Had Jonathan possessed any doubts that making him the guardian of his best friend’s daughter was an awful idea, the fact that Miss McGann was sitting in his stateroom aboard a ship crossing the Atlantic instead of securely tucked away at Forsyte Academy would have shredded them.
“What are you doing here?” he demanded. Glancing past her toward the windows that opened onto the promenade deck, he was relieved to see that at least she hadn’t drawn back the curtains. But then, he remembered they were far out of New York Harbor, with no way to take her back, and his relief vanished again. “I left you in White Plains.”
“Fortunately for me, I know how to ride a bicycle, purchase a train ticket, and hail a taxi. And since you provided me with the name of the ship on which you had booked passage . . .” She paused to pop the last bite of crumpet into her mouth and reach for a sandwich, then she leaned back against the sofa and smiled, looking far too pleased with herself. “Here I am.”
“How did you get into my room?”
“I came in with the waiter.” She gave him an apologetic look as she ate a bite of sandwich. “I fear he thinks we’re both terribly depraved.”
“Good God,” he muttered, rubbing his hands over his face as he worked to make sense of the situation. “Does Mrs. Forsyte know you’ve gone?”
“I imagine she does by now. I left her a note, explaining that I’d departed with you.”
“And what am I supposed to do with you, in heaven’s name?”
“What you should have done in the first place.” She took another bite of sandwich as if she didn’t have a care in the world. “Be my guardian, as my father wanted.”
“That’s what I thought I was doing,” he countered, his shock giving way to frustration. “I ensured that you were properly looked after, as any guardian would.”
Her sound of disdain told him what she thought of that. “You and I have very different notions of what a guardian’s duties entail, Mr. Deverill. Mine, as I already told you, includes taking me to London, giving me a season, and helping me find a husband.”
“And as I told you, you can’t have a season—not yet. It would be quite inappropriate so soon after your father’s death. As for the rest, I may be your guardian, but I’m damned if I’ll be your matchmaker.”
“Fine.” She ate the last bite of her sandwich and brushed the crumbs from her fingers onto the tray before she spoke again. “I’ll find my future husband without your help.”
“It shouldn’t be difficult,” he shot back. “You’ll probably be saddled with half a dozen candidates before we even disembark. The moment word gets out that the daughter of the late silver baron William McGann is on board, you’ll have any number of good-looking scoundrels with no money and bad intentions interested in you.”
As he spoke, he appreciated that watching over her was a duty he could now not postpone. And given the girl’s smashing looks and immense fortune, he feared it would prove a more hazardous task than protecting a mine had ever been. “When these men discover you haven’t a proper chaperone, they’ll be chasing you all around the ship.”
“Do you think so?” She smiled, the beautiful innocent. “How delightful.”
All sorts of ghastly possibilities began flashing through his mind, and it took him a moment to answer. “Hardly that,” he said at last, “since you could find yourself compromised by a shipboard romance and forced into marriage. Do you want to be stuck for life with a fortune hunter?”
She shrugged as if that was a thing of little consequence. “Any man marrying an heiress like me would expect a substantial dowry. And I can’t condemn my future husband for wanting to spend my fortune when that’s exactly what I’m going to do with it.”
“I see.” He folded his arms, feeling grimmer than ever. “And just what do you think you’ll be spending it on?”
“Oh, the usual things,” she answered with a vague wave of her hand as she leaned forward to survey the viands on the tea tray. “Clothes, furs, jewels, carriages, motorcars, redecorating the country house—”
“You don’t own a country house.”
“Not yet. But I will.” She took an éclair from the tray and sat back again, tilting her head to one side, still smiling. “I think I’ll buy a yacht as well. And maybe some racehorses. That would be exciting. And I’ll have parties, too—lots and lots of parties. Fabulous, extravagant parties that’ll make the New York Knickerbocker set pea green with envy.” She sighed dreamily and took a bite of éclair.
“You intend to waste your father’s fortune on frivolities like that?”
“Why shouldn’t I?” she countered, not seeming to notice the testy note of his voice. “What else am I supposed to do with it? Watch it sit in the bank while I grow old? What fun is that? Besides, I’d have to be a pretty profligate spender to go through it all. I seem to have oodles of money—that is, if those are any indication.”
She nodded to the writing desk against the wall where he’d put the financial reports he’d reviewed with Mr. Jessop. He’d placed them in a neat pile, intending to give them another perusal tomorrow, but now they were spread carelessly across the polished rosewood desktop.
“What’s the Rose of Shoshone?” she asked, regaining his full attention.
“I’ll ask the questions, thank you.”
“You’re so testy. Maybe you should have an éclair. Chocolate,” she added, holding up the bit of pastry in her fingers, “can always be counted upon to elevate one’s spirits.”
Jonathan was in no mood to be elevated. “First, you leave the safety of Mrs. Forsyte’s and sneak aboard this ship, then you burst into my room without leave and read my private correspondence? My God, for someone who’s lived such a sheltered life, you’re a brazen little baggage, I’ll give you that.”
“What I read wasn’t private,” she objected, not seeming the least bit put out by his description of her. “My father’s will, an accounting of the money he left to me, and reports on the investments made on my behalf are documents I have every right to read, particularly since my own guardian didn’t bother to inform me of the terms of my inheritance before he took off.”
“There wasn’t time. I had a train to catch. And—”
“Oh, please,” she interrupted before he could point out that Mr. Jessop would have been able to explain the terms of the will and the extent of her property. “Don’t try to justify yourself. What you did was run away.”
“That’s absurd.” He shifted his weight, feeling the sudden, inconvenient prick of his conscience.
“And,” she added before he could fashion some sort of reply, “I didn’t ‘sneak’ anywhere. I’m no stowaway. I bought my passage, like anyone else. Not a grand parlor suite like this, of course. With my savings, an inside cabin was all I could afford. Still, it is in first class.” She ate the last bite of her éclair and picked up the teapot. “Would you care for tea?”
“I don’t need any bloody tea!”
She set aside the pot and looked at him again. “Hmm,” she said, frowning thoughtfully, “I think you’re right. You look as if what you need is a good, stiff drink. And,” she added, glancing over him, “perhaps some clothes.”
Jonathan followed her gaze, realizing in horror as he looked down that he was wearing nothing but a knee-length dressing robe. In front of his new ward. Billy’s daughter. “Christ almighty.”
He strode over to where she sat, bent down, and grabbed her by the elbows, his only thought to get her out of his stateroom, but the moment he hauled her to her feet, he realized his mistake, for the move brought her body right up against his, and as her full breasts brushed his chest, he was forcibly reminded that his ward was well past pinafores. And that under his robe, he was naked. And that he hadn’t had a woman in a long, long time. Desperate, he stepped back to put some much-needed distance between them, but he did not let her go. Instead, he turned, gripping her hard by the elbow. “You have to get out of here,” he said as he propelled her across the sitting room of his suite. “Now.”
“But I haven’t finished my tea.”
Ignoring that bit of nonsense, Jonathan halted by the door and, still keeping a firm grip on her, he reached for the handle. “Yes, you have.”
“You really want me to leave?”
“Yes,” he said firmly as he yanked the door open. After sticking his head out to verify that no one was in sight, he shoved her across the threshold and into the corridor.
“Are you sure?” She turned around, flattening her palm against the door as he moved to close it. “You want me going about the ship unchaperoned, with so many fortune hunters and scoundrels with bad intentions on board?”
With an oath, Jonathan hauled her back inside and shut the door. Letting her go, he took a long step backward as he strove to regain his equilibrium and think—not an easy thing to do when he was barely clothed and the skin of his chest still burned from the light, inconsequential brush of her breast and his promises to take care of Billy’s little girl were ringing in his ears.
“Sit down,” he ordered and turned away, walking toward his bedroom. “Don’t go anywhere, and don’t touch anything. And if you value your life, stay away from my private papers.”
Slamming the door of his bedroom behind him, he leaned back against it with a groan and wondered what he was going to do with her now. What did a man do with a beautiful, disobedient, fully grown, and damned inconvenient ward?
Hurling himself over the side of the ship came to mind, making him appreciate just what serious trouble he was in. If he was already contemplating drastic measures like that after half a day in charge of her life, what state was he going to be in a week from now when they docked at Southampton?
Jonathan didn’t even want to think about it.