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Because I might just love you.

Chapter Twenty-Four

TYLER TOOK HIS squad out to the off-site team-building course Alpha Dog had been working on during the summer months. Dr. Stabler had suggested that if the boys did some team-building exercises together, it might help Meyers and Jeremiah come to a resolution.

Only the mud from the rain that had been pouring down all week made

the course harder than usual.

“All right, here’s the deal. We’ll break up into two teams for the day, of my choosing. The losing team will do the winning team’s chores for a week, and as long as your schoolwork is done, the winning team will get a movie night every night for a week. Sound good?”

The boys hollered and whooped.

“Then here we go. Meyers, Walton, Harlow, Platt, Locke, and Benton Team One! The rest of you are Team Two.”

Meyers and Walton eyed each other warily.

“Team One, you’re with me. Team Two, you’re with Sergeant Kline.”

Once Kline had led the kids over to the London Bridge, Tyler waved Team One over to him. “First up is the spider web.” Tyler indicated the ropes in the shape of a giant web. “You need to get every member through those holes without waking the spider. If you vibrate her ropes too many times and she drops, you have to start over. So, come up with a strategy, and let’s go.”

Tyler had to admit, the six teenagers acted as though there had never been a conflict as they came up with a strategy. Three on each side, they would put one guy through right to left and the next, left to right. Platt was the only one putting up a stink about the other guys not being able to lift him, but to Tyler’s surprise, Jeremiah Walton was the one to shut him up.

“Dude, stop it! I know what you’re doing, but we need you to suck it up and trust us. We can get you through the hole and win this.”

“What is it I’m doing?” Platt asked.

“You’re calling yourself fat before someone else does it. I do the same thing.”

“How is that? You’re not fat.”

“No, but with my long hair and being a twig, people call me shit all the time. I figured for a long time it was just better to make fun of myself before they did or ignore them. But that’s not good for either one of us. We’re your teammates, and it’s our job to build you up and make sure you get to the other side.”

“Better listen to him, Platt. He makes sense.”

Tyler wanted to throw his fist in the air as Meyers backed up Walton. This was what he’d been looking for, and he would have to remember to send Dr. Stabler a fruit basket for working with Meyers.

By the time they finished the course, Team One beat out Team Two by fifteen seconds. There was a chorus of good-natured groans and razzing, but otherwise, they all shook hands and climbed into the van without issue.

On the way back to Alpha Dog, they stopped off to grab Taco Bell, and when the boys started making jokes about the cafeteria food, Blake threatened to tell their head cook. Tyler grinned as he drove, chalking today in the win column.

He parked in front and got out to open the door. The boys filed out, and he just happened to glance down the sidewalk.

And into the hate-filled stare of Carlos Mendez.

Tyler pushed through the boys when he saw the gun and said, “All of you get down.”

Tyler put his hands up, hoping to make himself a big enough target so Carlos wouldn’t think about the other boys. A cold sweat covered his whole body as he looked down the barrel of that gun, the pain and panic coming back to him like a flash flood.

“What now, motherfucker? You thought you could disrespect me and I would just go down like a little bitch?”

“No, I didn’t think that. But I also didn’t expect you to show up at a military-run building with a firearm.”

“Shows what you know, huh, puta? You think you’re so bad, but looks like I got you pissing your pants. What you got to say now?”

Tyler took a step toward him, and Carlos told him to back up. Faces flashed through Tyler’s head as he tried to stall. His parents, Zoe and Dereck, his aunts, uncles, and cousins . . .

Dani and Noah.

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