening. "And there's nothing to handle, really, except when he speaks without thinking."
Jean smiled, hoping to give Mattie peace of mind. "You're right. Again, thank you for being a dear. I'm just sorry I'm costing you work."
Mattie studied the thermometer. "Nonsense. You're running quite the fever. I'll have plenty of work."
Around lunchtime, Jean heard Lucien's car rattle to a halt in the drive, a mere seconds before he opened the door. "Anybody home?" As usual, he sounded more jovial than he had the night before.
Jean smiled at him from her seat. "Mattie's made soup if you'd like some."
To his credit, Lucien only missed a couple of beats before replying. "Yes, it smells delicious," he said, his eyes still fixed on Jean. "But first—Jean would you mind coming with me for a moment?"
Though a morning of contemplation kept her from dreading this conversation, Jean's smile disappeared as she rose. "Of course," she said quietly. She knew he wanted to apologize again; part of her morning had been spent remembering the look of shame and astonishment in his eyes just before Mattie ushered him into his room. She knew that he didn't mean what he said, but he couldn't deny the underlying bitterness in the accusation.
"I don't even know where to begin my apologies," Lucien said, closing his study door behind him. "I should never have disturbed you in the first place, knowing that you were sick and that I was so drunk." When he paused, Jean chose not to fill the silence with assurances he didn't want to hear until he'd confessed all his sins. "And knowing that I say the most headstrong, disrespectful, ignorant things when I'm drunk. You're a person, a human being who doesn't belong to anyone, who should not be passed along like she's incapable of functioning outside a specific sphere. You've been taking care of yourself, and your boys before that, for a very long time, and you didn't need anything from my father to keep doing that."
Jean only nodded in response, waiting for him to finish. He always had more to say.
"I only meant that I think he owed you something, as the person who cared for him in his final days, that's all," Lucien said, scratching his forehead with his thumb. The guilt gushing from his explanation told Jean that he would spend an indeterminate amount of time trying to repay the debt he owed her for doing what he couldn't bring himself to. "Regardless, I am sorry, and you have my word that I will never speak to or of you that way ever again."
Jean chose to focus on the promise he gave rather than the one he excluded. The drunken nights couldn't end like the flick of a switch. "By the time your father fell ill, my job description had already expanded, Lucien," she explained, her voice steady and even. "He never asked for my help explicitly, but what else was I supposed to do?"
Lucien held up a hand, clearly fearing another fight. "Of course. He was too proud for that."
This time, when the silence expanded, when there was too much for him to say, Jean stepped in. "You came in the end, Lucien," she said. "That's what's important." She knew this messiness he foretold, this festering bitterness and guilt, would not disappear over the course of one conversation or one argument, but she accepted Lucien's half-smile as a conclusion to this one.