Antonio decided to respect Lovina's silence on the way back to his residence; he could not be seen initiating a conversation with one lower than him and yet not in his employ, or it would lead to talk. He suspected that his huntsmen already had ideas of his relationship with the gypsy, and Antonio would neither confirm nor deny their thoughts. Besides, it would probably make them relate to him easier, it would make him a more human figure in their eyes, instead of the irreproachable leader he had always seemed. As long as the group didn't gossip, Antonio reasoned, his secret would be fine. He could explain to anyone who saw him returning with Lovina that she was the servant of one of his noble friends, and he had been tasked to find her and return her.

Or, Antonio began to imagine, he could set up a somewhat more elaborate ruse. He could pretend that Lovina was the irresponsible runaway daughter of a noble, and that he was courting her. If he explained it to Lovina, and gave her some rudimentary lessons in etiquette, she would be able to play the part marvelously. She already had the attitude and the looks, and even if she was rude, he could explain that with a small lie about her being an uncared for daughter of a second or third wife (knowing how she grew up, it was probable that it wasn't even a lie). It would explain her presence in the castle, and she would have more freedom that in her cage of a room that Lovina used before.

The more Antonio thought over his plan, the more he began to like it. Lovina would have a moderate amount of independence, she could enjoy the benefits of living somewhere other than a tent, and he would be able to spend as much time with his tomato as possible. While his servants might think it inappropriate, they were all devoted to him, and would be happy to see him finding something to love in life. He would have a talk with the huntsmen to make sure they didn't ruin his plot, and then he would put it in motion. Antonio finished his mental conversation with a decision to inform the men with him now of Lovina's 'background,' and therefore subtly hint to Lovina how she should act when they reached the castle. His tomato was a smart woman, even for a Gypsy, and would surely recognize the benefits of living as a noblewoman.

"Men," at the sound of Antonio's voice, all of his men immediately turned to pay attention; their boss was not one to suffer fools, and did not tolerate disrespect.

"I know that you are probably wondering about the woman we have rescued," Antonio began to explain, choosing his phrasing carefully. He squeezed his legs slightly against Lovina, who was sitting in front of him to warn her to stay silent. "She is the daughter of one of my friends, and she had run away in a rash act. He tracked her to my lands, and then informed me that she was on my property. She will be staying in one of the guest rooms until further accommodations can be made. Should you wish to be informed of more details, I shall be making an announcement to the staff when we reach my residence." Antonio looked over the men riding with him, individually examining each of their faces. They all seemed satisfied with his story, and the lord ventured to guess that it would be enough to convince the rest of his servants.

Antonio prayed it would, because if it did not, he could not see a way that it would end well for him- or his tomato.

When they finally reached the castle, Lovina was more than ready to get off of Antonio's horse. Not that it wasn't a wonderful horse; it was just that she wasn't sure how much more of sitting next to the Spanish lord she could take. She had tried to maintain some space between them at the beginning of the journey, but quickly realized how futile that was. It was with much muttering under her breath and very little grace that Lovina accepted the other option and leaned back into Antonio's broad chest. To avoid thinking about how warm and comfortable he was, the gypsy spent the time imagining terrible deaths for him to endure, but her heart wasn't really in it. They had nowhere near the flair and horrible amounts of pain that her original plans had had- original as in the ones she had come up with while locked in that prison Antonio called a 'room.'

Lovina grudgingly took Antonio's hand when he offered to help her off the horse; the momentary indignity wasn't as bad as the mortification she would have had to face had she fallen off the large beast. She held her head high, tangled hair and all, as she passed the servants, hoping that they thought the red on her cheeks was from powder and not an effect of being paraded on Antonio's arm.

They walked through the giant front doors and into the entrance hall, and were immediately greeted by the Spaniard's housekeeper, a motherly woman whose name Lovina had neither had the inclination nor time to learn.

"May I take the lady to a room, sir?" The woman asked, curtsying. Lovina was somewhat grateful that she only cast a critical eye over the gypsy's rumpled state, and didn't comment on the oddity of her clothing or the circumstances of her appearance.

"That would be proper," Antonio answered, his mind obviously on something else. "Also, gather the rest of the servants when the lady Lovina is cleansed and dressed. I have an announcement to make about my guest."

"Yes sir," the housekeeper curtsied again, and Lovina barely suppressed a grimace at all the bowing and scraping. "Come with me, lady. My name is Katyusha; I'll get you to a nice room, and then after that we'll draw you a bath and get you properly cleaned up."

Lovina didn't have the chance to protest as her elbow was seized in the housekeeper's iron grip and she was dragged up a flight of stairs she vaguely remembered ascending the first time she had entered the house. She buried the unpleasant memories as far down as she could, and settled for inwardly turning cartwheels at the prospect of a warm bath.

"I'll not ask any questions about your station, miss, nor of how you came to keep company with Milord," Katyusha informed Lovina after she dragged the 'lady' to what seemed to be a specific empty room; judging by the other (perfectly usable, in Lovina's opinion) ones that were passed up. "All I ask is, begging your pardon, that you not cause any more misery to Milord than what he's already been through." Lovina was fixed with a stern eye, which softened as the housekeeper took in the obviously frightened girl. "But I suppose you mean no harm, so let's draw you that bath."
Lovina perched numbly on the edge of the bed, and wondered how Antonio had managed to attract such loyal servants as Katyusha babbled on about how 'Milord' was 'such a good man,' and how she had some dresses that she was sure 'would fit the lady perfectly, oh, and they're just your color!' Lovina supposed he had at least been a nice person at some point in his life, and that his servants had known him then. If there was some large event in his life that made him bitter, then that would account for what Katyusha said about some past misery, Lovina reasoned.

"Come on, Lady! Your bath is ready!" Katyusha hauled the smaller woman off the bed with surprising strength, and into an adjoining room. "You're lucky that Milord takes good care of his guests," she briskly informed Lovina while peeling the gypsy's clothes off. "He has a bathing tub in each room, and unless you're rude to the maids, they won't dawdle in bringing hot water. Now miss, get in before it cools!"

Lovina wasted no time in sinking into the warm water gratefully, letting the grime of her travels wash away as she ducked her head under the water and shook it to get all of the debris she had accumulated out of her hair.

"My, you've got some lovely locks," Katyusha said approvingly, unconsciously smoothing down her own short hair. "I have just the oil to wash it with, and then they'll be gorgeous."

Lovina wasn't sure how to deal with being attended by the housekeeper, and decided on sinking further into the water, muttering obstinately that she didn't need help to clean herself.

"That may be so, miss," Katyusha seized Lovina's hair and starting vigorously rubbing something nice smelling into it, "but I was told by Milord himself to make sure you were clean, and that's what I intend to do! If you're that independent, you can scrub all that dirt off while I deal with your hair." The housekeeper handed Lovina a small bar of soap, presumably to scrub with, and resumed her previous task- trying to drag a comb through the gypsy's mass of chestnut locks.

Lovina made sure to get as much dirt off as she could while her scalp was being mauled; if Antonio was up to what he thought he was up to, she should at least look the part.

Lovina finished washing before Katyusha finished untangling, and she was content to relax in the pleasantly warm water and ponder her options. She had only gone through a few routes of action (do nothing, and continue to be pampered; try to escape again; do nothing and then escape when she had had her fill of the noble life) when Katyusha pronounced her hair finished, and hurried off to get Lovina's new clothes.

Lovina marveled at the amount of dirt on the surface of the water, even after she'd had an impromptu bath in the river. The gypsy inwardly allowed for the recognition that living as a noble wouldn't be too bad; she would have a more comfortable life than if she'd escaped and stayed on the run with Felicia.

"Your dress is beautiful, Lady!" Katysha exclaimed as she walked back into the room, waving a fold of the deep green material practically in Lovina's face and effectively distracting the gypsy from her reflections. "I'm sure it will look even better on. I sent your old clothes off to be washed- filthy though they are; I wasn't given any orders to burn them, so you'll have to settle for having them in your trunk but never wearing them again." Lovina didn't even try to interrupt the housekeeper; just accepted the suddenly proffered towel and dried herself quickly.

"I got new undergarments for you too, Lady." Katyusha held up something that, to Lovina, looked suspiciously like petticoats and a corset. "Don't fret, the corset isn't one of those that the court ladies wear to thin their waists; it's just so you're not bare under the dress." She bustled over to Lovina, and was pulling layers of clothing over the poor gypsy's head before Lovina could so much as tell her that for all she cared, corsets could burn in hell. Lovina put up with being dressed like a doll- but resolved to burn the corset in the fireplace in her room as soon as possible. When Katyusha was finally finished mothering her, the large-chested woman put a hand to her mouth and blinked back what seemed like tears. "Oh, Lady, you're lovely!"
Lovina walked stiffly out of the bathing room and into the main room, and was stopped cold by the woman she saw in the mirror on the wall. The gypsy walked closer, staring at the shimmering reflection. She ran a hair through her tumbling curls and watched the lady in the mirror do the same, and at once realized what her Nonno had been talking about when he told her she'd be a beauty someday.

A woman stared back at Lovina, shiny hair framing a soft, pale face with pink cheeks. Hazel eyes were wide in shock, and rimmed in long, dark lashes. Her lips were red and full, and set in a small frown. A curvy body was accentuated by swathes of emerald silk, and the neckline to the dress was just low enough to be interesting, but not deep enough that too much was showing.

Lovina tentatively reached out a hand to the mirror, and watched the lady's -her- eyes start to tear up. The gypsy turned away from her image, at once amazed and disgusted by how she looked. She was beautiful, but it was the court's version of beautiful. It was not how her people would have seen her, tanned and clad in a wild mish-mash of colors and patterns. It was not her- but at the same time, it was.

Before Lovina could internally beat herself any more, Katyusha gently tapped her shoulder and informed her in a quiet voice that Milord had given her instructions to take the lady to the dining hall when she was ready. Lovina nodded (not like she had a choice, the bitter voice inside her hissed- but was still subdued by the memory of the woman in the mirror), and followed the kind housekeeper down the stairs, taking pains not to step on the hem of her dress in her still-bare feet.

When they entered the hall, Lovina saw Antonio standing at a raised dais at the end, and the servants standing in rows according to rank, facing their master. She held her head high and took tiny steps down the length of the room, ignoring the stares and whispers of the other members of Antonio's household. When Lovina reached the front, she was quickly ushered to stand at the left side of Antonio, and then Katyusha resumed her place in the front row of servants.

"As you can see," Antonio's voice echoed around the hall, and all chattering among the help stopped immediately. "We have a new guest. This is the Lady Lovina; she is the daughter of one of my close friends. She shall be staying here for some time, and you are to treat her as you would treat me, or a woman of my rank. She is not to be harassed in any way; I shall personally select those who are to be attending to her. Lady Lovina has full access to any part of the house, and to the gardens outside. You should do your best to facilitate her wishes, and treat her with respect. Thank you for your time; you may go."

Lovina tried to stay calm as he called out to one white-haired figure in the hall.

"Gillian, you stay." Katyusha was given a nod, presumably to show that she could continue her previous duties and need only attend to Lovina when she was called.

As Lovina's prior maid walked up to the dais, her face was completely blank, and her eyes emotionless. Antonio waited until the last servant had left the room and the thick doors swung shut before addressing the albino.

"Gillian, you are to continue being Lovina's personal maid. When you are done conversing, you will bring her up to my chambers." With that, Antonio spun on his heel and made to leave, but was stopped by Lovina's hand shooting out and grabbing his forearm. He turned around with a vague expression of annoyance on his face, but that was quelled when he saw who was touching him. At the quirk of an eyebrow, Lovina blurted out what she had been waiting to ask.

"Were you telling the truth? I can go anywhere in the house and… I can go outside? I can walk in the gardens?" She had a bit of hope in her face, and as much as a tiny part of Antonio screamed for him to stomp it out, the much larger part of him cooed in adoration.

"I did announce that to the entire household, did I not?" Antonio gently pried Lovina's fingers off of his arm. "If that is all you have to say, I will ask that you excuse me for now. You will be able to talk to me later, if you wish."

Antonio was almost halfway through the hall before Lovina managed to utter a weak "thank you," her voice hanging in the still air. Antonio raised a hand in recognition, then placed it back in his pocket and kept walking.

When he, too, had left, Gillian seized Lovina by the shoulders and shook her.

"Woman, why did you not tell me that you were trying to escape?" Lovina could only stutter her astonishment as Gillian glared at her. "I would've helped you if you wanted to get out that badly; I don't need you here if you're just going to break Tonio's heart."

"I wasn't-" Lovina tried to protest, but was drowned out.

"But it doesn't look like that's going to be happening any time soon, so I forgive you for hitting me with a rock, and I'll be your maid again, now that Tonio's started to turn you into a proper lady." Lovina was indignant at the last comment, but couldn't retort because by that time, the untiring, albino ball of energy was dragging her by the arm and insisting upon seeing the gypsy's new room.

One exhaustive exploration of Lovina's new living quarters later, Gillian remembered that she was supposed to bring Lovina to Antonio's room, and left to make excuses centering around the premise that Lovina was too tired to see him, telling Lovina in a hushed whisper that it was always best to keep men on their toes. Lovina's futile attempts to explain to Gillian that she wasn't looking to keep Antonio on his toes, and was perfectly fine with him believing she'd forgotten about seeing him, left the gypsy worn out and sprawled across her new bed.

Lovina heaved a sigh, not liking the way the corset restricted her movement. It was almost evening and she supposed that no one except Katyusha or Gillian would be coming into her room anytime soon, so she went to stand by the mirror and tried to undo the back of her dress to remove the damned corset. While it may be 'proper,' and while she did admit that it made her figure more dramatic, Lovina didn't like the sensation of not being able to take deep breaths.

"You know," a deep voice came from behind her when Lovina had her arms twisted awkwardly behind her back, "if you wanted to take that off, you could have asked me."

Lovina whirled around to see Antonio himself, leaning against her wall and smirking.

Ignoring the embarrassment of being caught in such a manner, she decided to bother him about the most pressing inquiry on her mind instead-

"How the hell did you get into my room? I didn't hear the door open, and you said you'd be working!" Antonio strode over to the irate gypsy and stopped her protests with a strong finger against her lips.

"Turn," he commanded, taking hold of her shoulders and moving her so she was facing the mirror again, with her back to his chest. He began expertly undoing the laces of her gown, his smirk changing to a grin as he saw her shocked, speechless expression in the mirror.

"This is an old house," he explained. "There are secret passageways all over, and one of them happens to lead from my quarters to this very room."

Lovina was too preoccupied with the fact that Antonio was unlacing her dress (and by the fact that that grin looked almost natural on his normally solemn face) to throw a fit about the secret passageways. She could feel her breath getting shorter and see her cheeks getting redder as Antonio's large, warm hands made their way further down her back. Her senses were dulled by the fabric of the dress and the corset, but it didn't feel like his fingers were just unlacing.

"You've never been with a man before," he remarked offhandedly, settling his palms on her waist, fingers splayed across her hips, when he was done with the dress' laces. "If you're getting this red just because I'm this close to you."

Lovina shuddered as his breath ghosted across the back of her neck, and ducked her head so she couldn't see her expression in the polished mirror any more. The part of her that was violently protesting the physical contact was quickly beaten down by the strange feeling growing in her chest.

"Answer me," Antonio whispered in her ear, eliciting another shiver from the currently mute gypsy. He easily pulled her back to the bed; Lovina was having trouble ordering her limbs to do anything but not shake at this point. She had made it a point to avoid men, and the first time one of the Roma boys had tried to do anything besides kiss her she had broken one of his fingers and threatened to do more if his hands wandered.

The Spaniard sat on the bed and eased her onto his lap, slipping her flush against his chest and burying his nose in her hair as his hands smoothed the fabric on the tops of her thighs.

"I'm waiting," he reminded her, and Lovina had to swallow a few times before being able to vocalize anything but squeaks. The odd sensation was quickly fogging up her brain, and while she didn't like being so incapacitated, it felt lovely…
"No, damn it, I haven't!" She snapped, and was suddenly flat on her back, bouncing slightly on the mattress, before she had even registered that Antonio had moved.

"Good," he planted his forearms on either side of Lovina's head and slowly lowered himself so he was completely covering the gypsy, pressing her into the soft blankets. "I'm glad that I get to be your first."
It took a moment for Lovina's mind to register the words, but when she did, she gasped in shock- and then immediately tried to sink back into the sheets; her face tomato red, as she attempted to erase from her memory how it had felt when her chest pressed against Antonio's.

"Y-you," she stuttered, trying to sound irate, but sounding rather pathetic instead. "Hush!" Lovina finally managed to order, and turned even redder as she realized how childish her 'order' had been. She had forgotten about everything –her previous rules for herself, her resolution to not fall for the man, her past- but the fact that there was currently an impossibly attractive Spaniard extremely close to her.

Antonio refrained from mentioning how much like a certain food his Lovina looked as the delicious expression of utter shock played across her face. She was flushed and gasping beneath him, and he wove his fingers into her hair, a feeling clawing at the pit of his stomach like nothing he'd ever felt before- not even close to what he'd felt for Bella.

At her 'hush,' Antonio felt his smile growing even larger; it felt good to be grinning again, and even better to be entangled with Lovina, even if she did look like her face was about to turn crimson because of it.

He decided to listen to what she'd said, even if she hadn't meant for her command to be interpreted the way Antonio took it. In his mind, 'hush' was an excuse to do things that didn't necessarily involve talking, not a request to stop what he was doing.

Antonio dipped his head down further, brushing noses with Lovina, and letting whatever had been troubling him flow away. For a little while, at least, he wanted to believe that they were just them, just a man and a woman, with no other responsibilities, no tangled pasts, and no consequences to worry about. He bent down and kissed her, and everything else disappeared.

Lovina's head was swirling as Antonio closed those last few centimeters of distance, and kissed her. Deep and passionate and nothing like anything she'd ever felt before… Some snarky part of the gypsy said that Antonio must have taken the comment about her knowing better Roma kissers seriously, and she hadn't realized that she'd said it out loud until Antonio answered it.

"Of course I did," he almost growled, moving from Lovina's mouth to her bare neck. The Spaniard set to leaving a rather large love bite, enjoying Lovina's suppressed noises. "It would not be… chivalrous to leave my woman unsatisfied."

"People are going to be able to see that, you know," Lovina remarked breathily when Antonio was done with her new hickey.

"Wear your hair down again," Antonio responded. "Or, you could simply let it show. I want anyone who desires you to know that you're already claimed."

Lovina had no smart answer for that argument.

Felicia had been leaning as far out the carriage window as she could; looking for anyone or anything that could help her warn Lovina about the danger she faced. Lovina was the one who normally protected her, and Felicia wanted to do something for her older sister, even if it meant getting smacked by Sadiq again.

"Felicia, are you alright?" Ludwig asked quietly, a small wrinkle between his eyebrows making Felicia squeal internally- he was actually worried for her!

"Ve…" Felicia stalled, not wanting to talk about why she'd been acting oddly in front of Sadiq.

"Are you feeling ill?" Ludwig's wrinkle was getting deeper, and Felicia had to resist the urge to press her thumb to it and smooth it out.
"Well, ve," Felicia's mind was racing with the options in front of her; she could accept his 'sick' theory and ask to be let out to vomit; she could say she had to relieve herself; she could backhand the imposing Turk like her sister would have by now and then make a dash for it; she could sit still and be quiet until they reached a town where she would have a better chance of meeting a possible messenger…

"Answer the damn question, wench," Sadiq rolled his eyes- or, at least, Felicia thought he did; it was hard to tell through his mask.

"Yes, I'm fine, ve…" Felicia turned around and stared out of the window pensively, worrying about her sorella. Now that she'd had a chance to think over her plans, she realized that it really wasn't practical to tell Lovina what Sadiq planned. After all, what would Lovina be able to do? Probably only warn Antonio, and even then, they'd only be able to get ready to fight Sadiq. If they did that, then people would surely be injured- killed, even- on both sides.

Felicia was annoyed –an emotion she was definitely not used to feeling- at the seemingly impossible to resolve situation. Any way she twisted and turned it in her mind, people would die. Neither Antonio nor Sadiq were the type to give up Lovina, and neither would rest while the other had her.

Felicia decided that to minimize the amount of people dying, she'd have to do something that was completely revolting to her- offer to spy for Sadiq, or something of the sort, in order to get into Antonio's mansion and convince him to duel Sadiq for Lovina's hand. This was going to be unpleasant.

She steeled her nerves and swiveled to face Sadiq, scooting closer to Ludwig's comforting solidness for added strength.
"Saidq?" Felicia started, then continued when she saw that she had gotten the Turk's attention. "How, exactly, do you plan to rescue Lovina?" Felicia wasn't as sharp as her sorella, but she knew that she needed to make Sadiq feel good about his plans in order for him to confide them to her.

"I was gonna walk up to the doors and knock all nice-like, then stab the first people to answer, invade the place with my men, kill whoever resisted, kill the rich bastard, grab Lovina, and get the hell out of there before the king's men show up to try an' kill us." Sadiq looked satisfied with his scheme, and grinned at Felicia.
"Won't some of your men die then?" Felicia posed the question carefully. "Antonio probably has guards; they'd fight back, and they're probably well-trained." She paused while dissatisfaction made its way across Sadiq's face, and then waited for him to make the next move.

Ludwig nudged Felicia when he saw Sadiq pull the curtain on his window to look out, and looked at the girl with wide eyes.

"What are you doing?" He hissed, keeping his voice as quiet as possible.

"Helping," Felicia breathed.

Sadiq turned back to Felicia, a scowl twisting his features. "Do you have some brilliant plan to avoid everyone dying, then? Or did ya just bring this up to make me feel guilty and leave Lovina alone? Because I'm not leavin' her in that bastard's filthy hands, you can be sure of that."

"What I was thinking, ve," Felicia began, swallowing nervously, "is that you could try to have the smallest possible amount of people die by challenging Antonio to single combat- a duel, or something like that, ve. Whoever won would win Sorella's hand, and a lot of your men wouldn't have to die, because it would just be you and Antonio fighting, ve."
Sadiq ran a thumb across his stubble, pursing his lips in thought. "That might just work, wench."

"What were you thinking?" Ludwig clenched his fists in the material of his trousers the next time they stopped, when Sadiq had left the carriage to conference with his gang of thugs.

"What do you mean, ve?" Felicia tilted her head and looked at the worried German. "This way, there won't be as many people dying as if Sadiq just stormed the castle like he wanted too. That's a good thing, ve!"

"It's a house, not a castle," Ludwig closed his eyes as if seeking patience from a well from within. "And Sadiq is not a nobleman! He will not abide by the standard rules of dual combat! Antonio is doomed to lose, and then your sister will be practically owned by Sadiq!"

"I… don't understand, ve," Felicia pouted; she'd only been trying to help.

"Sadiq might pretend that he'll follow the rules, but he doesn't have a noble's honor to uphold. If worst comes to worst, he'll have his man who has the crossbow shoot Antonio if it looks like Sadiq's losing! And how do you think his guards will react to a wanted thief asking for a duel with their lord? He'll have to at least kill them to even have a hope of seeing Antonio." Ludwig looked at Felicia when he'd finished his explanation, and was shocked to notice that the girl was almost crying!
"I, I wasn't trying to hurt Antonio," Felicia sniffed. "I just wanted to help Lovi, ve."

Before he could think differently, Ludwig removed his handkerchief from his pocket and used it to wipe away the tears rolling down Felicia's cheeks.
"You were trying to help," he acknowledged. "It's not your fault you know nothing of how men like that thief will act."

Felicia would have argued that men like 'that thief' were the people she'd grown up with, but was too distracted by Ludwig's tender gesture.
It may just have been that they had been stuck in the carriage together for such a long time, but Ludwig was beginning to realize that he was not treating Felicia like a servant; not even like one of the girls his father had decided he court. The German felt something he could only describe as a connection with the teary girl, and resolved to reflect upon it at a later date. For now, he had more pressing matters to attend to.

Authoress' Random Ramble

Sorry this is a day late; I'm at a really intensive camp and I didn't have enough time yesterday to write it!

That being said, I also don't have the patience to check for errors today, so I'm sorry if any are found.

This all leads up to the big showdown between Sadiq and Antonio next week! Secrets will be revealed, long-lost people will be found, and the winner will get the lovely lady!

It would be nice if y'all could drop me a review about what you think is going to happen/want to happen/must have happen or else you'll stab your eyes out with a fork, or something equally dramatic.

Thank you all so much for putting up with me!

Less than three, less than three