Sebastian guided Mattie through the rooms at the Tate Gallery, holding her small, delicate hand in his. Something caught her eye and she pulled her father toward the painting.She looked up to him and said, “Pick me up, Daddy. I want to see better.”Sebastian obliged, lifting her up and cradling her in his arms. “You’re getting too big, Mattie.” He smiled, secretly delighted that she still loved to be held by him.She studied the painting of several women walking down a curved stone staircase, playing musical instruments. They were wearing thin, gossamer tunics and their red spirals of hair were elegantly coiffed atop their heads. “I like this one. It’s pretty. Who made it?”“This painting is by Sir Edward Burne-Jones. It was painted in 1880.”“Wow, that’s old.”
“Yes, it is,” Sebastian agreed. “What do you like about the painting?” he quizzed his daughter.
“They look like angels, Daddy.”
“Do you notice how they all have the same face?” Mattie nodded. “Why is that, Daddy?”
“Well, you see, the woman who posed for the painter was his muse.”
“What’s a muse?” the child asked.
“A muse is someone who inspires you to create beautiful things,” Sebastian explained. “The painter was so inspired by this woman, he made all the ladies in the painting look just like her.”
“Was he married to her?”
Sebastian chuckled. How on earth did this little one come up with these questions? “No, he wasn’t married to her.” He didn’t have the heart to tell herthe muse was the artist’s mistress—nor did he want to explain to his four-year-old what a mistress was.
“Was he in love with her?” Mattie countered.
“Yes, he was madly in love with her,” Sebastian replied, touching the tip of his nose to hers. “Just like I’m madly in love with you.”
“I love you, too,” Mattie replied with a giggle.
He gently set her back down on her feet and looked at his Rolex. “It’s almost noon. We should get going if we’re going to meet your mum for lunch.”
“We can come back here later?” “Absolutely,” her father agreed.
They made their way down the marble staircase and toward the main entrance door. “Daddy, my shoe is untied,” Mattie said, looking down at her long shoelace that was resting on the floor.
“Do you want me to tie it for you?” Sebastian offered to help.
“No, I can do it.” She bent over and meticulously made two loops with the shoe strings and tied them. Sebastian watched intently until she finished the task. She stood up and took her father’s hand and almost bumped into an older woman as she took a step forward.
Sebastian stopped in his tracks. The woman standing in front of him was his mother. She hadn’t changed at all. She still wore a tailored designer suit, sensible pumps, and her hair was pulled back in the usual updo. His mouth went dry. It had been seven years since their disastrous encounter—the encounter that changed his life for the better.
“Sebastian?” She said his name in the form of a question, obviously taken aback to find him standing in front of her after all these years. She turned to observe the small, adorable child standing next to him, who had Sebastian’s brown hair and blue eyes.
Sebastian said nothing. Mattie finally broke the silence. “Hello,” she cheerfully greeted.
“Hello, I’m Lady Lily Irons,” Lily responded. “And who might you be?”
“I’m Mattie Irons. We have the same last name!” Mattie extended her small hand to shake her grandmother’s.
Sebastian instinctively stood in front of Mattie to act as a buffer between his mother and his daughter. Mattie peered around his thigh.
“This is your child?” Lily asked in amazement.
Sebastian turned and protectively picked Mattie up in his arms. “Come on, Mattie. We’ll be late for lunch with your mum.”
“Do we get to take the Tube?” Mattie asked with enthusiasm.
“Yes, we’ll go on a little adventure,” Sebastian smiled.
Mattie turned back to face Lily. “It was nice to meet you,” she said as Sebastian quickly brushed past his mother and eagerly exited the museum.
Once outside, the cool air hit Sebastian in the face and snapped him out of his shock. He continued to hold Mattie in his arms, and with a quick pace walked down the road toward Pimlico Station. A heavy sigh escaped his lips.
“Daddy, was that lady our family?” she asked, looking back over her father’s shoulder.
“No, Mattie,” he curtly replied.
“But she has the same last name as we do,” she protested.
“Yes. But you’ll find that just because someone shares your last name, that does not make them family.”
“Aunt Sigourney is family.”
“And so is Aunt Alice, Uncle Henry, and Aunt Penny, but they don’t have our last name,” Sebastian politely reminded her. What was he doing trying to reason with a four year old? He decided to change the subject. “How about we pick up some flowers for mummy in the train station? What should we buy her?”
Thankfully, Mattie was easily distracted. “A big bouquet! We should get Gerbera daisies and roses and tiger lilies.”
“Tiger lilies? I don’t think they’re in season right now.”
“I don’t care, Daddy. I like the name. Grrrr!” She scrunched her nose, bared her teeth, and clawed her hands up in his face to mimic a tiger cub.
“Oh, you’re a very scary tiger, indeed.”
Sebastian and Mattie entered the Associated Press building and rode the elevator to the twenty-fifth floor. They walked over to the front desk and Sebastian introduced himself. “Hello, we’re here to see Tess Irons. Can you please let her know her husband and daughter are here to take her to lunch?”
The receptionist smiled down at Mattie and then picked up the receiver to make the call. A few minutes later, Tess was walking toward them.
“We bought you flowers for your first day of work,” a beaming Mattie announced.
Tess looked at the large bouquet of daisies and roses. “I love them, thank you. Let’s go put them on my desk and I’ll grab my purse and we can be on our way.”
Tess walked them through a maze of cubicles. There was a busy excitement in the newsroom: people on the phone, some typing away on computers, others rushing about the floor. It was controlled chaos and Sebastian understood immediately why Tess loved her job. They entered the three-walled cubicle and Mattie took a seat in her mother’s swivel chair. Tess placed the vase of flowers next to the photo of the three of them in Central Park.
“Come, Mattie. Mummy only has an hour for lunch,” Sebastian reminded his daughter.
They sat in a nearby park, eating take-away sandwiches while Mattie ran around the lush green grass, burning off energy. “How is your first day going?” Sebastian asked, after swallowing a bite of his prawn sandwich.
“Good, I thought it might be hard, but the procedures are the same, it’s just getting to know everyone on the team. I’m happy.” Tess sat back and gave Sebastian a long, hard look. “How is your day? You seem a little off. Is Mattie driving you crazy?”
“I took Mattie to the Tate Gallery this morning and had the misfortune to run into Lily.”
“Oh my God, what happened?”
“We bumped into her as we were leaving. Mattie was all talk and smiles. I was in shock—all I could think about was getting Mattie out of there and protecting her.”
“You did, Bas. You’re an amazing father,” Tess said to comfort him.
“Lily was gobsmacked to see me with a child in tow.”
“Yes, I would imagine so.” Tess reached over and took his hand. “She doesn’t know where we live. She cut you out of the family. Please don’t let this rattle you.”
“I suppose you’re right. It wouldn’t be realistic to think I could live in London and not run into her eventually.” Sebastian let out a weary sigh. “I guess it is better that it happened sooner than later.”
“Sebastian, you take care of us, you protect us. There is no one else I’d ever want to have my back. I love you.”
He pulled Tess into his arms and hugged her tight. “Thank you, darling,” he whispered in her ear. “You’re right. She can’t hurt us. I won’t let her.”
Over the course of the dinner, Alistair went on to tell the group about his travels to Africa, while Sebastian and Tess talked about living in New Jersey and working in New York. When they finished their meal, Tess put Mattie to bed. Sebastian and Alistair sat in the living room, enjoying an after dinner drinks.
“I read in the papers that Penny Stanton and your brother are engaged. That was a surprise,” Alistair said, crossing his legs as he sipped his scotch.
“Do you keep in touch with Penny?”
Alistair laughed. “After she told me to sod off and few other choice words—no.”
“You cheated on her in public. How did you think she’d react?”
“Irons, you were no saint back then either,” Alistair reminded him.
“Yes, I know. Things changed. I met Tess. I have a beautiful daughter. I wouldn’t trade that for anything in the world.”
Alistair became quiet, lost in thought. Finally, he looked Sebastian in the eye and said, “Penny was the best thing that ever happened to me and I blew it.”
“I won’t disagree. Why didn’t you go after her?”
“I was young and stupid. Hell, we all were back then—all of us except Penny. I was going to the Naval Academy, and it just didn’t seem possible to carry on a relationship.” Alistair looked down at his perfectly manicured fingernails and asked, “Is she well?”
“Yes, she is well. You can’t tell me you never run into her.”
“A few times—here and there. She smiles politely, but we never speak.”
“And now that you see someone else is serious about her, you want her back?”
“No, she’d never have me even if it were possible. I like Maxwell. He’ll be good to her.” He placed his glass down on the coffee table and ran his hand through his blond hair. “Bollocks! I’m just feeling sorry for myself.”
“Poor Prince Alistair.”
“Sod off, Irons,” he said, cracking a grin.
The two old friends looked at one another and began laughing aloud. Just then Tess walked back into the room. “Keep it down you two. Mattie just fell asleep,” she admonished as she sat down next to Sebastian.
“Sorry, darling,” he apologized, kissing her temple.
“So tell me, Tess: what on earth made you fall in love with Sebastian?”
Tess looked up at her husband. Her lips curled up into a smile. “I had never met anyone like him before. He’s the most loyal friend I’ve ever had, the most loving husband, and the best father.”
Sebastian looked at her, his eyes shining bright with happiness. “I love you,” he whispered, forgetting Alistair was still in the room.
Alistair cleared his throat to get the couple’s attention. “I’d best be going. You two lovebirds seem like you need some alone time.”
“Please, you’re welcome to stay a while longer,” Tess offered.
“Thank you for a wonderful dinner.” Alistair stood and kissed Tess on the cheek. Next, he shook
Sebastian’s hand. “If you’d like, I’d love to have you by Kensington Palace in a few weeks for dinner. I have an apartment there. You’re welcome to bring Mattie, too.”
“Thank you for the offer, but I’m not sure you want Mattie running around the palace,” Sebastian said.
Tess looked up at her husband with expectant eyes. “She would love it and so would I.”
“It’s settled then. I’ll have my secretary ring you next week with a date.”
“Thank you, Alistair. It was a pleasure to meet you,” Tess said, extending her hand.
Opening the front door, Sebastian said, “Have a good evening.” He watched as Alistair made his way to the Range Rover parked in front of their home. When he had driven off, Sebastian loosened his tie and shook his head in disbelief. “How did you mange to wrangle an invitation to the palace?”
“You’ve known him how many years and you’ve never been there?” Tess asked in disbelief.
“Back then, the palace—any palace—was the last place we wanted to be.” Sebastian took her hand and led her to the bedroom.
“Yes, I suppose wild parties and fine painting and antiques don’t mix. Too many things could get broken.”
“He seems nice enough. Do you think he’s tamed his wild ways?”
“Maybe he has. It’s hard to say. He’s regretting letting Penny get away.”
“He told you that?”
“Yes.” Sebastian closed the bedroom door and began to take off his suit.
“Hmm, interesting time for him to pop back into the picture,” Tess mused, stepping out of her dress and then hanging it in the closet.
“I’ll keep an eye on him. I don’t need him stirring up trouble for Max and Pen.”