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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.
Like most 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 friendsand Matthewthe 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.
"Was my confusion that obvious?" he asked, his gaze firmly on her face.
She smiled. "You're American."
"Is that the explanation for why I don't know what a phone party is?"
"No, that's because you have more maturity than most of the people here."
So she must know the guests, then. Except for Vincenzo, who had disappeared, Matthew knew no one. This little butterfly was an interesting first encounter.
Most of her face was covered, with the exception of a full mouth painted pink. Caramel-colored hair hung in loose curls around her bare shoulders. Stunning. But her voice it was sultry and deep, with a strange ragged edge that caught him in the gut.
He'd been looking for a distraction. Perhaps he'd found one.
"Now I'm curious. Care to enlighten me?" he asked.
She shrugged with a tiny lift of her shoulders. "Women drop their phone into the bowl. Men pick one out. Voila. Instant hookup."
His eyebrows rose. Vincenzo partied much differently than Matthew had been expecting. "I honestly have no good response."
"So you won't be fishing one out at the end of the evening?"
A tricky question. The old Matthew would say absolutely not. He'd never had a one-night stand in his life, never even considered it. This kind of thing had his brother, Lucas, written all over it. Lucas might have pulled out two phones and somehow convinced both women they'd been looking for a threesome all along. Well, once upon a time he would have, but in a bizarre turn of events, his brother was happily married now, with a baby on the way.
Matthew did not share his brother's talent when it came to women. He knew how to broker a million-dollar deal for a downtown Dallas high-rise and knew how to navigate the privilege of his social circle but nothing else, especially not how to be a widower at the age of thirty-two.
When Matthew left Dallas, intent on finding a way to move on after Amber's death, he'd had a vague notion of becoming like Lucas had been before marrying his wife, Cia. Lucas always had fun and never worried about consequences. Matthew, like his father and grandfather before him, had willingly carried the weight of duty and family and tradition on his shoulders, eagerly anticipating the day his wife would give birth to the first of a new generation of Wheelers. Only to have it all collapse.
Becoming more like Lucas was better than being Matthew, and nothing else had worked to pull him out of this dead-inside funk. And he had to pull out of it so he could go home and pick up his life again.
So what would Lucas do?
"Depends." Matthew nodded to the bowl. "Is yours in there?"
With a throaty laugh, she shook her head. "Not my style."
Strangely, he was relieved and disappointed at the same time. "Not mine, either. Though I might have made an exception in this one case."
Her smile widened and she drew closer, rustling her wings. The front of her dress brushed his chest as she leaned in to whisper in her odd, smoky voice, "Me, too."
Then she was gone.
He watched her as she swept into the main room of Vincenzo's palazzo and was swallowed by the crush. It was intriguing to be so instantly fascinated by a woman because of her voice. Should he follow her? How could he not follow her after such a clear indication of interest?
Maybe she'd been flirting and it hadn't meant anything. He cursed under his breath. It had been far too long since he'd dated to remember the rules. Actually, he'd never understood the rules, even then, which was saying something for a guy who thrived on rules. But this was Venice, not Dallas, and he was someone else. There were no rules.
Matthew followed Butterfly Woman into the crowd.
Electronic music clashed with old-world costumes, but no one seemed to notice. Dancers dominated the floor space on the lower level of the palazzo. But none of the women had wings.
Along the edges of the dance floor, partygoers tried their luck at roulette and vingt-et-un, but he didn't bother to look for his mystery woman there. Gambling was for those who knew nothing about odds, logic or common sense, and if she fell into that category, he'd rather find a different distraction.
A flash of silver caught his eye, and he glimpsed the very tips of her wings as she disappeared into another room.
"Excuse me." Matthew waded through the dancers as politely as he could and chased after the only thing he could recall being interested in for eighteen very long, very cold months.
When he paused under a grand arch between the two rooms, he saw her. She stood at the edge of a group of people engrossed in something he couldn't see. And he had the distinct impression she felt as alone in the crowd as he did.
Tarot junkies crowded around Madam Wong as if she held the winning lottery numbers. Evangeline La Fleur was neither a junkie nor one to buy lottery tickets, but people were always amusing. Madam Wong turned over another card and the crowd gasped and murmured. Evangeline rolled her eyes.
Her neck prickled and she sensed someone watching her. The guy from the hall.
They locked gazes across the room, and she gave herself a half second to let the shiver go all the way down. Delicious. There'd been something about the way he talked to her, as if truly interested in what she had to say. About Vincenzo's stupid phone party, no less.
Lately, no one was interested in what she said, unless it was to answer the question, "What are you going to do now that you can't sing anymore?" They might as well ask what she'd do after they nailed the coffin shut.
Hall guy's suit was well-cut, promising what lay underneath it might be worth a peek or two, his lips below the black velvet mask were strong and full and his hands looked capable. The man trifecta.
The music faded into the background as he strode purposefully toward her without so much as glancing at what he passed. Every bit of his taut focus was on her, and it had a powerful effect, way down low in places usually reserved for men she'd known far longer.
Boldly, she watched him approach, her gaze equally as fixed on him.
Bring it, Tall, Blond and Gorgeous.
The mystery of his masked face somehow made him more attractive. That and the fact he couldn't possibly know who she was behind her mask. This pull was all about anonymity, and she'd have called anyone a dirty liar who said she'd like it. But she did. When was the last time she'd been within a forty-foot radius of someone who wasn't aware of how her career had crashed and burned? Or the number of Grammys she'd won, for that matter.
For a time, she'd dwelled in the upper echelon of entertainersso successful she didn't require a last name. The world knew her simply as Eva.
Then she was cast aside, adrift and alone, with no voice.
"There you are," he murmured, as if afraid to be overheard and determined to keep things between them very private. "I'd started to think you'd flown away."
She laughed, surprising herself. Laughter didn't come easily, not lately. "The wings only work after midnight."
"I'd better move fast, then." The eyes on her were beautiful, an almost colorless, crystalline blue that contrasted with the black border of the mask. "My name is"
"No." She touched a finger to his lips. "No names. Not yet."
As he looked very much like he wanted to suck her fingertip into his mouth, she dropped it before she let him. This stranger was exciting, no doubt, but she had a healthy survival instinct. Vincenzo's friends were a little on the wild side. Even for her.
Yet she'd been following Vincenzo around Europe for a couple of months and couldn't seem to find anything better to do. She wanted to. Oh, how she wanted to. But what?
"Are you seeking your fortune, then?" He nodded to Madam Wong and the crowd parted.
Madam Wong shuffled her cards. "Come. Sit."
Tall, Blond and Gorgeous pulled the brocade chair away from the draped table. Evangeline couldn't see a way to gracefully refuse without drawing unwanted attention, so she sat, extremely aware of the capable hand resting on the back of the chair inches from her neck.
When Madam Wong shoved the deck across the table, Evangeline cut it about a third of the way down and let the fortune-teller restack the cards.
After that quack doctor butchered her vocal cords, Evangeline had spent three months searching for a cure, eventually landing on the doorstep of every Romanian gypsy, every Asian acupuncturist and every Nepalese faith healer she could find.
No one had a way to restore her damaged voice. Or her damaged soul. In short, this wasn't her first tarot reading, and she had little hope it would be any more helpful than all the other mumbo jumbo.
The only positive from the nightmare of the past six months came from winning the lawsuit against the quack doctor, who no longer had a license to practice medicine, thanks to her.
The costumed crowd pressed closer as Madam Wong began laying out the spread. Her brow furrowed. "You have a great conflict, yes?"
Oh, however did you guess? Evangeline waited for the rest of the hokey wisdom.
The withered old woman twirled one of the many rings on her fingers as she contemplated the cards. "You have been cut deeply and lost something precious."
The capable hand of the masked stranger brushed her hair. Evangeline sat up straighter and frowned.
She had been, in more ways than one.
"This card " Madam Wong tapped it. "It confuses me. Are you trying to conceive?"
"A baby?" Evangeline spit out the phrase on a heavy exhale and took another breath to calm her racing pulse. "Not even close."
"Conception comes in many forms and is simply a beginning. It is the step after inspiration. You have been inspired. Now you must go forth and shape something from it."
Inspiration. That was in short supply. Evangeline's throat convulsed unexpectedly. The music in her veins had been abruptly silenced and she hadn't been inspired to write one single note since the surgery from hell.
Madam Wong swept the cards into a pile and began shuffling. "I must do a second spread."
Speechless and frozen, Evangeline tried to shake her head. Her eyes began to burn, a sure sign she'd start bawling uncontrollably very soon. It was the wrong time of the month for this sort of emotional roller coaster.
She needed a code word to get her out of this situation. Her manager had always given her one, so if the press asked a sensitive question, she'd say it and he'd rescue her.
Except she had no manager and no code word. She had nothing. She'd been rejected by everyonemusic, the industry, fans. Her father.
"I believe you promised me a dance."
Tall, Blond and Gorgeous clasped her hand and pulled her out of the chair in one graceful move.
"Thank you," he said to Madam Wong, "but we've taken enough of your time. Good evening."
And like that, he whirled her away from the table, away from the prying eyes.