He was awakened by the sound of voices nearby:
"They can't have gotten far, not in that storm."
"Did you look over there?"
"Hey! Remember the old shed? Maybe they're in there!"
"But would they have gone this far from the car?"
Relief flooded through him. "Hello?" Georg shouted, "Who is that? Who's there?"
Pushing aside the covers, he stumbled to his feet, rushing to get to the door before the passers-by disappeared. It must have been well into the morning, judging by the slanting slivers of light that found their way through gaps in the shed's walls. Wincing at the cold, he tripped over the empty chocolate box and the various bits of clothing that had been discarded overnight. He smiled at a bright splash of color: the scarlet jumper, crumpled in a dark corner where he'd tossed it.
Georg rushed to the door and threw it open, blinking at the blazing-white brightness of sun on snow. "Hello?" he called again, and then his vision cleared and he saw in front of him two men – one only a boy, really, barely older than Friedrich - on cross-country skis.
If they thought it strange to confront an unshaven, chocolate-smeared man standing naked in the freezing cold, they were too polite to say anything. Out of nowhere, a sudden memory made him smile, Agathe teasing: "You are so dignified, Georg, that you don't even need a uniform! You could be stark naked and people would probably stand and salute you."
"Good morning, sir," said the older man. "I'm Hans Aistrop, and this is my son, Stefan. That's your car by the creek? You've gotten yourself good and lost."
Actually, he'd found himself out here in the woods, Georg thought.
"Yes," he explained, " we slid off the road just at dusk last night. The gas line's broken; the tank will have to be drained before it's safe to pull the car out of the water. I can't tell you how grateful I am that you came along." He extended his hand, hoping his dignified behavior would make more of an impression than his appearance. "I'm von Trapp."
"Georg von Trapp?" asked the older one, returning his handshake vigorously. "From the war? It's an honor to meet you under any circumstances, sir. I take it you're not alone?"
"Uh," Georg hesitated, and waved his hand vaguely back into the shed. "My – uh – my wife is with me. We were traveling from Innsbruck, on the way home," he explained, "to Aigen. If there is any way you can help us get out of here, I'm happy to compensate you, of course."
"Oh, Captain, no need of that. Here's what we can do," Hans offered. "I've got a sleigh. Pulled by two sturdy horses. We can get them most of the way back in here, and give you a lift home. We ought to be back here in less than an hour to get you, all right? That ought to give you plenty of time to-" was that smile ghosting across the man's face?- "get dressed and all."
The arrangements made, the two men skied away, and Georg turned back into the shed. Despite feeling cold, hungry, and unpleasantly sticky, he also felt a surge of anticipation at the thought of an hour alone with her. He left the door open, eager to be able to see as well as touch her.
She was sitting up, clutching the blanket to her chest. She was his Fraulein Maria, no doubt about it, with her tumbled golden hair. And freckles! Dozens of them! In the darkness, he hadn't thought about those freckles, and the thought of kissing every single one of them inspired him to rush to her side.
But the panicked look on her face brought him up short. Her cheeks were fiery red, and her deep-blue gaze was fixed somewhere between his waist and his knees.
Perhaps she was just feeling shy. The darkness must have given her courage and confidence, because in the morning light, the ease between them was gone. He stood awkwardly in the cold for a moment, unsure if his attentions would be welcome.
She mumbled something he couldn't quite catch.
"What's that, Maria?"
"I said, rescued. We've been rescued. You said our situation was hopeless." Her eyes slid to her lap, as though she'd seen quite enough of him, and her fingers worried the blanket's edge.
"I didn't quite say that, darling. The greatest danger was the cold. And I wasn't sure if someone would come along or we would have to try and hike out of here. We're lucky, really."
They sat in a strained silence for a minute. He clearly wasn't going to be welcome back under the blanket, so he pulled on his trousers and began to look for his shoes. "They'll be coming with a sleigh. In about an hour. We'll be back in Salzburg in time for lunch," he offered cheerfully, and she replied with a weak smile, although she still wouldn't look at him. She was lost in thought, somewhere where he couldn't reach her. He hadn't seen her so subdued since that horrible day last August.
Georg was half-afraid to ask, but wasn't she the one who always counseled facing problems head-on?
"Maria," he asked gently. "You aren't sorry about what happened last night, are you? About the things we said to each other? Or about what we-"
A sick feeling swept over him as her chin lifted and she nodded yes, a prim little nod. But a moment later, she finally let her eyes meet his and shook her head, slowly. "No," she whispered. "I won't regret it. I could never regret it. I just didn't think."
"Think what, love?"
"About what it would be like if we made it out of here. How I would feel about having-" And then she added, abruptly, "Why did you tell that man I was your wife?"
"To avoid gossip. Scandal."
"You mean, to avoid the possibility that anyone would think that the great Captain von Trapp would behave so irresponsibly?"
"What did you want me to tell him? And it doesn't really matter, it's temporary, a matter of days really…" he trailed off. He thought that anything he might say right now would only make things worse. So then there was silence again, and an hour that passed so slowly it felt like a day. They barely spoke as they managed to dress themselves in whatever hadn't been ruined by the storm, and waited for their rescuers.
Once Hans and Stefan arrived with the sleigh, it took almost two hours for them to reach the villa. Although the sun was bright, the winter air was sharp, with a hard breeze that made talking difficult. Georg glanced over at her a few times, but she looked straight ahead.
He leaned forward to speak to Hans. "Do you think the road back to Innsbruck will be open today? I'm anxious to get back there."
"No, no." the older man said, shaking his head. "It will be another couple of days, Captain." He glanced over his shoulder, smiling. "I thought you and your wife had just come from Innsbruck! Is it you that's in a big hurry to go back, Madam? Or – er - I'm sorry – Baroness, isn't it?"
Maria snapped to attention at that and, leaning forward, she hissed, "I am not his wife."
After that, the group rode along in an uncomfortable silence until they arrived at the villa. The sleigh had barely stopped in front of the door when Maria slid to the ground. She waited quietly, looking down, while Georg unlocked the door and motioned to her. "You go on inside. Clean up and change." He paid Hans and Stefan generously over their protests, ignoring the curiosity written all over their faces, and then, squaring his shoulders, entered the villa to face whatever lay ahead.
Maria was standing in the foyer, staring at herself in the great mirror, her fingers gently tracing her cheekbone as though she bore an invisible bruise. She looked completely ridiculous, wearing his coat and her ruined shoes. Her hair stood on end and her face was dirty. Georg thought of the women, clothed in colorful gowns and glittering jewels, who had crowded the foyer during the party last summer , each of them more stunning than the next. She was more beautiful than any of them.
He caught sight of himself in the mirror, too – unshaven, filthy and looking somehow tentative and unsure of himself. Was there anything left of the man he'd been 24 hours before?
"You look lovely," he volunteered. "Though I was sure you'd already have rushed off for a bath and a change of clothes. There's really no hurry, though, since we can't get back to Innsbruck for a couple of days."
She nodded, and then, moving quickly, she brushed by him and scurried up the stairs to the landing. Instead of turning to continue up to the staff wing, though, she stopped and turned back toward him.
"You're in a great hurry to get back to Innsbruck," she said. "I gather you've changed your mind about when to tell them."
"Changed my mind?" he asked, confused. "Under the circumstances, I thought-"
She cut him off. "Well, I've changed my mind. When you do go back to Innsbruck, Captain, I think it's best if I remain here. You're perfectly capable of telling them yourself."
"Maria. What's wrong? Why are you calling me Captain? And why on earth would I leave you here? We ought to tell them together!"
She was holding herself ramrod-straight, and her voice was like steel. "You told them the last time I left, didn't you? You can tell them this time, too, then. That I've gone to Vienna."
"Vienna?" He was dumbfounded.
"I understand, really I do, Captain. You're anxious to get on with it. To tell the children I'm leaving." Her voice caught for a moment . "As you said, it doesn't really matter, with only a few days left before I'm gone for good anyway."
"Gone for good? What? That is not what I meant and you know it! You must know it! Things are different now, Maria. Everything is different. I – no – we are not telling them you are moving to Vienna. Because you are not going to move to Vienna. You are staying here. To be their mother. And my wife."
Her poised demeanor vanished instantly, as though he'd slapped her. She looked stunned, wide-eyed and pale. "Your wife? I wish you would stop joking about that. Because it's not very funny." She edged stiffly toward the stairs that would take her to her room.
"I am not even remotely trying to be funny." Cautiously, Georg approached the bottom of the stairs. "I want you to marry me!" But when he heard his voice echo loudly in the foyer, he tried again, softly. "I-uh- ask you to marry me."
She was shaking her head, repeatedly, as though she might be able to cause him to disappear if she were energetic enough . "Married? Men like you do not marry girls like me."
"I don't know which part of that sentence is the greater insult - the kind of man you think me to be, or the slur against a woman I love very much. You."
"I can't marry you! I'm used to being on my own. Independent. That's why I didn't fit in at the Abbey. You're used to being in charge, and you wouldn't like it one bit, being married to me. It would be utterly unfair to you."
"Why don't you let me be the judge of that?" he asked, evenly.
"It's not only that, Captain. Can you see me launching your daughters into society? Giving orders to Franz? Greeting your guests at a ball? I'm not the right person for all of this." She waved her hands in the air.
"All of this," he said, "is not important to me. You are. Moreover, all of this, as you put it, could be gone in a year, if that makes you feel any better. The Germans. Anyway, you are already part of this family. The children would never forgive me, even if I were able to let you go. Which I cannot. Now. You can keep lobbing excuses at me all day, or you can tell me what is really bothering you."
"I'm sorry," she said quietly, her shoulders slumping. He felt a flicker of hope at the way her posture softened, until she shook her head sadly. "I can't. Not after last night. Not after the disgraceful way I behaved. The truth is, I feel too … exposed. Ashamed of myself. I can hardly bear to look at you, let alone marry you. I would never be able to believe that you married me for the right reasons . I don't want you to marry me out of some misguided sense of honor. Or pity."
His heart sank. "If what happened between us last night is responsible for your change of heart, then I do regret it, Maria, even if you don't. Because I don't pity you, for God's sake. I'm in love with you. I think I've been in love with you for a long time. And you love me. I heard you say it and maybe you can forget that, but I can't."
Tears shimmered in her eyes. "I've had no change of heart. I will never forget you. But we have to leave it in the past, where it belongs, and move on. "
The irony wasn't lost on him. He'd given himself to a young woman who was going to leave him broken hearted. Vindication, no doubt, for all the hearts he'd broken in his youth. This could not be happening. He could still feel the warm breath of Maria's words in his ear: "I love you, my Captain. I do." Or could he have just imagined it?
Once before, Georg had stood at the bottom of these stairs and asked her for another chance. This time, he would beg if he had to. Surely, if he reminded her of the intimacy they'd shared, then-
"That's not the way it works, Maria. I know you now. Oh, I already knew that you are wise. Kind. Talented. Funny. And very beautiful. But now, I know much, much more. Maybe more than any other person on earth. That you are passionate. And playful. I know where you're ticklish. I know how you taste. And smell. We are stuck with each other now, don't you see?"
Her furious reaction set him back on his heels.
"That's why I should spend the rest of my life with you? One night? One night – one night that happened by accident – and you think you can just…"
"Accident? " He heard himself shouting in return. "That's what last night was for you? An accident? Do you mean to tell me that if you'd known we would get out of there alive, you wouldn't have..."
"You don't know anything about me," she railed.
"With all due respect, Fraulein, you don't know me either, if you think I am the kind of man who would take advantage of a young woman in a situation like that. Who would act so dishonorably. And then compound the mistake by tying his family for life to someone he didn't even care for?"
"As I recall, Captain, you came very close to tying yourself to someone else, what, four months ago? Who will it be four months from now, may I ask?"
"You know perfectly well that my engagement had nothing to do with this. Nothing. You were the one who ran away, remember?"
"I ran away because I don't belong here. I don't belong in your life. Your – your Baroness Schrader would never have behaved the way I did last night. Shamefully. And while we're at it, Captain, let's talk about the woman you really love. Your wife. You can't even speak her name out loud in my presence! She would never have disgraced herself that way. Would she?"
The echo of their clashing words died away and they stood staring at each other, in a stunned silence that filled the vast foyer around them.
Georg was too shocked at what she'd said to be angry.
"Agathe? I loved her, yes. " He was surprised, how matter-of-fact he sounded to himself. " I always will love her, I suppose. But she is not here anymore, Maria. She's dead. She's dead," he repeated. " It doesn't matter what she would have done. You can't use her as an excuse."
She tried to choke out an apology, but she was weeping now. He wanted to go to her, but somehow he knew that if he came any closer, she'd flee. He thought of how frightened she was when he restrained her last night, and the scars he'd found on her body. He took a deep breath and then took just one careful step up toward the landing. He kept his eyes locked with hers and his voice low.
"Maria," he said gently. "You're right. I suppose there are a lot of things I don't know about you. I want to know everything, though. Every last thing."
"And there are things I do know. Things I want to tell you. Need to tell you."
"I know I've wanted you all along. I should have told you, even if I thought you'd turn me away. I was frightened. You were right, you know. Hope is a dangerous emotion. We were both too afraid to hope. Until last night, when we thought we had nothing to lose. But you can still hope, Maria. I won't disappoint you, I promise."
Her eyes remained fixed on his face, but her posture was still tense and wary.
"Maria. You can't imagine what it was like. The first days, months, even years. The effort it took just to put one foot in front of the other, to keep living when all I wanted to do was die. I'd beaten death dozens of time at war, and then when I wanted to die, I had to stay alive for my children. Sometimes I hated them for it."
She acknowledged that with a tiny nod. It had been the very first bond between them, her opening his heart to his children again.
He was just one step below the landing now. He had to stop and clear his throat before he could continue.
"Last night. When I thought we might not survive, I wasn't thinking about Agathe anymore, God help me. It was you I was thinking about. Regretful that I had never taken the chance to say what was in my heart, then so grateful that you took the risk, for both of us. You think you are unworthy, for reasons I don't quite understand yet, but the truth is, you are the braver of the two of us."
One more step and then, at last, Georg gained the landing. He didn't trust himself to speak any more, but he didn't have to: he reached for her, and without hesitation, she went into his arms. But she was trembling, a bird terrified of the cage, so he held her gently and let his fingers graze her neck.
"I'm afraid, " she whispered. "Of how much I love you."
"I know how you feel," he murmured into her hair, "but you've got to trust me, Maria. Because I'm going to trust you."
They stood on the landing, holding onto each other for dear life, for several long minutes. At last, she pulled away and studied his face. "That scratch," she lamented. "I am sorry about that. Although it does look rather dashing."
"It doesn't hurt ," he reassured her, and then he pulled her close again and took a deep breath. "Maria. We have a couple of days before we can go back to Innsbruck and tell them. No one knows we're here. We can be together. Like we were last night, but with heat and food." He felt the curve of her smile against his neck. "After that, well, all hell's going to break loose. And I want us to be married as quickly as possible. You want that as well, don't you?" and his heart lifted when she nodded silently.
"But if you'd rather, we can slow it down. I'd be happy to court you. Take you to dinner. Buy you flowers. Kiss you on the cheek. Read poetry to you. Hold your hand. That kind of thing. You didn't get much of a courtship."
"I believe," she said dryly, "that what I got was the wedding night, actually. Or something close to it, if I'm not mistaken."
He laughed. "You got my jumper out of it as well. I don't think Max will mind, though it's not much of a trousseau."
"What I'd really like," she announced, "is a hot bath. And a change of clothes. And a hot meal after that."
"A bath it is." he smiled, "I could use the same." He kissed her on the forehead and stepped away. "I'll meet you here in a half-hour, how is that?"
He turned to climb the stairs, toward the nursery and the master suite beyond, when he felt her hand slip into his.
"Not so fast," she said.
Georg turned to see the sun rise in her eyes.
"This time," she said, "I'm coming with you."
Thank you for reading, reviewing and favoriting my story! I hope you loved reading this story even half as much as I loved writing it (and yes, I also love thinking about what happens once they get upstairs, but maybe that's for another time!) Please leave me one last review, would you? And thanks for putting up with my small chapter experiment which, as you can see, I abandoned for the last two chapters. Thanks to people who left me reviews that told me what they liked (and didn't), and to lemacd for comments on earlier drafts. I don't own TSOM but am happily celebrating its 50th! I've got a few things in the pipeline so stay tuned…