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“No, sir!”

“Then why are you laughing?” he shouted.

The teenager didn’t answer, visibly shaken, and Tyler stepped back. “Do I need to remind you that Alpha Dog has a zero-tolerance policy for bullying? That means that hate speech, racial and sexual slurs, and other derogatory violations of members of this group will not be tolerated. This is your one chance; whoever threw out that word better step in front of the group in the next ten seconds or it will get worse for you.”

Tyler waited, knowing that the perpetrator wouldn’t do it, but he wanted to give him the chance anyway. When nobody stepped forward, he shrugged.

“You wanna do this the hard way? Fine by me. Platt, Harlow, Meyers, Fredrickson, and Shields, hand your leashes off to a friend. And start running.”

“Come on, Sergeant Best, we didn’t do anything,” Dwayne cried.

“That’s where you’re wrong. You’re a team while you’re in this program, and when one member is targeted, you should be defending him, not laughing at his expense. Now, get moving. Every four laps, you get a five-minute water break, and you will keep going for the next hour, until someone confesses. At the end of that hour, if no one has stepped forward, then you five will be leaving the program. So, you better hope that whoever the comic was has some integrity.”

Hank stepped forward. “Sarge, it was—”

“Unless you’re about to confess, Hank, I suggest you keep your mouth shut. I don’t want you to turn anyone in; I want that person to be a man and come talk to me. The rest of you are dismissed; take your dogs in and report to study hall. Except Jeremiah. You stay.”

All the boys headed inside while the five others took off to run laps around the perimeter of the yard.

Once it was the two of them, Tyler nodded at the trembling teenager. “Now, show me that sit-stay.”

Jeremiah did as he was asked, and Tyler timed him. A twenty-second sit-stay wasn’t bad.

“Okay, go ahead and give him a treat.” He walked closer to Jeremiah, who was squatting down in front of Lucky. The kid had been a good choice for the dog, and while Jeremiah rubbed Lucky’s ears and told him what a good dog he was, Tyler cross

ed his arms over his chest as he stopped. “Is that the first time that’s happened here? Someone calling you that?”

“No, sir.”

Tyler placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “I apologize for that. I want you to feel comfortable being able to tell one of us if you’re being bullied. There is no excuse for it, not here.”

“But calling them out is only going to make it worse,” Jeremiah said.

“I have a hard time imagining they’ll keep harassing you if the end result is them getting shipped back to juvie.”

“They might stop in here, but what happens when we’re out?”

Tyler had a suspicion that turned his stomach. “Whoever has been harassing you is someone you knew before?”

Jeremiah didn’t need to answer; Tyler could see the answer in his expression. But the kid said it anyway. “You can’t protect me from things like this.”

Although Jeremiah had a point, the impotence of the situation pissed Tyler off. “You’re right. You gotta decide how you’re going to handle it, but that doesn’t mean I’ll have someone like that in this program. You might not feel safe anywhere else, but you will here. Go ahead and take Lucky inside and join the rest of the guys in study hall.”

Jeremiah hesitated for half a second. “You didn’t ask me.”

“Ask you what?” Tyler said.

“If I was gay.”

Tyler shrugged. “Gay or straight, it doesn’t matter. He had no right to call you that.”

The kid smiled brightly. “Thanks, Sergeant Best.”

It blew Tyler away that Jeremiah was thanking him for stating the obvious. Then again, he’d been in the Corps with guys who hadn’t thought twice about throwing around gay slurs, but Tyler never had.

He’d seen what his little brother had gone through the last few years after coming out. As much as the world was changing and evolving, there was still bigotry and hate.

Just not under Tyler’s watch.

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