Elementary Romantic Calculus (Chemistry Lessons #6) - Susannah Nix

Chapter One

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.

Not this.

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