Mickey Chambers is an expert at analyzing modern literature. But when it comes to figuring out her own story, she’s feeling a little lost. At thirty-three, she’s an adjunct instructor with a meager summer class schedule and too many medical bills, courtesy of her chronic illness. Picking up a bartending gig seems perfect. Sure, Mickey’s never done this before, but the gorgeous, grumpy bar owner, Diego Acosta, might be the perfect man to teach the teacher…if he wasn’t so stressed.
Diego is worried he’s running his late wife’s bar into the ground. Add the pressures of returning to college part-time at forty-two, and it’s no wonder he’s making rash decisions. Like hiring the sunny, sexy woman who looks more at home in a library than slinging beers to rowdy barflies, and who turns out to be teaching his online writing course, a complication neither was expecting…
It’s not long before Mickey starts reenergizing The Saloon with cocktails, karaoke and an optimism even Diego can’t ignore. They need to fight their feelings if they want to keep things professional, but all it takes is one sip, one kiss, to shake both their worlds forever…
Plink, plink, plink…
Mickey Chambers’ heart stuttered as she held her breath. Each prescription pill she dropped into different days of the week was an ominous warning of finite resources. When she got to Saturday and found a nearly empty bottle of her thyroid medication, she had to do quick math in her head. To refill her prescriptions, she’d have to visit Dr. Curtis and get bloodwork done.
She’d been counting pills for most of her adult life. But at thirty-three, it was getting hard to pay for them. At her kitchen counter, Mickey carefully spilled the remainder of her medication on to a place mat and slowly separated them. Two weeks.
She quickly started on the mood stabilizer next, counting with the same slowness, and making note of how few were left in the bottle. Three weeks. Any gaps in medication could be bad news for her hormone levels, knocking her flat on her ass.
This was going to be a hellish summer if Mickey couldn’t fund the medication for her hyperthyroidism. Her teaching load had always been somewhat precarious, but this was the first time she worried. Hargrove University’s English Department had always made room for her, but they had also hired more adjuncts like her. Other part-time instructors who needed to grab up as many classes to cover their bills.
She gathered her medications and placed them back on the top of her refrigerator before checking her cell phone again. She was expecting a call from the department chair today with confirmation of her summer schedule. So far, Mickey only had one online class.
Because she’d taught a few distance-learning courses before, Mickey had a slew of class plans ready to be taught online. She’d need to update a few PowerPoint presentations from last year, but she counted on her Food Studies and Culture course to be easy to navigate. Now, if Lara could just give her a heads-up on a Comp 101 or an American Lit, she’d have extra syllabi for those as well.
But alas, no missed calls.
Mickey sighed as she tucked her phone in her skirt pocket. No point in waiting around her apartment when she needed to be at her parents’ home for Sunday dinner. This was the first dinner she’d shown up to since a hectic finals week and logging grades, so she missed them. She grabbed her purse and locked up before running into the Columbus, Georgia, heat. Even in late May, she felt the blast of the outdoor furnace that frizzed her curls and made her under-boobs sweat. She blew out another frustrated sigh. The heat was an annoyance for any average Georgian, but for someone with her condition, these summers were hell.
When she got on Forest Street, she tapped out a quick message to her mother, letting Rita Chambers know she was on the way. Mickey made a quick loop around Lakebottom Park, admiring the people who could stand jogging in the bright sun and catching a glimpse of her favorite brick-red bungalow on the corner of Cherokee Avenue.
She loved how it stood out from the surrounding houses with its delicate white trim and shutters and large wraparound porch. A couple years back, two rocking chairs used to sit near the door, now only one remained. The owner also seemed to neglect the spread of kudzu vine clawing its way up the west side of the house. Mickey noticed the changes and it made her sad.
Her mind quickly went back to the road toward her parents’ home. Through the shaded boulevard of dogwood trees, Hargrove students were already walking to the downtown area, ready to tear it up. She drove past them carefully, trying her best not to hit the pregame wobblers.
When she reached her parents’ house, she parked her car in the driveway behind her brother’s Beemer and walked past the pecan saplings piled up in the yard. Mickey’s father must have been amid a landscaping project. Her mother would object to Virgil Sr. lifting more than necessary, but she’d let her parents argue about that.
She checked her phone once more and found no new messages.
Mickey closed her eyes, trained a smile on her face, and readied herself for dinner with her family. As she stepped through the threshold of her childhood home, she called out, “I’m here, let the festivities begin!”
Her little brother, Junior, was the first to reply. “Girl, ain’t nobody waiting on you.”
Mickey laughed as she hung her purse in the yellow foyer her father had painted earlier in the year. Judging by the smells coming from the kitchen, she wouldn’t have waited on her either. She found her family eating dinner in the bright and airy living room, using the collapsible TV trays while her mother’s lovely dining room remained untouched.
“Baby, fix a plate and join us.” Her mother pointed her fork toward the kitchen.
“Michelle, when’s the last time you had that car looked at?” her father asked apropos of nothing.
Mickey bit back her grin. “Last time I was here.”
Virgil Sr. shook his head as he scraped at his plate. “Lemme change that oil before you leave. How them tires lookin’?”
It didn’t matter how she answered, her father would just examine the entire Honda Civic before she left the house. Even after a week of working for Columbus Public Works, he still needed to come home and tinker around with something. “I’ll let you have a look,” Mickey said on her way to the kitchen.
If it was hot outside, Rita’s kitchen was an inferno. Her mother’s cast-iron skillet had put in the work that day, producing fried chicken, fried pork chops and corn bread. Side dishes covered the counter like a small buffet line, with a roll of aluminum foil and Styrofoam plates sitting on the end, serving as to-go plates for Mickey and Junior.
A bottle of Ardbeg scotch sat near the refrigerator with a yellow sticky note pressed to the glass. If there was one thing she could count on her brother for, it was a free bottle of booze. No doubt, an end-of-the-semester gift. She smiled as she picked it up and inspected the label. She and Junior tried to get together as often as possible to try different spirits and share their opinions, but lately they’d grown too busy. He with his start-up in Atlanta and her constantly grading papers. As expensive as it was, his little reminder of simpler times touched her.
While she fixed her plate, Mickey listened to her parents give a familiar rundown of the Columbus, Georgia, happenings for Junior, who now lived in Atlanta.
“You remember Celestine on the West Side,” Rita said. “Henry Richard’s sister.”
“Taught at the dance school back in the nineties. Volunteered at the soup kitchen?”
“Mama, I can’t remember,” Junior said.
“Well, she passed a couple weeks back,” their mother went on. “I went to the visitation and saw her granddaughter, Layla. I didn’t know it, but she took over the dance school recently. You remember Layla? Real pretty girl…”
“Henry still working at Wilson’s Paper?” their father interjected.
“Sure is,” Rita said. “Coming up on twenty years. Oughta be retiring soon.”
When Mickey returned to the living room, she sat next to her brother on the sibling-designated couch, facing her parents, who sat in their own cushy recliners. On the television, an action movie played with the volume set low.
“Anyway,” Rita said, “you oughta let me introduce you to Layla. She’s such a professional little lady teaching those kids and I heard she was single…”
Junior made a noncommittal noise before stuffing his mouth with fried pork chop.
Rita switched gears and turned her focus on her other child. “Michelle, my favorite teacher! Are you feeling good? Have you taken your medications?”
“This morning, Mama,” Mickey said, trying to keep her smile up. Every time her mother laid eyes on her, she asked the same questions.
“Do you have enough for the month?”
Mickey nodded, trying not to worry about the number of pills she counted out earlier. “I get my refills on time.”
“Is that Obamacare still working for you?” her father asked. “‘Cause Roy said he’s paying an arm and leg over these prescriptions.”
Mickey eked out a strained smile. “It’s fine, Daddy. The ACA plan I’m on is okay.”
“Are you teaching this summer?” Junior asked, steering the conversation away from Mickey’s health.
She gave him a grateful look. Since she was first diagnosed with hyperthyroidism, her parents had dropped everything in their lives to make sure she was well taken care of. Now, at the age of thirty-three, they hadn’t quite stopped. “I am,” she said, quickly changing gears. “I’m still at Hargrove, in the English Department.”
“They had a hell of a busted pipe by that athletic center,” her father said. “I told Roy, they gonna have to dig up some of that parking lot that goes to Seaver Avenue.”
Her mother ignored her husband, who routinely rambled about construction. “Are you going to be busy this summer? How many classes will you have? Will you have to be on your feet in the classroom, or can you teach from home?”
Mickey followed her brother’s example and shoveled mashed potatoes in her mouth to avoid her mother’s interrogation. She hoped it would give her time to figure out a good enough lie about her unstable unemployment. She nodded. “Mmm-hmm.”
Her parents understood that she taught at a university. They bragged on her to everyone they knew, from the cashier at Winn Dixie to Monique at the salon. What they didn’t quite grasp was what nontenured track looked like at a place like Hargrove University.
While associate professors could use their summers for scholarship and traveling to conferences, adjuncts scrambled to find all the classes they could to make ends meet. Mickey loved teaching and her students…but she had the sneaking suspicion that her love for the job was being used against her by the university machine. She wasn’t making nearly enough money for the work she kept doing—the grim evidence hit her every time she paid her bills.
She swallowed the lump of mashed potatoes. “I’ll be fine,” she lied. As soon as her phone vibrated in her pocket, Mickey would know for certain. “Sorry, I gotta take this.”
She quickly excused herself from the living room and took her call in the kitchen.
Her boss started off on the wrong foot immediately. “Hey, Michelle…” she said in a contrite voice.
Mickey’s heart dropped. “Hey, Lara.”
“I’m sorry,” Lara said. “I had hopes for English 200, but there weren’t enough students for the Registrar’s Office to sign off on it. And then I only had 101 left, and I know you just taught it…”
“No, no, I get it,” Mickey said. “Matt needs a class too.”
“I tried to split the leftover classes as fair as I could,” Lara said. Her boss sounded so close to tears that Mickey had no choice but to let her off the hook. The availability of classes wasn’t necessarily her fault. She couldn’t help the fact that the administration had tightened up on summer course offerings.
“So, I’ve got the Comp 102,” she said with an upbeat voice.
“You do! Luckily, it’s the condensed early summer version; just four weeks. And you’d really be doing us a favor.” Doing them a favor made Mickey sound heroic instead of an underpaid professional who didn’t receive health-care benefits.
“Of course, no worries. Listen, Lara, I gotta let you go,” Mickey said.
“I get it,” Lara said. “Michelle, I’m so sorry. You’ll be okay?”
Even though she didn’t feel like coddling Lara’s feelings, she still lied, “I’ll be fine.”
“Okay. We’ll talk later?”
“Of course,” Mickey said brightly.
By the time she hung up, her mind was already on the next problem. What did the money situation look like for the next two and a half months? A quick calculation of savings told her she could handle rent—that always came first. Then came medication. Her savings account would take a hit, but it could cover those necessary pills. She had a roof over her head, but food and utilities were a different story.
“Was that work?”
She jumped at the sound of Junior’s voice behind her. Mickey could lie to her boss and her parents, but her brother would always be a tough sell. He may be five years younger than she, but he’d had to grow up fast when she was at her sickest. “It was,” she sighed.
“Are you going to need help this summer?” he asked.
He didn’t mean any harm, but it stung to be so far behind her brother, who graduated school on time, who found a career at an appropriate time. Meanwhile, Mickey’s constant absences due to illness meant flunking out of high school. She didn’t catch up to her peers until a proper treatment plan was put in place. Getting her GED, earning a bachelor’s and finally a master’s degree, in literature, gained her employment…just not a steady career in her thirties. “Please don’t tell mom and dad,” she whispered, glancing toward the living room. “They still see me as a sick teenager: reminding me to take my meds, offering me money they don’t have.”
“You need to come work with me and James,” her brother suggested as he rubbed his beard. His dark brown eyes focused on the stove behind him and narrowed. She could tell his computer-programmer mind whirred with a plan. “If you lived in Atlanta, I could help you get set up with a little apartment nearby. We could finally start the whiskey podcast…”
“You know I’d love to do the podcast,” Mickey said with a chuckle. “But I don’t want to move to Atlanta and I don’t want to work for my little brother doing—what are you doing?”
Junior rolled his eyes. “Coding the MedPlus app. We’re still trying to find a decent marketing manager… You could be it?”
Mickey grabbed her brother by the hand and dragged him to the kitchen patio door. “Let’s talk about this outside,” she sighed, hoping her parents weren’t listening. In the backyard, she finally felt relief from the stifling heat of the house.
“How long are you going to keep working for that school?” Junior asked, facing the setting sun. The vibrant red shined on his deep brown skin as he squinted his dark eyes against the light. He took his coloring and height from their father, while Mickey’s pecan-brown skin and short, chubby stature mimicked their mother.
She didn’t know the answer to that. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll teach until I find something else I’m good at.” Sometimes she woke up in a cold sweat, wondering why she’d chosen literature and composition as areas to study. The job market was rough for even those who had doctorates. What had felt like a comfortable job was quickly becoming an albatross around her neck. Anytime she tried to think about another vocation, her heart pounded and her brain froze. “I know I’m really good at organizing and planning, but those skills feel too vague to become a…career.”
“Well, you’re good with people—always friendly and helpful. I wish I knew how you stay so damn cheerful,” he said with a chuckle. “A bunch of spoiled-ass freshmen in English class would drive me up a fuckin’ wall.”
“Oh, it’s not them,” Mickey sighed. “When I step foot in the classroom, they respect me, they listen. Hell, they don’t even realize I’m a part-time lecturer. My students think I’m a scholar like everyone else.”
She certainly didn’t feel that way when she left the classroom. Since she didn’t attend department meetings, many of the tenure-track professors barely knew her name.
“Can I be honest with you?”
Her brother nodded.
Mickey blew out a sigh. “Teaching was accidental. After the bachelor’s degree, I didn’t know what to do with literature studies, so I continued and got a master’s degree. The first job I got was teaching English and I just stuck with it. I like doing it, but without a doctorate degree, being an adjunct is a permanent internship. It’s an aspiration job that will never become a career for me.” She took a deep breath before continuing. “It’s a hamster wheel masquerading as a noble pursuit.”
Quiet blanketed the back patio as Mickey fought to keep her shit together. That was the first time she’d spoken the truth to another person.
“Got it. So, you’re spinning your wheels at Hargrove.” Junior said in a serious voice.
Mickey kept her eyes on the horizon ahead of them. Anything to avoid her brother’s piercing stare. “I’ll need to make some real changes come fall.”
“For real though, if things don’t work out in Columbus, you can stay with me. I know MedPlus is still young, but James has a couple investors lined up. You’re a writer. I could get you in on the ground floor.”
Mickey nodded. “I hear you, and I’ll keep it in my back pocket.”
While Junior’s job offer was a lovely gesture, she was reluctant to accept it. Her family had done too much as it was to help her. Her parents had given up their time, getting the runaround from heath professionals. And then their money to send her to doctors and specialists. Junior even helped her with her college applications and her move to Athens for her master’s program. Living with her brother, while working for him, seemed like taking a step backward.
The patio door slid open. Their father stuck his head out and looked between the two of them. “It’s too hot out here for Michelle to be standing around,” he said with a frown. “Y’all come in here and get a cold drink.”
Mickey shot her brother a look that said, See?
Junior smirked as he shook his head. “Coming, Pop.” As she followed her brother back inside the house, she hoped that she could continue pretending things were fine. She adjusted her face, forcing the smile that people were accustomed to, and tried to forget about the ever-present money worries. Positive attitude, Mickey. She wouldn’t get anywhere feeling sorry for herself.
Excerpt from Mickey Chambers Shakes It Up by Charish Reid.
Copyright © 2023 by Charish Reid.
Published with permission from Harlequin Books S.A.
All rights reserved.