Fiona Cullen

I’m so excited to share this bonus epilogue to Forbidden Montana Love with you. I hope you enjoy!

Nolan

“Theo, what are we doing?” I asked around a yawn as we trundled down our drive in the hours far before dawn. The only reason I liked to be awake at this hour was to make passionate love with my wife. Lately, that had been a far too infrequent occurrence. I tried to keep the impatience and exasperation out of my tone, but I knew I failed as she looked at me with her gorgeous sage green eyes filled with hurt and disappointment. “Bella, I’m sorry.”

“Please, Nolan, trust me.”

I nodded, as that was the easiest request she could ask of me. Well, the second easiest. The first was to love her. “Always.” I felt some of my tension seep away at her request. She’d been secretive lately, and a part of me was hoping she was pregnant again. Another dreaded having a second child so soon. I’d finally stopped feeling like I was in a perpetual calving season.

She continued to drive us down the road in silence, and I gave up trying to figure out where we were going. I attempted to stop worrying about all of the chores that weren’t going to get done with my absence. Thank God my brothers had moved home a few years ago.

Aurora babbled in the back, content to be in her car seat with the car in motion. Thankfully, she was the cheeriest child alive, although she hated to sleep. Settling into my seat, I sang along to the cheesy country songs on the radio, giving silent thanks I couldn’t relate to the lyrics of the men who’d lost their woman, their dog and their horse.

When we approached Bozeman, I sat up and stared at Theo, but I knew by now she wasn’t answering any questions. When she turned into the airport near Belgrade, I shook my head at her. “No, Theo.”

She grinned at me. “Yep. We’re going to Rome. Today. No more excuses, Nolan.” After she ably parked the truck, she leaned over and kissed the astonishment off my face.

“The money…”

“There’s plenty left from what Caleb’s worked so hard to find for the ranch. This is important.” She cupped my cheek, her thumb stroking over my beard. “I want to be with you when you meet them. When they meet their great granddaughter.”

Teo,” I breathed, hauling her over the middle console and onto my lap. I’d lost my ability to speak, and shuddered as I held her. “Thank you.”

She kissed my neck and pushed back. “Let’s get going. We have a long journey ahead.”

I nodded, overcome with love and gratitude for my extraordinary wife.

***

Three days later, I finally felt human again. Theo had rented us a small apartment in the center of Rome’s historic center so we could have our own routine. Aurora had adapted to the time change better than we had and was a favorite among the Italians. They were mad for babies and always stopped to coo over her. She smiled and chatted with them, always cheerful and sprinkling her joy to everyone who saw her.

I stood on our apartment’s small balcony, sipping a cup of coffee as I stared at the city’s rooftops and took an appreciative sniff of the aromas wafting around me. Although we didn’t have to eat every meal out as our apartment had a bright, well-equipped kitchen, I was tempted.

 I’d thought Mama’s food was delicious, but I’d never understood the lure of gluttony. However, I’d never been to Rome. Here, I wished I could eat seven meals a day.

Everywhere I looked, there was history and beauty. I was reminded, again and again, of all Mama gave up for love. I wished I could have seen Rome through her eyes. Heard her stories as we walked the cobbled streets, ate a gelato in the Piazza Navona or watched the sunset on the Spanish Steps. What little Italian I knew had returned, and I was charmed by Rome.

Today, we crossed the Tiber River and I held Theo’s hand as we wandered the lanes of Trastevere. The terra cotta buildings shone in the late afternoon sun and I took a deep breath as we neared our destination.

“Everything will be fine, Nolan,” Theo whispered as she squeezed my hand. 

Aurora was in a carry pack on my back and she playfully tapped my head when I stopped, missing the rolling motion. “How do you know?” I raised Theo’s hand to kiss her fingers and gazed into her eyes filled with certainty.

“Because they raised your mama. She couldn’t have been as wonderful as she was if they were horrible people.” Smiling, she stood on her toes and kissed me.

I nodded and walked the short distance to the large home on the corner. It was a gorgeous ochre color with green shutters, just like in the pictures in mama’s albums. The trees were taller and more overgrown, and the front door looked like it had just been repainted. I took another deep breath and rang the doorbell. “No turning back,” I whispered to Theo.

She murmured sounds of encouragement, shuffling even closer to my side.

When I heard footsteps, I swallowed and gripped Theo’s hand even tighter. A short woman with piercing blue eyes, silver hair and the look of my mother in her smile and countenance opened the door. “Nonna?”

She stiffened and stared at me for a moment before gasping and letting out a wail. Suddenly, she threw herself at me, wrapping her arms around my neck and tugging me down for a hug. When she released me, she peppered my face with kisses. Speaking far too rapidly for me to understand in Italian, I did understand the word miracle. She said it over and over again.

Looking behind her, I saw an elderly man and two younger men approaching with fierce glowers. They must have heard her wail and came to investigate. In broken Italian I attempted to explain who I was, and soon we were pulled inside with everyone crying and laughing.

Aurora was passed around, tickled, kissed and I knew she would be spoiled rotten. 

Theo sat beside my grandfather, charming him in her quiet way. I could tell he was as mesmerized by her as I was. Soon, other family members arrived, and the house was bursting with Mama’s family. I’d always joked that I had enough Italian cousins to field a soccer team, but I realized that was a gross misstatement. We could field two teams.

After the best meal we’d eaten in Rome, I sat beside my Nonna as she pulled out photo albums. My heart skipped a beat. “Mama,” I breathed, tracing over pictures of her as a girl. She’d been beautiful when I knew her, but she’d been gorgeous as a young woman. No wonder Jameson hated my father Lorenzo for earning her love.

My grandmother smiled at me and spoke slowly, having understood I spoke limited Italian. She flipped through the pictures, arriving to pictures of Mama’s life in Montana. Pictures I’d never seen before. I canted forward as I saw her with Lorenzo on her wedding day, her with him on the ranch, her holding her belly with the widest grin I’d ever seen on her face. My eyes filled as I realized she was overjoyed because she was pregnant with me. She’d been elated because she was having me.

I continued to flip pages, now seeing familiar photos of Mama with Jameson and my siblings. Her smile was never as bright as those pictures with Lorenzo, and she seemed to have lost her sparkle. “Mama,” I whispered, running a finger over her.

My nonna nodded, flipping to the rear of the photo album. She pulled out a yellowed envelope and handed it to me. On it, I saw beautiful cursive writing and my name. “From your mama,” my nonna said.

I froze as I remembered a long-forgotten memory. 

“You’ll travel to Roma one day, my Nolan,” Mama murmured as she wrapped an arm around my shoulder. She rarely brushed at the hair on my forehead, although I knew she longed to as I wore it too long. “You’ll meet your nonna and she’ll feed you until you’re sick. Your nonno will tell you stories” Her blue eyes were lit with mischief. “All lies when they have to do with me as a girl.”

I chuckled and shook my head. “I’m not going to Rome, Mama. I’d never travel there without you.”

“You will, my darling boy. And when you do, I’ll make sure there’s something waiting for you.” She cupped my cheek. “Promise me you’ll go to Roma one day, my Nolan.”

I smiled at her and shrugged as only a teenage boy can, careless and carefree. “Sure, Mama. I’ll go and tell you all about it.”

She beamed at me, and lost her battle at brushing her hand over my hair.

I held the letter in my hand, realizing with a sudden clarity Mama had kept her word. She’d always kept her word. “Grazie,” I whispered, unable to say my thanks any louder.

A soft hand stroked over my shoulder, and I looked up at Theo, clinging to my control. “May I see pictures of your mama?” She sat beside me, and her presence calmed and soothed me.

Resting my face in the crook of her neck, I breathed in her soft scent that always reminded me of a peony garden, and slowly relaxed. I listened as she laughed and tried to speak to my nonna as she looked through family pictures. Soon, we’d return to our apartment, and I’d read Mama’s letter. For now, I’d savor this moment with my family.

***

THEODORA

Nolan had been unusually quiet since we’d returned from meeting his family. After coaxing Aurora to sleep, I wandered through the living room out to the small balcony where I found him staring at the beautiful Roman rooftops. Laughter from a nearby piazza drifted up, as did the strains of a violin. “Nolan?”

He turned, opening his arms to me. After I’d settled in them, I shivered. “Love, did I do something wrong?”

“Wrong, bella?” He kissed the top of my head and shook his head. “Hell no. You did everything right. You insisted we come here and meet my family. You ensured…” His voice broke off and his hold on my tightened. “You ensured I kept a promise to my mama. Thank you.”

I pressed against him as he shook softly in my arms. Running my hands over his back, I waited until he had calmed. “I didn’t know you’d promised her you’d come here.”

“I’d forgotten,” he whispered, his breath tickling my neck. “I didn’t remember until Nonna handed me a letter from her.” He kissed me under my ear, earning a shiver before he backed away. “Will you read it to me? I have trouble reading cursive still.”

I stood on my toes and kissed him softly. “Of course, my darling.” We held hands as he led me back inside and sat on the sofa that sank so much it felt like it was swallowing me whole. When Nolan sat next to me, I toppled into him and giggled. Turning so I laid on my back, I rested my head on his lap and gazed up at him. “I love you.”

He bent forward, kissing me tenderly. His fingers loosened my hair and tickled the side of my neck. “Ah, bella, how I love you.”

After he handed me the letter, I carefully slipped it from the envelope and read it out loud in a soft, slow voice. 

“My darling Nolan,

If you are reading this, you came to Roma. You have met my mama, your nonna, and you understand who you are. A man blessed with family and those who love you.

I suspect by now, you realize your father was Lorenzo, not Jameson, and I hope I told you all about him. I hope you find a love like ours. One that takes your breath away and makes your heart leap at the sight of your beloved. Lorenzo was everything to me, and even though I lost him too soon, I still had him because I had you. I only wish you could have met him. He would have been so proud of you, Nolan.

Enjoy Roma, my darling boy. Eat too much gelato. Wander the streets and get lost. Don’t have an itinerary. Drop out of your tour and sit for hours to stare at the Sistine Chapel. And come back, again and again, to see our family here.

I love you, my Nolan.

Mama”

I let out a deep breath, feeling the benediction of her words. After setting the letter down on the coffee table, I looked up to see a silent stream of tears coursing down my husband’s face. “Darling,” I gasped, rearing up. Scrambling, I sat astride him, cupping his face. “I’m sorry.”

“No,” he whispered, pulling me against him. “No, everything’s fine, Teo.” He held me so tight I thought I’d lose my ability to breathe. “I miss her so much, and to receive that letter from her…” He rubbed his face on my shoulder. “She would have loved you. Adored you, Teo.” 

I rubbed my fingers over his face and into his hair. “And I her. She raised you, ensuring you became the man I love.” I kissed him softly. “We have a love like she dreamed for you, darling.”

“I know,” he murmured, his lips working their way down my neck. “Every day, my love grows stronger for you, my Teo. Thank you for insisting we travel to Rome. For being brave when I was afraid.”

“Always.” I gazed into his eyes, mesmerized by the love and hope shining in his gaze. “Together, we can face anything.”

He smiled as his hand caressed my cheek. “Even making love on this couch?”

I giggled and stifled a shriek as he rolled me over, delighting in him and the love we shared. Again and again.