She glanced over her shoulder but saw nothing out of the ordinary. “What are you smiling at?”
“Hmm?” Gideon looked at her. “Ah. Not what, who. I’m playing guess-the-secret.”
“Guess-the-secret? Is it a game?” She set her spoon down, intrigued, and not the least surprised to find he was a grown man who still indulged in games.
“Of sorts. One of the young officers on my ship devised it during a particularly long voyage.”
She stifled a yawn, sleepy now that her belly was full and the threat of further illness had been averted for at least a few more hours. “How does it work?”
“You pick people at random and guess their darkest secret, or which of their dark secrets they’re most troubled about today. The second version worked best on the ship as one looks at the same people every day.”
“Didn’t you give your men enough to do?”
“They had free time now and then. Look there,” he said quietly and jerked his chin at the portly middle-aged man in a worn coat. “He has pawned his deceased father-in-law’s watch and chain to pay for his ale. He’s frugal about it, though, and keeps the money hidden. He uses the funds to buy only one drink a week. See how he’s nursing it? He wants to make it last.”
“Could be he used an honest day’s wage.”
“Could be, if we weren’t playing guess-the-secret. What about her?” He nodded toward one of the well-endowed barmaids. “What’s her secret, do you suppose?”
Winnefred scowled thoughtfully at the maid. “She has an entire closet full of adequately fitting gowns that she neglects in the hopes of earning a larger wage.”
“I’m not certain about the entire closet full of gowns part, but the rest is common knowledge. You’ll have to do better. What’s her secret?”
She pursed her lips, warming to the challenge. “The earrings she is wearing are from a lover. A very well-to-do lover. They’re not something a women employed at a tavern could afford. You see how she fiddles with them and smiles? But she doesn’t look at the door. She’s not waiting for him to come in. Because he’s already in the room.”
“Well done,” he commented as she finally gave in to the urge to yawn. “You learn quickly.”
“Some things,” she murmured. “Now you. Which of these fine gentlemen purchased the earrings?”
Gideon scanned the room. “The young man two tables over on your left. He’s peeking glances and blushing and—“
“Married,” she finished for him. “I wager he’s married.”
“That would be his dark secret. His wedding bed hasn’t yet cooled and already he’s warming another. He can’t help himself. Her charms, her—“ He broke off suddenly and cleared his throat. “Perhaps this isn’t the most appropriate of games to be playing with you.”
She rolled her eyes at him. “I’ve some idea of what goes on between a man and a woman behind closed doors, Gideon.” A very narrow idea, but it counted. “Giddy is bred every year, you’ll recall.”
“Nevertheless, it would be best if we moved on to other people. What about that man.”
Caught between annoyed and amused, she didn’t bother to look where he pointed. “He’s not married, but he has two mistresses. In the same house.”
He scowled at her. “The man in the blue wool coat by the fire”
“He likes his sheep for more than their wool.”
“For pity’s sake.”
She laughed; she couldn’t help it. But there was a dark edge to her humor, and a heaviness of heart she couldn’t shake.
It had been only a week since she’d sat in his chambers at Murdoch House, worried he might think less of her for teaching a thief to read. It had seemed important to her then that he believed she could be taught to behave like a proper lady. But she found that wasn’t what she wanted from him now. She wasn’t interested in his approval of what she might become, or pretend to be for the short time she was in London. She wasn’t sure she wanted to become a lady. There was good reason to believe she might not even be capable of such a transformation.
In that moment, all she wanted from him was to accept her as she was now. And it chafed that he had to be reminded of who that was.
“Did you think a fine dress and some distance from my land would make me someone else entirely, Gideon?” she asked softly. “Have you forgotten how you found me? Who I am?”
He looked at her, his dark gaze searching her face for a long, long moment before answering. “I could never forget you, Winnefred.”