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Tyler focused on the five boys running and already had an idea who had spoken, but he was determined to give him the benefit of the doubt. Not that he wouldn’t be dealt with, but he wasn’t a malicious boy. That was why singling Jeremiah out was so puzzling.

“Come on, you can run faster than that. Pick up the pace; as soon as you finish this lap, you can take a water break.” As they came around another lap, Tyler glanced down at his phone for the time and saw a text message from Dani. They hadn’t seen each other since Sunday, but he was hoping her text meant she was available for dinner. He was dying to get her alone.

“You have just over fifty minutes left! I hope you aren’t getting tired,” he said cruelly.

The boys ran to grab a drink at the fountain, and Harlow was the first to quench his thirst and start running again.

Sliding his finger over the phone screen, he read her message. My babysitter is sick, and my mom and dad are out of town visiting my aunt. I’m homebound, I’m afraid.

Damn, this whole keeping Noah and him separate was harder than he thought.

What if I bring pizza and a movie over after Noah goes to bed? Then we aren’t breaking any rules, and if he wakes up, I can always hide in the closet.

Raised voices by the fountain pulled him away from his phone, and he looked up in time to see Platt push Meyers against the wall. The bigger boy was radiating anger even from a hundred yards away, but it was the shouting that made Tyler rush to intercede.

Tyler caught every word as he neared the fountain, confirming what he’d already known.

“I’m not running anymore for you, asshole! You’re going to tell Sarge it was you talking shit, or you’re going to have bigger problems.”

Meyers might have been the smaller of the two, but he wasn’t backing down. He shoved Platt back. “Fuck you, fat ass, what are you going to do, sit on me? Mind your business!”

Tyler sped up, hollering, “Hey, hey! Knock it off. Platt, get back to running.”

Platt did as he was told, glaring at Meyers until he finally turned away.

Tyler held his hand up as Meyers started to take off, too. “You want to come clean now or keep torturing your friends?”

Meyers’s face turned an ugly shade of red as he snarled, “They aren’t my friends. I’m out of here in a few weeks anyway.”

“That’s true. You can spend that time getting shipped to juvie and losing all the goodwill you’ve earned from me and the rest of the instructors. That would be the easy way out of this. To just pretend that you didn’t do anything wrong.” He hoped his tone was conveying that was the wrong choice. “Or, you could show that you’ve actually learned something in your time here and deal with your mistake. Apologize to your team and especially to Jeremiah. I don’t know what happened between the two of you before you got here, but I know you’re better than this.”

“I was just being funny, Sarge. Why do I need to apologize because the kid can’t take a joke?”

“Because calling someone that isn’t a joke. Words like that cut deep and can scar a person.” Tyler’s eyes bored into Meyers’s until the kid’s brown ones darted away. “You’ve been someone the other guys look up to and have earned their trust and respect. I’d hate to see you lose that.”

“If I kiss that kid’s ass, none of them will respect me.”

“Now, I’m pretty sure you’re wrong. Did you see Platt’s face when you called him fat? That was hurt, which means he thinks you’re friends. You shouldn’t treat your friends like that.”

Despite the kid’s tough attitude, Tyler noticed Meyers’s cheeks and ears were red with a blush. “I wasn’t trying to start anything. I was just having a laugh.”

“At other people’s expense. How is making someone else feel like shit funny? Does that actually make you feel better?”

Meyers shrugged and answered honestly. “Sometimes.”

“Then it sounds like you need to spend an hour a day with Dr. Stabler if you plan to stay. See if she can help you work through healthier ways to boost your self-esteem.”

That seemed to be the kid’s breaking point. “Oh, come on, I don’t need a shrink!”

“Part of your probation, Meyers, if you accept my terms. You can talk to her and work out your shit or not—it’s up to you—but you will show up to every appointment. And if anything else comes up, you’re out of here.”

Meyers stared mutinously at him, but Tyler wasn’t going to cave, not on this. After everything his little brother had been through, with dick bags hassling him and calling him every shitty name in the book, it wasn’t going to fly here.

“So, what’s it going to be? Accept the consequences and apologize? Or do I need to make a phone call?” Tyler prodded.

Meyers’s Adam’s apple bobbed hard. “Okay.”

“Good. First, you’ll apologize to Platt and all of the other guys. Then, you’re going to have extra cleanup duty this week after meals.” Meyers nodded, not arguing. “And until you’re discharged, I wanna hear that you’re going to every counseling appointment. Are we clear?”

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