Merry Christmas and happy Blake Secret Santa to andallthatmishigas! Huge thank you to escapewithstories for the beta.
Jean knitted more than usual during the holiday season, but this year, Lucien could swear that something was different. Lately, instead of sharing a drink with Lucien after dinner, Jean joined him on the couch with her knitting needles clicking and weaving. After a late night at the morgue, Lucien found Jean propped up against pillows and their headboard, sound asleep with a tiny multicolored blanket for Ruby and Christopher's new baby in her lap. No doubt by the end of the holiday season, all of their friends in Ballarat would have a new set of doilies or potholders, courtesy of Jean Blake.
At first, Lucien was concerned, for a spree of this magnitude usually indicated that Jean was preoccupied or that he had made a right mess of things. He easily eliminated one of those possibilities at the beginning of December, when she came to bed with silk and satin instead of needles and yarn.
"Darling?" Lucien murmured against the cooling skin of Jean's shoulder. "Is there anything bothering you?"
Nearly asleep, Jean hummed inquisitively and rolled over to face him. "What do you mean?"
"You've just seemed a bit preoccupied of late."
Jean sighed as Lucien skimmed the backs of his fingers up and down her arm. "You seemed pretty preoccupied yourself earlier." His rumbling laughter made Jean giggle and snuggle closer to him. With her head tucked under his chin and her nose turned into his neck, her drowsiness returned. "No, I'm fine. I'd just rather make our friends and family presents this year instead of buying them."
For about a week, Lucien believed her. Jean's knitting became less compulsive and more routine. She began to only knit in the evenings, when she lounged with him by the fire in their bedroom. However, Lucien couldn't help but notice the ferocious attention she granted her needles whenever he inquired after her day. When he pointed this out to her, she shrugged it off with a reminder that knitting helped her concentrate.
But when he came home for lunch the next day, Jean attacked him with measuring tape.
"Do we have to do this right here?" Lucien scoffed as Jean wrapped the tape around his middle. "I've just walked in the door."
"It'll only take a moment if you'll be still!" Jean tugged on his suit sleeve. "Lift your arms up."
"You just told me to be still!"
Running the measuring tape across the length of his arms, Jean pursed her lips and stepped closer so they stood toe to toe. To ensure she knew that he was only teasing, he swept one arm around her back, grasped her other hand, and began a ridiculous attempt at the tango. Jean tripped over her feet and giggled when Lucien used her stumble as an excuse to dip her. Just before Lucien kissed her fetching lips, Jean gasped, "I forgot to check the post!" The door had slammed behind her before Lucien could form a coherent thought.
Something was definitely going on, but perhaps that something didn't have to be a disaster.
Unlike their courtship, their marriage had not been fraught with mayhem or drama. After the honeymoon, a horrid row or the reappearance of a confirmed-dead family member did not destroy their world. No, Lucien and Jean simply fell into the routine of partnership. During their trek across Europe, they stayed in bed for hours, slept only entwined, kissed long and deep, ordered room service, and treated themselves to the theatre. Now they spent early mornings slowly migrating from their halves of the bed to the middle, kissed quickly when one of them left the house, huddled at Lucien's desk to pour over finances, and solved crimes in Lucien's laboratory. But the joy in the mundane could not survive without the intimate trust and passion all of their former tribulations had fostered, and Lucien cherished this life they were building together, a life he longer lived in constant fear of losing.
In all probability, she had a surprise for him that she didn't want to spoil. Jean had never been adept at keeping secrets. In addition to the alarming degree of attention she paid the post and her endless additions to Lucien's sweater inventory, Jean had also gone to great lengths to make sure that he would be home at 6:30 and not a second earlier or later on Christmas Eve. She had dispatched him to fetch Charlie and Danny from Melbourne so that they didn't have to pay bus fare (and, Lucien suspected, to keep him out of her hair while she prepared dinner).
While no murders plagued Ballarat the day before Christmas, Lucien's morning was crammed with patients. When Little Michael Leary and his mother left the surgery at 12:30, he heaved a sigh of relief.
"Lucien, may I borrow you for a moment?"
Lucien looked up from little Michael's medical file and found his wife leaning against the doorframe, her hands hidden behind her back.
"You can borrow me for as long as you like," he said, pushing back from his desk.
Jean smiled absentmindedly and strode across the room. As she neared him, Lucien pushed back from his desk and made room for her between his legs. He'd been longing to run his hands up her legs since she slipped into her green trousers that morning. Smirking, she ignored his invitation, circled him, and stuffed a knitted Santa hat on his head with some force.
"Bloody hell! Thank you for the warning."
"Oh, like all the warnings you gave me when you murdered the dishes or stuffed a pig's head in the fridge?" She frowned when her creation didn't fit. "Your head's even bigger than I imagined." When Lucien spun around in his chair to retaliate, Jean plucked the cap off of his head and giggled at his ruffled hair.
Ever opportunistic, Lucien grasped Jean by the hips and tugged her into his lap. "Well, maybe since it doesn't fit me, we should try it on you."
Jean protested, but Lucien easily pried the hat from her grasp. "Really, Lucien, this is ridiculous," she said as he tugged it onto her head. They both laughed when the white trim draped low over her eyes, but Jean berated him when he pulled harder on the brim so that it nearly covered her whole face. "Oh, I'm sorry—is this not how it's supposed to look?"
When Jean yanked the hat off, her curls bounced every which way. He expected her to be flustered, if not irritated, but laughter, not anger, flushed her cheeks. Her eyes alight, smile nearly blinding, Jean once again struck him with such happiness that he had to stop everything to tell her.
"I love you."
Jean raked her fingers through his hair, smoothing down the errant strands while mussing new ones. "I love you more."
Cupping Jean's face in his hands, Lucien shook his head. "Impossible." And he tried to prove it with a kiss.
By the time Danny and Charlie clambered out of Lucien's car with their overnight bags and Christmas parcels, the clock in the dining room had struck 6:30 fifteen minutes ago. Judging by the cars lined in the drive, Matthew, Alice, and Rose had arrived promptly, so there would be no one to support their tardiness.
"Finally!" Matthew called from the living room. "Thought you'd stumbled upon a body."
Lucien rolled his eyes and gestured for the boys to walk ahead of him down the hall.
"I swear, Auntie Jean, if we hadn't had to wait for Charlie's cookies to pop out of the oven, we'd have been on time."
"Oi! At least I contribute."
Had Lucien lagged further behind, he would have noticed the sudden hush that fell over the room full of friends. Instead, he stumbled into Charlie's back, jostling the plate of gingerbread cookies. Before he could ask what on earth he was doing, Lucien saw her.
Mattie sat her rightful place on the couch, next to Jean, with a green knit cap on her head and mischief in her eyes. "Merry Christmas, boys."
Danny and Charlie, who didn't have as many dots to connect, had the luxury of movement. While they crushed Mattie in hugs and she laughed at her success, Lucien gaped at his wife. He'd never seen her so pleased with herself, certainly not in the last month. All the clinking needles and sharp remarks and suddenly abandoned conversations simply confirmed that Jean was horrid at keeping secrets.
"Did I cross the ocean to be ignored like this, Lucien?"
With tears blurring his vision, Lucien rounded the couch, scooped Mattie up, and spun her around. "Oh, how I've missed you. What a wonderful surprise."
When her feet touched the ground, Mattie pulled back and rested her hands on Lucien's shoulders. "Jean orchestrated the entire thing. All I had to do was get on a boat and wait for Dr. Harvey to pick me up."
"Who would have thought getting you out of the house would be the hardest part?" Alice asked.
Lucien turned to Jean, who stood next to the tree with her hands clasped under her chin. "What was that you accused me of fearing? A conspiracy of women?"
Alice snorted into her cup of hot cocoa, and Rose laughed outright.
Crossing her arms over her chest, Jean moseyed to Mattie's side. "Still afraid, Lucien?"
No, he thought. I don't think I'll ever be again.
As thrilled as he was to see Mattie, he once again found himself drawn to his wife, his thoughtful, loving partner. She had given him everything he'd ever hoped for, but somehow, she still found ways to give him more. "It's more like a healthy respect, my love." In his peripheral vision, he saw Rose, Danny, and Charlie loitering near the dining room. Clapping his hands together, he announced, "I think it's high time we dig into whatever smells so delicious."
A chorus of here heres filled the room. As everyone filed out of the living room, Lucien caught the sleeve on Jean's exquisitely red blouse. "I knew you were up to something," he whispered, taking both her hands in his.
The gleam in Jean's eyes had nothing to do with the tree lights. "Couldn't solve the case, could you, Doctor?"
"Against such a clever culprit, I didn't stand a chance." Lucien leaned down to bump his nose against Jean's. "Thank you, Jean."
Running her hands up and down Lucien's arms, Jean kissed the corner of his mouth. "Merry Christmas, Lucien."