They moved into the living room, where her father stood behind a chair with his arms crossed. He nodded at Mercy and at Truman, but didn’t move a step in their direction. Deborah led Mercy and Rose to the couch, and the three of them sat down together.

“I called your uncle John and uncle Mark in Washington,” her mother started. “They were as shocked as I was.”

“Are you sure they were telling the truth, Mom?” Mercy asked. “Someone helped Aaron with his plan way back after the volcano erupted. Do you remember who told the family that Aaron had gone camping?”

Her mother shook her head. “I have no idea. My mother told me over the phone. Neither Aaron nor I had lived at home for a long time, but one of my other two brothers could have told the family.” Her voice caught.

And they took their secret to their graves.

“I don’t think we’ll ever know who helped him,” said Mercy. “I can’t believe the secret was kept for all these years.” She glanced at her father, and her heart stopped.

He knew.

Karl Kilpatrick’s face was stony and hard, and his eyes looked emotionally drained. He’s trying too hard to be expressionless. Her father held her gaze for a brief second before looking away.

Damn you.

How could he keep that secret from her mother for decades? As her mother sobbed into her hands, Mercy became confident that she’d never known that Aaron had lived.

But her father was another story. Mercy glanced at Truman. He was studying her father with a knowing expression.

He sees it too.

Had her father helped Aaron start over, or had he heard about it from one of the brothers? Had he known Aaron was living outside of town and trying to build a militia? Her father hated militias. He viewed them as a crude attempt at government, a masquerade of representing the little guy, usually led by someone with a big ego who simply wanted power. Perhaps her father hadn’t maintained contact with Aaron after he escaped to Idaho.

She doubted her father would ever tell her the truth.

Mercy needed to let it go. It no longer mattered.

But no one would stop her from getting to know her family again. She had everything to gain.

“What are you doing for Thanksgiving tomorrow?” Mercy asked her mother before she could talk herself out of the idea. “I think I need to spend some time with my family.” A big smile crossed Rose’s face, and she gave Mercy’s hand an excited squeeze.

Her mother wiped the tears from her cheeks. “Please come over and eat with us.” Deborah looked directly at Mercy, not her husband, as she made the request.

“I’d love to,” said Mercy. “Truman is cooking a turkey. We’ll bring that along with Kaylie and her pies. I’ve already made plans with Pearl for dessert, but I’ll have her meet us here instead.” Happiness unexpectedly bubbled in her stomach, and a warm feeling of contentment filled her limbs and made her smile. Her father could glower all he wanted. She wouldn’t allow him to intimidate her away from her family.

I guess the holiday does mean something to me.

Mercy blew out a deep breath as they reached Truman’s SUV in her parents’ yard.

“Your father knew the truth about your uncle Aaron’s death,” Truman stated. He pulled her against him, and she took a moment to lean her head on his shoulder.

“I saw that,” she said. “How can you hide a secret like that from your spouse for decades?”

“Your father is tough,” Truman said. “He’s got skin of steel. Sorta reminds me of you.”

She gave him a side-eyed glance, not certain if that was a compliment.

Truman took a deep breath. “I was scared shitless when I saw them drag you inside the mess hall last night.” He clamped his lips together as he held her gaze.

“I’ve got skin of steel, remember?” she joked, nervous about the intensity in his gaze. “I would have been fine.”

His brows narrowed slightly, his brown eyes deadly serious.

Uh-oh.

“I’ve kept my mouth shut over the months we’ve been together,” Truman said. “Because I didn’t want you to feel pressured, but when I realized last night that you might die and I’d never told you I’d loved you, I swore I’d fix that immediately. I’m done holding back.”

She couldn’t move. I’m not ready for this. Please, not now, Truman . . .

“I love you, Mercy Kilpatrick. I’ve loved you since nearly the first moment I saw you. I knew immediately that you were someone who would challenge me and excite me and make me feel alive again. I was an idiot to not tell you sooner. I almost waited too long. So if you have a problem with the fact that I’ve told you I love you, that’s too damned bad. Not long ago I told you that it’s not a sign of weakness to allow yourself to be loved. Here’s your chance to take the biggest risk of your life and allow my love to become a part of you. It’s permanent and unconditional. It’s never going to leave.”

She held his brown gaze, feeling his words settle into her skin and deep into her bones. How many women would love to hear their man say that?

But I’m terrified.

But his dark eyes told her he meant every word. No one was more honest than Truman.

But what if he’s wrong? He can’t see the future.

“Come back, Mercy,” he said softly. “I see you running away.”

She lowered her gaze and spotted the healing burn on his neck inside his collar. He could have been killed that day.

She didn’t ever want to experience his death. Never. The thought of losing him made every cell in her body hurt. I’ve been so wrong.

I have everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Her gaze returned to his. “I love you too.” The words were awkward and stiff, but she knew they’d come easier with practice. “Please don’t ever push me away,” she whispered as her eyes filled. “And don’t let me push you away. It’s what I do, you know. I do it because I don’t want to get hurt.” Her voice trailed off.

He pulled her close. “Never, Mercy. Absolutely never. I’m here to stay whether you like it or not.”

An extraordinary sense of calm filled her. One she’d never felt before.

I believe him.

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