Disclaimer: As always, all things SoM do not belong to me.
Author's Note: A thousand apologies for how long it's taken me to finish this chapter! Rest assured, I have no intention of abandoning this fic and do still plan to finish it. I've been distracted by some RL issues—but on the positive side, I can finally say I've been to Austria and Salzburg and yes, it is quite as beautiful as it appears in SoM. But now, without further ado, the next chapter.
Georg drove into Salzburg the next day, his destination Arnholt's Jewelers.
He paid little heed to the other people strolling along the street, his mind pleasantly distracted with musings about what type of ring to buy for Maria. He thought perhaps a sapphire to match her eyes…
He stopped as he heard himself hailed by a familiar voice and turned to see Karl crossing the street towards him. He smiled broadly, reaching out to grasp Karl's hand. "Karl, this is a pleasant surprise."
"Well met, Georg. I see you have retained your talent for doing the unexpected."
Georg lifted his eyebrows slightly in question and Karl's smile broadened. "I saw the announcement in the newspaper this morning of your betrothal."
Ah, yes, of course, the announcement.
"I was rather expecting a similar announcement but I must say, I had expected it would involve Baroness Schraeder."
Georg's smile faded slightly as he felt a twinge of guilt. He had not done right by Elsa. He could only hope she had not been very hurt. "Yes, well, Elsa and I came to the conclusion that we would not suit," he murmured.
"Ah, I see." Karl slanted a glance at him. "Elisabeth was less surprised than I was at your announcement. She said that she suspected at the party that there was more between you and your Fraulein Maria than merely being your children's governess."
Georg stared. "What in heaven's name gave Elisabeth that impression?"
Karl shrugged a little. "Woman's intuition is what she claimed, something far beyond the abilities of my poor masculine powers of perception to comprehend." Karl sobered a little, meeting Georg's eyes as he clapped a hand on Georg's shoulder. "Truly, Georg, I am very happy for you. After losing Agathe, it is good to know that you have found someone else to make you happy."
"Thank you, Karl. I—" His words were interrupted by another voice.
"Captain Von Trapp!"
Georg stiffened and felt Karl's hand on his shoulder tense slightly before dropping as they both turned to face their new companion.
Georg nodded with an absolute minimum of courtesy. "Good afternoon, Herr Zeller."
Beside him, Karl also murmured a greeting.
Herr Zeller nodded to Karl before addressing Georg. "May I wish you every happiness, Captain, on your betrothal?"
"It is always nice to see people moving on as their lives change. Give my compliments to Fraulein Rainer, if you would, Captain, and tell her I congratulate her."
"I will be sure to do so," Georg lied with a forced smile that was almost painful.
"I have been wanting to thank you for the pleasant evening we had at your party, Captain. Your children are quite impressive."
Georg stiffened yet further at this mention of his children. He did not want Herr Zeller or any of the Nazis to so much as breathe the same air as any of his children. An irrational wish but he could not help the prickle of alarm that went through him at Herr Zeller's mention of the children. "Thank you."
"Your eldest children are quite grown now, Captain. Indeed, your eldest son appears to be a young man."
"He is only a boy," Georg said repressively. "A mere lad of fourteen." He felt a mad impulse to lie about Friedrich's age, to say he was only twelve or something, that much further from an age where he might be conscripted into the Army or otherwise useful to the Nazis, but he knew he could not. He had no doubt that Herr Zeller knew perfectly well the ages of his children—and if he did not, it would be the work of a moment to find out.
"Ah, well, our young ones do grow up so quickly, do they not, Captain Reimers?" Herr Zeller addressed Karl now.
"They do indeed," Karl agreed, his face and tone carefully expressionless.
Herr Zeller's gaze returned to Georg. "I have an appointment, Captain, but I could hardly let this fortuitous chance of seeing you pass by without extending my good wishes."
Georg nodded. "Thank you, Herr Zeller. I am grateful to you for your kindness," he said, managing to force the courteous lie from his lips.
Herr Zeller inclined his head. "Good day to you, Captains."
Georg watched as Herr Zeller strode away, not relaxing until the man turned the corner and was out of sight.
"Georg, take care," Karl murmured quietly. "Your political views are no secret. You must take greater care to conceal your antipathy to Herr Zeller. He is not without influence, you know."
Georg let out his breath. "I am aware of that, my friend. But I have no taste for flattering a villain."
Karl frowned slightly. "Neither do I, as you well know, but I do what I must to keep my family safe."
Georg sighed. "I know. As must we all." He paused, his earlier complacent thoughts about his future with Maria seeming very distant. "I did not like his reference to my children," he admitted.
"No more did I. Herr Zeller's notice of children is not exactly heartwarming."
A humorless smile curved Georg's lips. "Heartwarming it certainly is not." He sobered, frowning in the direction where Herr Zeller had gone. "I must take steps to ensure the safety of my family."
"I am sorry, Georg, to spoil what should have been a happy day."
Georg glanced at Karl, managing a slight smile. "It is hardly your fault. It is merely one more offense to lay at Herr Zeller's door," he said with an attempt at lightness that fell flat.
"Indeed. Well, I do hope you will be happy as well as prudent," Karl said with somewhat forced heartiness. "You must pay my compliments to your Fraulein Maria as well. She must be quite a wonder if she is willing to endure your company every day," Karl finished with a sly smile.
Georg laughed, his worries momentarily easing at this glimpse of Karl's familiar humor. "I will forgive you for that only because it is true that Maria is a wonder."
"I will look forward to getting to know her better then."
"Yes. Give my respects to Elisabeth, Karl, and my greetings to your children. I hope they are all well."
"They are indeed well and I shall certainly tell Elisabeth of our meeting. And we will, of course, make a point of attending the wedding, assuming we are invited."
The wedding. Georg smiled, his heart suddenly much lighter at the thought. "That is good to know. You will certainly be invited." It was a timely reminder of all he and Maria needed to discuss, as business must intrude on this idyllic period of their engagement. But it was a happy thought.
He shook Karl's hand in farewell before resuming his walk to Arnholt's to complete his errand. It was a happy task to select Maria's ring but he found his mood darkening as he drove back to the villa, his thoughts returning inescapably to the confrontation—he could not quite call it only a meeting—with Herr Zeller. It was a rather chilling reminder of the growing threat of the Nazis and it struck him all the more powerfully when contrasted with his current happiness over Maria.
He did not fool himself into believing that Herr Zeller's purpose in hailing him had been simply to congratulate him on his engagement; he was neither naïve enough nor deluded enough to believe that Herr Zeller's ostensible purpose had been his only one. He knew men like Herr Zeller and they did not bother with the forms of courtesy for courtesy's sake. No, the words and more, the pointed reference to his children and Friedrich in particular, had been a warning, a warning of the Nazis and their sources of information.
He sighed and then smiled as he parked the car to cries of "Father!" He pushed his worries aside as he greeted his children and Maria.
"What, not dressed for dinner yet?" he asked teasingly.
"We were just about to go up to change," Brigitta said, smiling up at him.
"Well, go on then." He made a motion as if to chivvy them up the stairs and his children scampered up the stairs, a chorus of giggles floating backwards.
Maria smiled at him. "Did you have a successful trip into town?"
"I did, in fact." He paused, stilling her with a hand on her arm as they stood together, alone for the moment, in the hallway. "I have something for you, Maria."
Lifting her hand, he slipped the ring onto her finger.
He had chosen a sapphire, flanked by a small diamond on either side. It was a simple design, which he thought suited her better than anything more elaborate.
"Oh," she breathed. She looked up at him, her lips trembling into a smile even as her eyes sparkled with sudden tears. "It's lovely."
"Not nearly as lovely as your eyes," he heard himself say—and then was promptly rather abashed. Good lord, he was talking in poetry like any lad in the throes of calf love!
"I never thought…" she began and then stopped. "Georg," she breathed, just before she rose up on her toes and kissed him.
His arm went around her waist automatically, first to steady her and then to keep her against him. "I take it that means you like it?" he asked with a small, tender smile.
"It's beautiful but you really shouldn't have, darling. You've already given me so much."
"I believe rings are customary for engagements," he teased mildly before sobering. "Anything I have given you pales in comparison to the joy you have given me and the children. Never doubt that, Maria."
"It was not difficult to learn to love the children. They are very lovable."
"I notice you don't include me in that assessment," he said with an air of mock injury. "Very well, I admit that I was not very lovable when we first met."
"Not very," she agreed, a teasing smile curving her lips. "I thought you quite intimidating."
"I don't believe that. Your courage was always more than a match for me. I believe that was what I first admired about you."
She laughed softly. "And I was convinced you disliked me for daring to stand up to you."
"Disliked you! No, never that. I admit I was not necessarily pleased; I had become too accustomed to deferential treatment. But even so, I admired your courage and I was charmed, rather unwillingly at first," he admitted candidly, "by your spirit."
"My first thought was that you were very handsome," she confessed softly.
"Yes, well, I have always prided myself on my handsome appearance," he quipped with mock smugness.
She laughed. "Georg, really!" She gave him a rather saucy glance. "My second thought was that it was a great pity your manners were not as attractive as your appearance."
He gave an exaggerated wince. "Well, that certainly puts my vanity in place."
She smiled, lifting her hand to touch his cheek lightly. "In spite of all your efforts to appear disagreeable, I soon realized that was not a true reflection of yourself."
He reached up to grasp her hand in his, bringing it to his lips for a quick kiss. "What gave me away?"
"The children," she answered simply. "If you had truly been as cold as you first acted, I knew the children could not love you as they did."
He stilled, struck by this further proof of her wisdom and incredibly humbled at the thought of his children's love, so unshaken in spite of the way he had treated them for so long. It would be, he thought, the truest ambition of his life to be the man his children believed him to be. A man who deserved the faith his children had already demonstrated, a man who deserved the love and respect of a heart as pure as Maria's.
Her eyes softened and she gave him another quick kiss as he closed his eyes.
"We must prepare for dinner, darling. The children will likely be finished before us."
"You're quite right," he agreed, releasing her.
She gave him a last smile before hurrying down the hallway towards her room as he strode quickly towards his own. He did appreciate that for all her sense of fun and the warmth of her emotions, she also retained her common sense. He might have expected that anyone as youthful and lively as she was would also be as flighty as a feather, but Maria was not that. He did not know if it was the influence of the convent or if it was something inherent in her character but there was a steadiness about her that was… reassuring.
He was not accustomed to relying on others for strength or for advice; he was not given to indecision or to self-doubt. He freely admitted to being used to command, of ships and of his own household and family. Even Agathe, for all that she had laughed and teased him gently, had not dared to challenge him or question him. Maria was different; he had no doubt that she could and would challenge him if she thought him in the wrong. She already had challenged him. Odd, he might have thought that would irritate him but he found that he appreciated it. Appreciated both her forthrightness and her strength of character. Perhaps, after all, it was a sign that he had changed, become wiser.
He paused in the act of shrugging into his jacket. He would talk to Maria about his encounter with Herr Zeller earlier. Not only because it did concern her as his fiancée but because he wanted to. He wanted to know her thoughts, ask her advice. She loved his children, would help him to decide what to do, what was best.
He made his way downstairs for dinner to find that his children had finished dressing and were now chattering happily with Max; he could hear their happy voices and he smiled to himself as he hurried down the stairs.
"What, am I late for dinner now?" he asked Marta lightly as he joined them.
Marta gave him a sunny smile. "No, Father, Franz hasn't announced dinner yet."
He pretended exaggerated relief and was rewarded by a giggle.
And at that moment, as if summoned, Franz entered the room to announce in his usual, reserved manner, "Dinner is served, sir."
Georg nodded. "Thank you, Franz."
Franz inclined his head slightly before leaving.
They were all making their way into the dining room when they heard the sound of running footsteps and Maria appeared, hurrying towards them.
His children promptly gravitated towards her and he smiled at the sight.
"Well, I suppose there can be no doubt as to their approval of their new mother," Max commented.
Georg glanced at Max. "Was that ever in question?"
"I do feel rather badly for Elsa, though," was Max's quiet response.
Georg sighed briefly. "Yes, poor Elsa. I behaved badly and did not treat her as she deserved."
"Ah well, Elsa has always been one to land on her feet." Max said briskly as he took his seat. "I do not doubt she will do well enough."
"True," Georg concurred. Across the length of the table, his eyes met Maria's as she smiled at him. After a moment, his gaze dropped down to her hand, where he could see his ring.
When he looked up, it was to have his gaze caught by Brigitta and he could see she had noticed the ring as well, as of course she would have. She gave him a quick, bright smile which he returned and then she turned back to address a laughing remark to Louisa.
His gaze flitted from one bright face to another. And whereas he was usually struck by how much his children had grown, now, with Herr Zeller's words lingering in his minds, he found himself suddenly thinking how very young they all still were. Even Liesl—his eyes went automatically to her face—was so young, just 16. So young and so innocent.
He felt a sudden surge of protectiveness and love—and with it, he felt the first nigglings of self-doubt as to his course of action. Perhaps he was being too stubborn, too unyielding. Could he yield, compromise his beliefs at least in appearance for the sake of his children, as Karl planned to do? They were so young and to continue on as he was may lead to exile, he knew it.
Anschluss—the end of the Austria he knew and loved—was coming and he knew he could not long stay unmolested by the Nazis once it did. But to condemn his children to exile, forced to flee the only home they had ever known and go to God-only-knew-where… He remembered Karl saying that he would do what he must to keep his children safe—how could he do any less?
He caught a somewhat questioning glance from Maria and managed a slight, reassuring smile as he raised his glass to her before he turned to Max.
But he found himself rather distracted that evening—distracted by his children, by their laughter, their cheerful prattle, their precious innocence. And so when Maria stood and said as usual, "Children, it's time for bed," he found himself standing as well.
"Excuse me, Max."
Max gave him a look of mingled surprise and amusement but only inclined his head.
Louisa gave him a pleased smile. "Father, are you coming to wish us a good night too?"
He smiled and bent to pick up Gretl. "Just in case there are any dangers lurking in the hallways," he said lightly.
Louisa laughed as she went on ahead.
Gretl giggled and put her arms around his neck, nestling her head trustingly against his shoulder.
He looked down at her as he walked. "Gretl, would you sing that little song you sang at the party for me?"
"The sun has gone to bed and so must I," she sang softly.
He smiled and kissed her forehead. "Thank you, mein Schatzi. That was lovely."
She dimpled up at him as he set her down on her bed where Liesl was waiting to help her change into her nightgown while Maria went to help Marta.
He stepped next door into what had been the nursery and was now the schoolroom, idly checking to see that it was tidy and putting the one book lying out back on the shelf. That done, he stepped to the boys' room, giving one perfunctory knock before stepping in.
Kurt bounced upright in his bed. "Hello, Father!"
Friedrich sat up as well. "Father."
"I wanted to wish you both a very good night." Georg pressed his hand briefly on Friedrich's shoulder and ruffled Kurt's hair.
"Good night, Father!"
"Good night, Father," Friedrich said more sedately.
And Georg was suddenly struck at the odd incongruence between Friedrich's manner, so much more mature now, and how very young he looked, in his pajamas, with his hair tousled. "Good night, my dear lads," he said quietly.
He made his way back to the bedroom shared by Liesl, Louisa, and Brigitta. "All ready for bed now, my darlings?"
"Good night, Father," Liesl and Louisa said in messy unison.
He bent and kissed their foreheads.
Brigitta put her book down and dimpled up at him. "Good night, Father."
"Don't stay up too late, liebling."
"I won't, Father."
He touched her cheek lightly and then tugged teasingly on one of her braids, making her laugh.
"Sleep well," he said at the door, closing it softly behind him.
He made his way to the nursery shared by Gretl and Marta to find Maria there, sitting between his daughters as she read to them what he recognized as one of the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen.
He stayed at the door, not wanting to disturb them and listened and watched in silence. His daughters were both snuggled up trustingly next to Maria and her arm was around Gretl. It was a heart-warming picture, a mother and her daughters…
The story ended and Maria put the book aside before helping Marta under the covers and tucking her in with a tender hand. "Good night, Marta."
He entered the room. "Good night, darling."
Marta beamed at him. "Father!"
He bent and kissed her hair while Maria picked up Gretl, carrying her the few steps to Gretl's bed before tucking her in with the same tenderness.
He joined Maria to tug lightly at the end of Gretl's braid, making her dimple up at him, before he bent and kissed her forehead. And was a little surprised as Gretl abruptly flung her arms around his neck, keeping him in place.
"I love you, Father," she whispered into his ear.
His heart melted as he wrapped his arms around his daughter. "I love you too, sweetheart," he murmured. He closed his eyes for a brief moment as he pressed his lips to her hair and he could only make the most fervent prayer of his life that his little Gretl might always be as safe and happy as she was that night.
After a moment, she unclasped her arms and lay back down as he tucked her in.
Maria bent and kissed Gretl's cheek. "Good night, darling."
"Good night, Fraulein Maria."
Maria straightened and he felt her slip her hand into his as they walked together to the door.
"Sweet dreams, little ones," Maria said quietly before closing the door behind them.
She stretched up to brush her lips lightly against his. "The children were so glad to have you come upstairs with us."
Yes, they had been, he thought, with a sudden pang at how rarely he had done so—and what a simple gesture it had been to make his children so happy. "I must do so more often in the future."
She rested her cheek on his shoulder for a moment.
"Will you walk with me outside, Maria?" he asked after a moment. He did not want to risk being overheard by anyone. He might trust his servants—Frau Schmidt, for example, had worked at the villa for his entire life—but in these times, he was well aware that one could never be too careful.
She gave him a quick smile. "Of course, Captain."
It was a lovely night, mild with a light breeze, and he could almost regret that his purpose in asking Maria to walk with him was not merely that of a romantic walk in the moonlight.
"What happened in town today to trouble you, Georg?" Maria asked after a moment. And he sensed that she had waited for him to begin but then decided to broach the subject herself.
He glanced at her. "Have I been so very obvious in my preoccupation?"
"Not obvious but I could see you were rather distracted tonight."
He smiled slightly. "I see I've become an open book to you," he said lightly but he felt amazingly touched, not so much because of her apparent insight into his mood but because of what her insight meant, that she knew him well enough and cared enough to notice his mood. When was the last time anyone had cared enough to notice and ask about his mood? His children, even Liesl and Friedrich, as quickly as they were growing and maturing, had not yet grown up enough to do so. And even if they were, he could not quite make confidantes of his children. A confidante was an equal and he had not had any equals around him. Not since Agathe… He lifted the hand he still held to his lips for a quick kiss.
She stopped and turned to him, her eyebrows slightly raised. "What is it, darling?"
He lowered their still-joined hands and met her eyes, her clear, candid gaze that compelled honesty in response. "I was accosted by Herr Zeller in town today."
"He is something of a rising star in the Nazi party and has become increasingly powerful, as he has gained the ears of many of the highest-ranked Nazis in Germany. He was at the party because he is too powerful and too dangerous a man to snub."
"Is he an oily-looking gentleman with a very thin mustache?"
He blinked at the apt description. "How did you know?"
"I noticed him at the party while the children were singing because of the way he stood somewhat apart from the other guests and frowned as he watched." She paused. "There was something about him that made me uncomfortable."
"You were right to be uncomfortable. He and I are… antipathetic, at best."
"What did he say?" she asked quietly.
"He began by congratulating me on our engagement but he revealed his true purpose when he made a point of mentioning the children and asking, in particular, how old Friedrich was."
Her gaze flew to his face, a frown crimping her brow. "Surely Friedrich is too young—" she began and then stopped.
"He may be a trifle young now but he will not remain so for long," Georg confirmed rather grimly.
He sighed, beginning to pace a little restlessly as she stayed beside him. "I had been speaking with an old friend of mine from the Navy, Captain Reimers, whose views of the Nazis are similar to mine but who has kept his personal opinions carefully hidden and, in fact, gone out of his way to keep in favor with the Nazis in order to protect his family." He paused and then finished, "Karl has done what he must in order to keep his family safe whereas I—I have been too proud, too unwilling to conceal or compromise my beliefs. And I have put my children at risk as a result." He felt her quick, concerned glance at him and the touch of her hand on his arm, but he continued on, feeling an odd relief from putting into words his troubles, his doubts. "The Nazis are not known for their mercy towards dissenters and the children are so young still, too young. If anything should happen to me, what will become of them? Francis Bacon was right when he wrote that he who has children is giving hostages to Fortune. I have been so sure, so convinced of my own rightness, but now I wonder—my life is not solely my own to risk. I must think of the children too—"
"Georg!" She cut him off with a press of her fingers to his lips. "The children, our children, are young, but they are healthy and resilient and safe for the moment."
He did not miss how she had called them "our children," and he felt a sudden surge of gratitude and of something like wonder. Her arrival, her presence in his life at this time, suddenly felt miraculous. Now, when he was feeling so exercised with anxiety about the Nazis and what it might mean for his children's future, he was no longer alone. It had been, he suddenly realized, a very long time since he had had anyone, another adult, whom he could trust, whom he could discuss his children with. It was yet another comfort he had lost with Agathe, the comfort of knowing there was another adult who cared for his children, the comfort of knowing there was someone to share his burdens. For all that he had—and did—trust Max and Frau Schmidt and even the previous governesses with the general, day-to-day welfare of his children, he had always known that, in the end, he was alone. Alone in his love for his children, alone in his concern for their well-being. It was not a responsibility, a duty, he had handled well, he knew, the sheer weight of it, when combined with his grief over Agathe, had caused him to retreat, to convince himself that his duty to his children ended with overseeing their basic health. Now, when he had been once more recalled to his responsibilities as a father, he was no longer alone. His children would no longer be alone, friendless and unprotected, without him.
He pressed the hand he still held, meeting her clear, unwavering gaze. He was no longer alone. And he was comforted.
"You have acted as you thought was right, Georg, acted according to your conscience and your honor, which is every person's duty. I would not venture to say that your friend, Captain Reimers, is wrong; we must all act as we think we must, following the dictates of our own conscience. It may have been more prudent in the short run to dissemble and conceal your true beliefs but our duty to our children is not solely in keeping them safe. Think of the children and what they will think, seeing you even pretending to go along with the Nazis. Think of the example that would set for them, the lesson that the Nazis may be right or justified in their ideologies. Liesl, Friedrich, perhaps even Louisa are old enough now that they would likely understand the need to play a part in service of a greater goal, but the others are not. No, Georg, I would not have you buy the children's safety at the expense of your honor. Part of our duty to our children also lies in trying to do what we can to ensure that the world they live in, the world they inherit, is a better one." She paused, her gaze growing softer, more reflective. "Our children will live in the country and the world that we help make for them and to consider that future world is as much a part of a parent's duty as ensuring that the children are fed."
It was probably the longest and the most heartfelt speech he had ever heard her give, even including her never-to-be-forgotten lecture after his return from Vienna.
"So you do not think I have been wrong?"
"I do not know enough about politics so I could hardly presume…"
"I believe you know more than you think, Maria, and I would like to know what you think I should do." He paused and then added, more gently, as he lifted his hand to cup her cheek for a moment, "You have the right to advise me as my decisions will impact you as well."
"You must do as your conscience tells you. You are an honorable man, Captain. I believe—I know the children and I may safely put our trust in you."
He was amazed, moved, humbled. Nothing—not even the commendation of the Emperor himself—had moved him so deeply. "Even if it requires leaving Austria for good?"
"Will it truly come to that?"
He sighed, beginning to pace again. He had never before put that vague plan into so many words, not aloud. And now he had, the words struck a chill in his heart. Leave Austria—leave this country he had fought for, this country he loved…
"It very well might," he admitted. "Herr Hitler's ambitions are quite unmistakable. The Nazis will take over Austria; that is certain. The only question is when it will happen—and how. And when it happens, I will not be left in peace for long."
"No. If Herr Hitler means war, he will want you in their Navy."
"It is not me personally; they have other commanders."
"Few like you, Captain. You are one of the greatest Naval heroes Austria has."
He glanced at her, feeling a small thread of amusement and warmth in spite of all his worry at her swift defense at his demurral. "Thank you."
She flushed a little. "It is true. The Reverend Mother mentioned it to me."
He actually chuckled briefly, slipping his arm around Maria as they sat down on the bench by the gazebo. "I must thank her for her kind words."
She smiled and then said after a moment of silence, "It is a beautiful night."
"Yes, it is." He glanced up at the clear sky and then out towards the lake and the mountains beyond, even though he couldn't see them through the darkness. But his mind easily filled in the familiar scene and he was suddenly filled with a fierce rush of love for this beautiful country of his. Not only for the beauty of Salzkammergut but for the beauty of Austria and its cities—the quaint loveliness of Salzburg, the rugged majesty of the Festung Hohensalzburg, the splendor of the Salzburg Cathedral, and the elegance and charm of Vienna. How could he even think of leaving this country? Leaving this Austria he loved so. He sighed. "I don't know how I will leave Austria."
She shifted closer to him, resting her hand on his knee. "I'm afraid I cannot help there. But you know the children and I will go with you wherever you go."
The children and her—and he suddenly knew that of course he could leave Austria. Not without grief but he could leave. For his children and for Maria, for the future he wanted for them. He put his hand on hers, turning his head to kiss her temple. "That does help. I will do whatever I must to keep you and the children safe."
"I have never doubted that." She smiled at him, her voice and her eyes filled with so much faith, he was humbled.
"Thank you, sweetheart."
"Where would we go?" she asked softly after a moment.
"To Switzerland, first," he answered. "I have some money there and then from Switzerland, I am not sure. America, perhaps. I do not believe anywhere in Europe would be safe from the Nazis."
"America… That is very far, isn't it?"
For the first time, there was a faint thread of apprehension in her tone and he glanced at her, suddenly realizing that it was probably much further than she had ever dreamed of going. He had travelled, of course, but he found himself wondering where the furthest she had ever been from home was.
"Well, we need not decide that now," he said briskly, before changing the subject. "What would you like to do tomorrow?"
"Actually, I wanted to ask you if I may take tomorrow off."
He raised his brows at the phrasing. "Certainly, Fraulein," he said with a slight emphasis on the title. "But you hardly needed to ask my permission."
She colored, flashing him a rather abashed smile. "The force of habit. First with the Reverend Mother and then with you, I have always needed to ask permission before going somewhere."
"Where do you plan to go, if I may ask?"
"The Abbey. I would like to tell the Reverend Mother about us."
"Of course, darling, but why do I not drive you there?"
"But what about the children and would it not inconvenience you?"
"The children may be left safely with Max and with Frau Schmidt for a little while. And I would hardly consider the opportunity to spend some time alone with you to be an inconvenience. Besides, I believe I should ask the Reverend Mother for her blessing."
She blushed slightly, a smile trembling on her lips. "Oh, Georg…" She leaned forward and kissed him quickly. "Thank you, darling," she murmured against his lips.
"Do you think she'll approve?" he jested lightly.
She laughed a little. "She may thank you. I don't believe she ever felt confident that I would make a good nun."
"Considering the way in which you managed to set my household on end within days of your arrival, I can only imagine the havoc you could have wreaked at the Abbey," he said teasingly.
She laughed, resting her head briefly against his shoulder. "I did tell you that I was a trouble-maker at the Abbey."
"A charming trouble-maker," he inserted, kissing her hair.
"Sister Berthe would not agree with you there."
"Clearly Sister Berthe lacks my powers of discernment."
"Or she merely has the clearer, more impartial view of me."
"That is also true," he conceded. "I would hardly claim to be impartial about you. But the Abbey's loss will be my gain. You may not have made a very good nun but I am sure you will make a wonderful mother."
She glanced at him through her lashes, her lips curving slightly. "And a good wife, I hope."
He chuckled softly as he touched his finger to her chin, lifting her face to his. "Fishing for compliments, Maria?" he teased.
"But of course," she said lightly. "I am very fond of receiving compliments."
He laughed and dropped a kiss on her nose. "Well, then, I will have to think of some to pay you."
"You needn't put yourself out on my account, Captain," she returned with an adorable imitation of offended dignity.
She was adorable. And he was bewitched. Yet again. A lifetime with her would not be enough, he knew.
He cupped her face in his hands. "My love," he breathed tenderly.
Her eyes softened, shining with so much love he caught his breath, and then he lowered his lips to hers. And as he kissed her, he felt the last of his worry over the Nazis fading from his mind. Whatever threat they posed, he and Maria would face it together. And after all, there was something very reassuring about that.
~To be continued…~