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“And I’m very sorry about that, Mrs. Walton. It was an emotional moment for me, with Jeremiah being shot, and I lost my temper. But that doesn’t change the fact that Jeremiah doesn’t want to come home to you. He is terrified of your husband—and for you.”

Virginia winced. “Things are going to be different this time. Neil promised.”

“Mrs. Walton,” Sparks said, “Neil has said that several times, and Jeremiah doesn’t believe or trust him. He is such a good kid; you have raised an amazingly brave, kind young man.”

“But it’s our job to make sure that when Jeremiah leaves Alpha Dog, he doesn’t backslide,” Tyler said firmly. He was definitely playing bad cop today. “Which is why I’m going to recommend a temporary placement for Jeremiah until he feels comfortable moving back into your home.”

Virginia’s face turned molten red. “You’re trying to steal my son from me!”

“Not at all, Mrs. Walton. It was actually Jeremiah who voiced the concerns and requested more information on other options for him after he leaves the program,” Sparks said.

“He wanted to look into emancipation, but I didn’t think a fourteen-year-

old should be on his own,” Tyler said.

“No, he belongs with his mother,” she snapped.

“Not if his mother continues to make him live in a dangerous and toxic environment,” Tyler said.

“Okay, this is getting out of hand,” Sparks said. “Tyler, why don’t you go ahead and take off for the day? I’d like to speak to Mrs. Walton alone.”

Tyler left the building and drove to Sutter Memorial to talk to Jeremiah, his folder of information on the seat beside him. He’d called a couple he’d known forever, both of them veterinarians, whose children were all grown. One of Alpha Dog’s other program graduates, Liam, was staying with them as a foster placement, and when he’d talked to them about Jeremiah’s situation, they’d been the ones to offer their home to him.

Tyler took his hospital visitor pass and headed up to Jeremiah’s room. As he came off the elevator and rounded the hallway, he heard shouting. Taking off at a jog, he reached Jeremiah’s room in time to watch Neil shove a nurse who was standing between him and a bedridden Jeremiah.

“You little fuck, you’re going to stop upsetting your mother with this whiny crybaby crap and come home. No more trouble or talk of me hurting you. You’re just a selfish little shit—”

“That’s enough, Neil,” Tyler said, stepping into the room. He didn’t trust himself to touch Neil, not when he was already clenching his fists at the guy’s bravado. Coming in here and yelling like an idiot . . . He’d be lucky if the nurse didn’t accuse him of assault.

Neil paled as he recognized Tyler but tried to bluster. “You don’t tell me what to do with my family.”

“I’m not your family,” Jeremiah said loudly.

Neil started toward the bed, but Tyler was quicker. Grabbing Neil by the back of his shirt collar, he dragged him around to face him, getting the full force of bitter beer and bong breath in his face.

“Security is going to be up here any minute, and when they walk through that door, I’m going to tell them you assaulted this nurse. Then the cops will be called, and you’ll have another arrest and pending charge on your record. Plus, I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess you drove here, and by the smell of you, I think you’re going to find a nice little DUI tacked on.”

Neil twisted out of his grasp, and Tyler let go of him. Neil’s face was contorted with rage, his skin an ugly shade of violet.

“You think you’re such a hero, but I’ve got you figured out. You’re one of those boy-loving pedo—”

Self-control could only take him so far. Putting all his weight behind the right hook, he wasn’t surprised when Neil crashed to the ground. His mouth hung open, and his eyes were closed, and for a second, Tyler thought he might have hit him harder than he meant to.

Security walked through the door just as Neil started snoring.

“What happened here?” asked the security guard with the shiny cue ball for a head.

“He passed out,” the nurse said swiftly.

“Yeah, he was drunk and raving and then he just fell over,” Jeremiah added.

Tyler was going to come clean, but with the little dark-haired nurse grinning at Jeremiah conspiratorially, who was he to disagree?

The security guards lifted Neil up and carried him out, Cue Ball commenting that he stunk while Tyler shook his head.

“He’s gonna wake up and start yelling about me assaulting him.”

“Please, no one will believe that idiot, nor would they blame you,” the nurse said. “Besides, it was a good thing you came in, ’cause I was just about to sing for him.”

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