Elementary Romantic Calculus will be here in only 5 days! But I've got a special treat for you. An early peek at the first chapter! Read on to meet Mia and Josh and the wayward goats that first bring them together...
Mia Ballentine was lost. Metaphorically and literally.
She must have missed a turn somewhere. Surely she was not meant to be on this dusty farm road on the outskirts of some backwoods town in the middle of Texas.
And yet, here she was. Trying to find her way to an obscure regional university she’d never heard of before she’d applied for a visiting lecturer position in their mathematics department.
This wasn’t how things were supposed to go. She’d earned her PhD from one of the top math programs in the country, for god’s sake. Gotten her bachelor’s at Princeton, where she’d won the Andrew H. Brown Prize before graduating with high honors. She’d laid out a twenty-year career plan for herself, and the next step was supposed to be a three-year postdoc at a top-tier university.
Unfortunately, the economy had its own ideas. The country was coming off the biggest recession of the twenty-first century and higher education had taken a major hit. Budgets had been stretched to the breaking point as endowments shrank, grants evaporated, and enrollment dropped with the national unemployment rate. Postdocs were being cut, and hiring freezes were now the norm at most universities. Even low-paid adjunct contracts had become hard to get. It was the worst possible time to go on the job market with a brand-new PhD.
Most everyone in Mia’s cohort was struggling—particularly those, like her, who’d done pure instead of applied mathematics. Some had put off defending their dissertations, some had taken temp jobs to make ends meet, and some had been forced to move back in with their parents when their fellowships ran out.
Mia had been scouring mathjobs.org and The Chronicle of Higher Education and everywhere else she could think of, applying for anything and everything she could find in academia. Up to now, she hadn’t had a single serious expression of interest.
When Bowman University had invited her to come to Texas for an interview, she’d jumped at the opportunity.
At least it was a step up from an adjunct position, most of which were limited to part-time and only paid a few thousand dollars per semester. The Bowman job was full-time and paid enough that Mia wouldn’t have to take a second job just to cover rent. It was only a one-year contract, but she couldn’t imagine being stuck here in Podunksville for more than a year, anyway. Twelve months seemed like the absolute limit of what she’d be able to stand in a place like this.
Mia peered out the dusty windshield of her rental car and shuddered at the cow pastures around her. Country living had never held any appeal for her. She was a city girl through and through. A New Yorker by birth who’d found Los Angeles enough of a culture shock when she’d moved there for grad school.
Could she really survive in small-town Texas? Seventy miles from the nearest airport and who even knew how far away from a decent restaurant or grocery store. You probably couldn’t even get food delivered here, except whatever passed for pizza in these parts.
They might not even have reliable internet. Or FedEx deliveries. She’d read the stories in The Atlantic and the New Yorker about all the ways rural America was being left behind by tech advancements, consumer monopolies, and crumbling infrastructure.
And now she might be living it firsthand.
She’d definitely missed a turn. This couldn’t possibly be the road to the university, could it? There was nothing out here but pastureland, farmhouses, trees and--
Are those goats?
They were. There were freaking goats standing in the road up ahead. Three of them. And even more milling around the overgrown ditch that ran alongside the blacktop road.
Did people just let their goats roam freely out here?
Could they be wild goats? Did they have wild goats in Texas? Were wild goats even a thing? Mia had no idea. The closest she’d ever gotten to a goat was at a petting zoo.
She honked her horn as she neared the goats in the road, but they didn’t seem interested in getting out of the way. They simply stared at her rental car as it rolled to a stop in front of them.
“Seriously?” Mia put the car in park, unclipped her seat belt, and shoved the door open.
The humid heat hit her like a slap from a hot towel. Her weather app had predicted highs in the low nineties for Central Texas today—which had seemed ludicrously hot for May—but it felt more like a thousand degrees out here.
She took a few steps toward the nearest goat and waved her arms, trying to look menacing. “Shoo! Go on. Get out of here!”
Instead of moving out of the road like a reasonable creature should, the goat stood its ground, regarding her with its unnerving sideways cat-eyes. These goats weren’t anything like the cute baby billy goats Mia had encountered at petting zoos. These goats were big and wide, almost half her height, with huge udders hanging between their back legs.
She felt a moment of trepidation as she remembered a video she’d once seen of a man getting knocked over by a rambunctious goat. The video had been hilarious, but it was probably a lot less funny if you were the person being attacked by the goat.
Maybe she should have stayed in the car.
She was dressed for her job interview and didn’t fancy being butted into the ditch by an angry goat. Imagine explaining that to the hiring committee. Sorry I’m covered in dirt and vegetation, gentlemen, but you see I was attacked by a wild goat on my way here.
These goats didn’t look particularly angry, fortunately. Or inclined to rambunctiousness. Mostly they looked bored—and hot.
Mia could relate.
“I don’t think you’re supposed to be here,” she said to the goats in the road. “And I’m definitely not supposed to be here.”
The nearest goat tilted its head at her and bleated. Though it was almost more of a honk than a bleat. It had a big nose for a goat—not that Mia was any great expert on goat noses. But it seemed to have an unusually large, convex nose that gave it a distinctly comical appearance. It also had long, floppy ears that hung down past its chin like a lop-eared bunny.
It was pretty cute, actually.
Based on the bulging udder, she deduced it was female. It also didn’t have any horns, which she hoped meant it wasn’t the sort of goat who went around butting people into ditches.
It started walking toward her, and Mia stiffened in fear. But all it did when it reached her was nudge her hand with its head—the same way her friend Brooke’s cat did when it wanted to be petted.
Mia gave the goat a tentative scratch between its floppy ears, and it closed its eyes in what was clearly an expression of ecstasy.
When it noticed its friend getting attention, one of the other goats wandered over and bumped its head against Mia’s leg. She gave it a head scratch too. They seemed friendly and sweet as long as you gave them what they wanted. They reminded her of dogs, and she’d always liked dogs, despite never owning one herself.
A third goat wandered over, and Mia alternated pets between her three new friends. “You like that, huh? Just call me the Goat Whisperer, I guess.”
This was certainly not how she’d expected today to go. She was supposed to be meeting with members of the Bowman University math department in fifteen minutes, not standing on a dusty farm road sweating inside her interview clothes while she catered to a herd of affection-starved goats.
“How do you guys stand the heat out here?” she asked her hoofed companions as a trickle of sweat puddled inside her bra.
“They’re goats,” a man’s voice said behind her. “They’re used to it.”
Mia started and spun around.
A man in a cowboy hat stood in the road a few yards away from her. He seemed to have materialized out of thin air. There was no other car in sight, and no buildings within half a mile. She had no clue where he’d come from or how he’d managed to sneak up on her.
“Sorry.” The man raised his palms in a placating gesture. “Didn’t mean to scare you.”
Mia had never encountered an actual cowboy before, but she assumed that was what he was. In addition to his cowboy hat, which was made of straw and fraying around the brim, he wore scuffed cowboy boots and dusty jeans. His arms were thick and deeply tanned, and his sweat-stained T-shirt pulled tight across broad shoulders. It was exactly the sort of hearty physique she imagined one developed from years of wrestling recalcitrant cows, lassoing horses, and hoeing crops.
Or whatever it was that cowboys did. Honestly, she had no idea.
The man nodded at her car. “You lost?”
“Is it that obvious?” Squinting, she lifted a hand to shield her eyes from the sun and nearly started again when she got a good look at his face.
She’d been so distracted by the whole cowboy thing, she hadn’t appreciated how attractive he was. His strong, square jaw featured exactly the right amount of stubble to look manly and slightly rough, while his cleft chin added character to his face. But it was his eyes that struck Mia the most. Dark, deep set, and piercing beneath the brim of his hat, they regarded her with a startling intensity.
He scratched his stubbly jaw as those sharp eyes looked her up and down. “Well, you’re not really dressed for a hike in the country. Let me guess: you’re looking for Bowman.”
“That’s right,” she said. “Am I close?”
“You’re a couple miles off the mark. The GPS is wrong.”
“How can the GPS be wrong?”
Pushing his hat back, he wiped the sweat off his forehead. “It just is. Been that way for years. I guess they don’t care about getting it right out here, or they’d have fixed it by now.” He pointed down the road behind her. “It’s trying to direct you to the old Bowman Farm, which is on the far east side of the campus. The main entrance to the college is two more exits up the highway you came in on.”
She turned to look in the direction he’d pointed, then back toward the highway she’d come from, resting her hands on her hips. “So you’re telling me everyone just gets lost trying to find the university?”
The cowboy shrugged. “Most people going there already know where it is.”
“Right,” she said. “Of course they do.”
He started toward the goats, who were watching him with interest. “I’ll just get these fugitives out of your way so you can turn around.”
“You mean they’re not supposed to be wandering around loose?”
He let out a deep, throaty laugh. “Not so much, no. They’re escape artists. Especially Alice. She’s the mastermind. Always leading the others into trouble.” He made a kissing sound and the goats clustered around him.
“They’re cute.” And so are you, Mia thought, but fortunately refrained from saying out loud.
“Don’t think they don’t know it. They’ll charm the pants off you and then start chewing on your shoes once your guard’s down. Speaking of…” He nodded at Mia’s feet, where one of her new goat friends was nibbling at the hem of her pants leg.
“Ack! Stop that!” She jerked back, out of the goat’s reach, and it gave her an indignant look.
“Come on, Bell. Back where you belong.” The man made another kissy noise and Bell trotted over to him, joining the others.
“Do they all have names?” Mia asked as she watched him lead the goats to a gap in the wire fence running alongside the road. She hadn’t noticed it before, but it must have been where the goats had slipped out.
“Yep.” He stooped to widen the hole in the fence and gestured the goats through. “That’s Agatha,” he pointed to each of the goats as he named them, “Zora, and Charlotte.”
“Agatha Christie, Zora Neale Hurston, and Charlotte Brontë are all novelists.” Mia read mostly nonfiction these days, but as a child she’d read a lot of classic literature because her father had told her it would make her smart.
The man nodded as he shooed the last goat through the fence. “That’s right.”
“Some people say Jane Eyre’s erotic masochism makes it the nineteenth-century Fifty Shades of Grey. But I think its complex depiction of female agency was profoundly feminist for its time.”
The cowboy lifted his head and squinted at her.
“Charlotte Brontë is my second-favorite nineteenth-century author,” Mia added, as if that could somehow explain why she’d said the words erotic masochism out loud to a total stranger.
“Are you an English professor?” he asked, frowning slightly.
“No, my PhD is in mathematics.”
He accepted this information silently. At least he hadn’t warily backed away from her. Yet.
Mia shuffled her feet, eager to end the conversation before she blurted out anything else embarrassing. “Thanks for, um…moving your goats.”
The man’s lips twitched in what she suspected was amusement at her expense. “If you head back the way you came and get on the highway heading east, you’ll see a sign telling you where to exit for the college.”
“Got it. Thank you very much.”
Mia got back in her car, turned around, and drove back to the highway as fast as she safely could.