By the time we’d played the main theme for the musical eighteen times my lips were mush. Echo had started flicking his ears every time someone got a wrong note. Mr. Stark’s face was red as a beet, and each time he had to speak to us his voice got louder and louder.
As soon as he said we could go the pit cleared out in record time.
For once Whitney didn’t stop to chat. Instead we quickly made our way outside and into the van.
Wyatt didn’t waste time either as he pulled away from the curb.
“How was practice?” Wyatt asked.
“Awful.” Whitney waved a hand in the air. “I swear everyone is on edge. Jason and Mrs. Larson had two screaming matches, Mr. Stark is freaking out, and my hair totally deflated down in that pit.”
Wyatt glanced at me in the rearview mirror.
I shrugged. “It was pretty bad. Hopefully the dress rehearsal tomorrow is better.”
“How did Echo do?”
“He was fine in the pit, but Matthew was out, so no reaction.”
“Dang,” Wyatt said.
In order to get my mind off of the past two hours I glanced into the back of the van. Echo hadn’t so much as flicked a whisker that way, but just as Wyatt had promised there were twelve airtight containers each holding a different item of food.
“I told you I’d hook you up.” I returned to my eyes forward and found Wyatt looking at me in the rearview mirror again. Why was he paying attention to me like this? Oh yes because of Echo. I glanced down and found my cat watching Wyatt as well.
“Did Echo growl at anyone today?” Wyatt asked.
“No, but he didn’t look happy about Jason.”
Or Anne.” Whitney said.
That got a single shoulder shrug from a Wyatt. “How many people are actually happy to see her?”
“You shouldn’t talk about your girlfriend like that,” Whitney said. “You should respect her.”
“I probably should.”
I cleared my throat. “I thought you really liked her.” The words hung in the air between us for a moment as he met my gaze again. His eyes didn’t sparkle like they sometimes did. “I used to like her a lot more.”
“Would you rescue her from a potential zombie?” I asked with a grin.
Even though I’d love Anne out of the picture—not that it would get me anywhere near being Wyatt’s girlfriend—I did want him to be happy. And for while he and Anne had been really happy.
Wyatt returned my grin. “Yeah I would still do that.”
“I guess if that’s not the case you should reevaluate your relationship.”
Wyatt raises eyebrows. “Since when do you give advice about girlfriends?”
A blush crept up my neck as I ducked my head. “I’m just saying.”
Wyatt’s laughter filled the vehicle quickly followed by Whitney’s.
“Everly, I figured you could tell when Wyatt was teasing you by now. We’ve only known each other for what, ten years?”
“Sixteen years.” Wyatt held up a finger. “I believe I was present when Everly was born.”
For some reason that pushed the blush up onto my cheeks. The siblings laughed at me, and I did my best not to shrink away from them.
Echo flicked his tail hard enough to hit the seat and make a sound. My heart stopped as I looked over at him. Instead of ears back and growling as I had expected he was giving me his flat stare. I felt like he gave me that when he thought I was being stupid. Since he was being annoying, I scratched his head until he moved away. Because that’s what our relationship was like.
Wyatt turned into a parking lot.
Whitney spoke. “Were going to your Gym?”
“Yup.” Wyatt maneuvered into a spot and stopped. He turned around and spoke to both myself and Echo. “I figured after we test him in a quiet room we could test in a busy environment I talked to the gym manager and he said it was fine.”
His thoughtfulness touched me. I fought for something intelligent to say. It was hard with his dark eyes staring in the mine. So I took a breath and forced my mind to work. “Thanks,” I said in a brilliant display of linguistics.
Wyatt turned his gaze on Echo. “Bros gotta stick together.”
We got out, Wyatt grabbed the crate of containers from the back, and headed for the building. The automatic doors of the gym opened before us. A wave of vanilla air freshener that had been liberally used to attempt to cover up the stench of sweat rolled out and engulfed us. Wyatt didn’t seem to notice. Whitney and I exchanged a disgusted look. Echo lifted his head, sniffed twice, and resumed his walk.
The guy at the desk waved at Wyatt as we approached.
“Hey Wyatt,” the dark skinned man said. “Is that the cat you told me about?” The man leaned over the counter to look at Echo. Echo sat and stared up obediently.
Wyatt put the crate on the ground and reached down to pat Echo on the head, which he knew he wasn’t supposed to do. “Sure is. Mark, this is my sister Whitney and my friend Everly.”
Those were upgraded designations for us. Usually Whitney was his bratty little sister and I was her annoying friend. Maybe he was trying to be nice so he wouldn’t look bad in front of his gym buddies.
Mark shook our hands and pointed at a door to our right. “You can use that room first and then come out onto the floor.”
Wyatt hefted the food containers and jerked his head toward the door. Whitney ran ahead to open it, and I followed.
When we got inside it we found a small office with a desk and two chairs. Wyatt put the crate on the desk and pulled three containers out of it.
“Here are the three things you wanted to start with. I figure we do this in here then go out to the floor.”
Whitney looked at me. “He’ll do fine.”
Only then did I notice that the strangle hold I had on Echo’s leash had my hands shaking. I took a deep breath to calm myself, but got interrupted when Wyatt slapped me on the back.
“My man Echo is awesome. He’ll be great.”
How was I supposed to be calm when Wyatt kept looking at me touching me? Even if it was about Echo.
Whitney spread three containers out on the desk. “Ready?” she asked Wyatt.
“Ready.” He pulled out his phone and started recording a video. “Testing. Round one.”
Whitney waited a moment before opening the first container an setting it down in front of Echo. Echo, who was cleaning his head, stopped, put his paw down, and inched forward to sniff the contents of the container. It was an enchilada. I could tell it was one of Whitney’s mom’s. There shouldn’t be any corn in it.
Echo sniffed twice looked at me then went back to licking his paw and cleaning his head.
“Good boy,” Wyatt said.
My grip on the leash loosened on its own.
Whitney closed the container, sprayed some air freshener around us to confuse Echo, then went to the next container.
Whitney barely got this one open before Echo started making gagging noises. I glanced inside and saw that it was cornbread. No wonder. One whiff and my sinuses flared up.
Or maybe that was in my head.
Whitney quickly closed it, sprayed the air freshener again, and went on to the last container. Echo correctly identified that one as well.
My hands finally stilled.
Wyatt stopped the video and led us onto the gym floor.
“Mark asked us to stay over here.” Wyatt pointed to one corner.
I followed Wyatt keeping Echo between myself and the wall. I could tell he wanted to glanced aroune to see what was going on, but he’d been trained well and although his neck twitched a couple of times he stayed on task.
We got to the designated corner. Wyatt sat the crate down again and Whitney grabbed the first container.
Echo and I turned to face the gym. Three muscle-bound guys working out nearby stopped what they were doing and their expression softened when they saw Echo. Wyatt waved them over and they approached like a moving wall.
Wyatt grinned. “This is the girl and her cat I was telling you about.”
The guys nodded and one of them looked at me. “Can I pet him?”
Hated telling people no, but Echo was on duty. “I’m sorry, it would better if you didn’t.”
The huge man sighed and stared at Echo for a moment before he took a step back.
Wyatt spoke to the three men. “If you guys could just mill around and talk while we do this that would be great. We’re testing him.”
They nodded and began to talk about weights and muscles and things I didn’t really understand. Wyatt turned his camera on again and my attention returned to Echo. Whitney opened the first container and I saw a hostess cupcake inside. Echo pulled his head away and then gagged.
The man talking stopped, and all three men laughed.
“That’s hilarious,” one said.
“At least there’s no question,” another said.
It was funny. Irritating, but funny.
Echo tried two more dishes with corn and then several without. He got everyone of them right. A lot of people walked by, the three men kept talking, and Echo basically ignored them. Just like he was supposed to. When we finished, Echo had a perfect score, Wyatt finished the video and squatted down next Echo.
He didn’t reach out and touch them instead he said, “Don’t worry buddy, I have a treat for you in the car.”
Echoes ears perked up when he heard the word treat.
“You spoil him,” I said to Wyatt.
“What else is a cat uncle supposed to do?”
Cat uncle? I’d never heard him say that before.
Whitney finished repacking the crate, then she turned to me. “This is a good baseline.”
“On to step two,” Wyatt said.
“I’ll take these to the car.” Whitney held her hands out for the keys. “You two walk him through.”
“You sure your baby arms can handle it?” Wyatt asked?
Whitney grabbed the keys and hefted the crate. “See you in a few minutes.”
Why was Whitney leaving us alone?
“She’s texting Jason,” Wyatt said when she was out of earshot.
“Of course she is,” I said.
Wyatt indicated a path that led around the weight room. “Shall we?”
“We shall.” I walked with Echo between me and the equipment. We passed close to almost twenty people. I kept a good eye on Echo’s reactions to them. He lowered his ears twice. I noticed the man and the woman and made a mental note to tell Wyatt who they were. Just in case we needed to talk to them later.
I was glad Echo’s training was still working. But as we walked out, we got close to a woman doing push-ups on the floor. Echo stopped in his tracks and let out a low growl.
Lucky for us she had earbuds in and didn’t notice. Wyatt exchanged a concerned look with me.
“Do you know the woman he growled at?” I asked Wyatt as we left.
Wyatt nodded. “Yeah she’s there a lot.”
“Good, because I think we should keep track of everyone he’s either lowered his ears or growled at.”
Wyatt nodded. “You’re probably right.”
Echo, now back to his normal self, walked next to me flicking his tail and looking hungrily at the van because he knew once he got inside he could relax.
My phone chimed as I climbed in. It was a message from my mom.
Animal control is coming on Thursday afternoon to evaluate Echo.
A lump formed in my throat.
Wyatt gave Echo his treat. The two of them were acting so normal. So calm.
In just a few days all of this could be over. They could take Echo away.
Tears gathered in my eyes, and I blinked them away.
No crying. Not yet. We still had work to do.
Check out Chapter 7 HERE!
If you missed the beginning, click HERE to go to Chapter 1