As Stella bent down to pick up her glove, a shove from behind almost pitched her headfirst into the soup can display.
“Sorry, love, couldn't see where I was pushing the cart,” said a familiar voice. “Are you alright? It’s these darn bifocals. Can’t seem to get the hang of them. Here, let me help you up.”
It was Mrs. Jones, the large, shortsighted lady who came to clean Stella's house every week. She reached down and yanked Stella up by the arm with the strength of a stevedore.
“Say, did you hear about the old Miller place?”
“What?” said Stella, rubbing her arm. She hated to think what would have happened if Mrs. Jones had wished her harm. Mrs. Jones looked around furtively, leaned close and continued in a stage whisper.
“A famous author bought the old Miller place. I heard it from Mamie Hobbs that cleans the real estate office. He’s been on Oprah and everything. I only read the Bible and the Baptist mission magazine myself, but they say he writes some real nice stories. His name’s Dan Bonfatso or something.”
She grinned happily at Stella’s surprise. The old Miller place was a beautiful but very dilapidated antebellum mansion in the historic area of town. It had almost reached eyesore status after sitting empty for years since the death of the reclusive last inhabitant.
“It’s a big house. Maybe they’ll need a cleaner when they’ve fixed it up. You’d put in a word for me, wouldn’t you? Well, best get home to feed the old man. See you, hon.”
With an affectionate parting slap on the back which almost sent Stella reeling, Mrs. Jones trundled off. Curiosity stirring despite her intentions to remain above the gossip, Stella did a Google search as soon as she got home. The author’s name was Dorian Bonifacio, and he had indeed been on Oprah and the New York Times best seller list. His novels were ‘modern but timeless, sublime and daring, addressing the exquisite challenges and pain of the modern age’ according to one reviewer. Stella ordered a copy of his latest from Amazon. Dorian was handsome, looking at her with brooding intensity from the back cover, but Stella gave up after the first chapter, thoroughly confused. She’d stick to her murder mysteries and chick lit even if it meant admitting the limits of her literary taste.
During the following week, Stella heard at the pharmacy that the house was going to be demolished and at the vet's that it was going to be renovated. The locals who gathered in the diner every morning for breakfast had a field day discussing the amount and colors of paint that had been ordered from the local hardware store. Everyone agreed that the author deserved credit for buying locally and using local firms for the work but the gossip grew more outlandish by the day. It was going to be a bed and breakfast. It was going to be a walled compound and trespassers would be shot on sight. A chandelier was coming from New York and tiles from Italy. Stella drew the line at listening to speculation about heart-shaped bathtubs and mirrors on the bedroom ceiling.
Mrs. Jones was bursting with news when she next came to clean Stella’s house. She had brought her teenage granddaughter Lacey along to help her.
“He’s been down here,” she said. “The writer fellow. Had lunch in the tavern with some people. Mary Barnes told my Joe that he tipped real well. He’s a vegan. I thought that was some kind of religion, but Joe says that means he don’t eat no meat nor milk and eggs. And something else…”
Her voice dropped to a whisper, and she blushed.
“He’s got a boyfriend.”
Lacey rolled her eyes.
“Grandma, he’s gay. He’s got a husband, not a boyfriend. So what? At least he’s married. You always fuss when you hear about people who aren’t married living together.”
“Things have certainly changed since my young days. I don’t know what this world is coming to,” Mrs. Jones said, offended. “But I judge not lest I be judged. Go polish those mirrors, young lady.”
She stumped out and began vacuuming in the next room.
“Sorry,” said Lacey. “She’s such a dinosaur sometimes.’
“Your grandmother grew up in very different times,” said Stella. “It must be hard to adjust to the new norms. Be patient with her.”
Work on the old house continued for weeks with the locals avidly following progress. Mr. Atkins sighed as he counted out Stella’s change after inspecting her car. No credit cards here. You brought cash and got a handwritten receipt at old Mr. Atkins' place.
“I swear I never heard so much foolishness in my life as about this feller coming to town,” he said. “You’d think it was the second coming or something.”
“At least people aren’t talking about me as much,” Stella said. “It’s nice not to be the center of gossip for a change.”
Mr. Atkins gave a slow grin, a mischievous twinkle in his eye.
“You was a mite different,” he said. “Coming from the big city with all that talk of natural healing and New Age stuff. Folks had you conjuring the devil and I don’t know what-all. But you’ve made a right nice job of that café and shop, though I still don’t know why people would spend money on stones and doodads. Lord knows we need something to fill some of them empty buildings on the high street and my Janey loves telling me stories about working there.”
“Janey is an exemplary employee,” said Stella. “And they are healing crystals, not stones and doodads, I’ll have you know.”
She winked at him as she left. He threw his gnarled hands up in surrender and laughed as she drove off. They had a busy day at the coffee shop. Stella was in her office counting receipts when Janey stuck her head round the door.
“Psst,” she hissed. "He's here."
“Who is?” said Stella, preoccupied. “We’re closed.”
“It’s the author. I was just putting up the closed sign when he tapped on the door. I didn’t want to be rude.”
Stella emerged. She recognized him immediately. He smiled pleasantly and extended his hand. There was a tall blonde man with him.
“Hi, I’m Dorian and this is my husband, Todd. Sorry if it’s inconvenient, but I wondered if we could get a quick cup of coffee. We were trying to avoid your rush hour. We seem to be causing quite a commotion wherever we go.”
“I understand completely,” said Stella. “Of course.”
Janey had already hurried off to make the coffee, thrilled.
“This is on the house. Welcome to town,” said Stella when he attempted to pay. “If you need a housekeeper, I can recommend a very good one. I can also recommend Janey’s grandfather if you need work done on your car.”
“Thank you,” Dorian said. “We do want to support local businesses in the community. We’ll be back.”
A few days later, Mrs. Jones and Lacey showed up at the coffee shop. Mrs. Jones was uncharacteristically quiet and appeared worried.
“A word with you in private, Ms. Stella, if you please,”
“Come into my office,” said Stella. “What is it?”
“I like working for you, I really do, Ms. Stella. But the thing is that the writer fellow offered me a job cleaning that big house. I said no at first because I couldn’t get used to the idea of two men being married. But he seems like a real nice person and he’s going to pay me a whole lot. Lacey reminded me that I said I wasn’t going to judge, and well, I…”
“Someone must have given you a very good reference,” said Stella, smiling. “Though I seem to have done myself out of a good housekeeper.”
“I know it was you, and I thank you,” said Mrs. Jones. “But Lacey and I came up with an idea. Lacey can do your house for now while she’s home from college and give you time to find someone else.”
Stella looked at Lacey who nodded eagerly.
“It seems to be a win-win situation,” said Stella. “And, Lacey, since you’re in college, do me a favor, please. Try reading his books and tell me if you can make heads or tails of them. They're beyond me.”