Matthew Wheeler stepped into the fray of Carnevale not to eat, drink or be merry, but to become someone else.
Venice attracted people from all over the globe for its beauty, history or any number of other reasons, but he doubted any of the revelers thronging Piazza San Marco had come for the same reason he had.
Matthew adjusted the tight mask covering the upper half of his face. It was uncomfortable, but necessary. Everyone wore costumes, some clad in tuxedos and simple masks like Matthew, and many in elaborate Marie Antoinette–style dresses and feathered headpieces. Everyone also wore smiles, but that was the one thing he couldn’t summon.
“Come, my friend.” Vincenzo Mantovani, his next-door-neighbor, clapped Matthew on the shoulder. “We join the party at Caffe Florian.”
“Va bene,” Matthew replied, earning a grin from the Italian who had appointed himself Matthew’s Carnevale guide this evening. Vincenzo appointed himself to a lot of things, as long as they were fun, reckless and ill-advised, which made him the appropriate companion for a man who wanted to find all of the above but had no clue how to accomplish it.
Actually, Matthew would be happy if he could just forget about Amber for a few hours, but the ghost of his wife followed him everywhere, even to Italy, thousands of miles from her grave.
Vincenzo chattered in accented English as he and Matthew pushed through the crowd along the edges of Piazza San Marco and squeezed into Caffe Florian, where it was too loud to converse. Which suited Matthew. He had the right companion, but he wasn’t sure Vincenzo did.
Venetians, the man had never met a stranger and had immediately latched onto the American living by himself in the big, lonely palazzo next door. Vincenzo’s description, not Matthew’s, though he couldn’t deny it had some truth. He’d outbid an Arab prince by the skin of his teeth to buy the palazzo overlooking the Grand Canal as a wedding gift to Amber, but they’d never made it to Italy in the eleven months after the wedding. He’d been too busy working.
Then it was too late.
Matthew sipped the cappuccino his new friend had magically produced and summoned up a shred of merriment. If he planned to think about something other than Amber, dwelling on her wasn’t going to work. She would hate him like this, would want him to move on, and he was trying. His sole goal this evening was to be someone who wasn’t grieving, someone who didn’t have the weight of responsibility and his family’s expectations on his shoulders. Someone who fit into this fantastical, hedonistic Carnevale atmosphere.
It was hard to be someone else when he’d been a Wheeler since birth.
Matthew, along with his brother, father and grandfather, comprised the foundation of Wheeler Family Partners, a multimillion-dollar commercial real estate firm that had been brokering property deals in North Texas for over a century. Matthew had firmly believed in the power of family and tradition, until he lost first his wife, then his grandfather. Grief had so paralyzed him the only solution had been to leave.
He was a runaway from life, pure and simple. He had to find a way to get back to Dallas, back to the man he’d been.
The beaches of Mexico had failed
to produce an answer. Machu Picchu had just exhausted him. The names of the other places he’d been had started to blur, and he had to do something different.
A month ago, he’d ended up in Venice. Until real life felt doable again, this was where he’d be.
Near eleven o’clock, Vincenzo herded a hundred of his closest friends—and Matthew—the few blocks to his house for a masked ball. The narrow streets allowed for only a few partygoers to pass simultaneously, so by the time Matthew arrived at the tail end of the group, the palazzo next door to his was already ablaze with lights and people. In marked contrast, Matthew’s house was dark.
He turned his back on it and went up the stone steps to Vincenzo’s back entrance. The sounds of Carnevale blasted from the palazzo, drowning out the quiet lap of the canal against the water entrance at the front.
Inside, a costumed attendant took his cloak. An ornate antique table in the hall blocked Matthew’s path to the main area, an oddity with its large glass bowl in the center full of cell phones.
“It’s a phone party.”
The gravelly voice came from behind him, and he turned to find the owner.
A woman. Masked, of course, and wearing a delicate embroidered dress in pale blue and white with miles of skirts. The neckline wasn’t as low cut as almost every other female’s, but in combination with so much dress, her softly mounded breasts drew his eye. Whimsical silver butterfly wings sprouted from her back.