The day had grown long by the time Maria made her way hesitantly to her new room. Each soft, warm embrace from the children lingered as she walked the chilly passage, the sweet sound of little Gretl whispering 'Mother' in her ear when she was tucked into bed, round cheeks glowing like apples as she nestled into the pillow. Such dear, sweet children. Now they were all hers – hers to take care of and cherish, and love. She had never felt so blessed in all her life.
Still, dear and sweet as they were, Maria couldn't help but feel glad that the night was clear and still, not a flash of lightning in the sky to call them down to her end of the house. It was a little further, now – but she was sure that it would not deter them. And tonight would not bear any interruptions. She felt nervous enough as it was.
'Oh', she muttered, raising her hands to her burning cheeks. She was a wife now. Somewhere in this giant house, Georg waited for her – his quirking half smile, that sweep of dark hair, the gentle eyes that somehow saw her soul and melted it. She felt a faint fluttering in her chest and pressed her hands to it, drawing a deep breath, trying to gather strength. 'I have confidence in confidence alone ...' she sang, the pure sound wavering like a silver trail through the dark chamber. She didn't yet know where the lights were in this wing. She didn't know anything at all.
'I have confidence in sunshine ... I have confidence in rain,' she continued, gathering courage and volume as she walked, faster now. 'I have confidence that spring will come again – besides, as you see, I have confidence in ... oh...' she trailed off, as a carved and ornate door appeared suddenly in front of her. Glancing down, she saw the frothy white of her wedding gown, the scalloped edges of its collar gently clasping her breasts, caressing her delicate body like a wave of the ocean. Why then did she feel like she was back in her dowdy skirt, with the huge iron gates towering before her? The handle was near her nerveless fingers – it was all she could do to grasp it, let alone give it a turn. The next moment it swung open.
Inside it was pitch dark. Clutching her dress like a prayer shawl, Maria made her way carefully into the room, groping for a light switch. The light flickered on with a blink, throwing the room into sharp relief, outlining a dresser that looked to be Chippendale, a cosily upholstered chair ... and a bed. The biggest bed that Maria had ever seen. Was it bigger than hers? Why, it must have been twice the size. With shaking hands, Maria took in the rest of the room, noting the dark colour of it, the royal blue trim and dark green spread. A man's room. But now ... now it would also be hers.
Her things had been moved into the room, but not laid out, though her dresses hung now in the wardrobe next to his clothes, comfortably nestling side by side. She glanced again at the bed and swallowed, hard. Then nodded. 'Right,' she said, her voice resonating like a struck bell in the emptiness. 'That's enough nonsense.' Bending down to rummage in her suitcase, she removed a sensible wooden hairbrush and began to brush her hair in firm strokes, bringing it to a gleaming shine.
Turning slightly, she caught sight of herself in the mirror and paused. Her cheeks were flushed and pink, her eyes bright. The white dress with its clever jacket framed her figure, lovingly fitted and satiny smooth. It turned her into someone else. She didn't know this woman, who brushed her hair in a man's room, wore a wedding dress, thought to claim someone for her own. This couldn't be her.
Whirling away from the mirror, Maria knelt down before the bed, turning her face to its soft comforter and clasping her hands before her. Slowly she began to pray, seeking solace in the familiar words, in the reminder of her new family. She didn't hear the door open. Her words drew her into a calm world.
Georg folded his arms as he watched Maria pray at his bedside, her gleaming head bent to the covers as if in hiding, or desperation. A fierce tenderness overtook him as he saw how her hands shook. Her pink bare feet were turned up beneath the edge of her dress, vulnerable and smooth. He stopped still at the door, unwilling to interrupt her, to frighten her. Happy just to watch her. His beautiful, gentle wife.
She still wore her wedding dress, unable to tear herself away long enough from the children and the celebrations to get changed. He loved that too, the affection she had for his children. He had loved that from the first.
He had danced with her tonight, swept her up in his arms to dance the same steps as that other night when they were so cruelly interrupted, when she wore the blue dress that was so like her eyes. When the familiar notes filled the air, she had gazed up at him, a remnant of that intensity still on her face – the startled, frozen-deer look as she had glowed and stumbled and claimed not to know any more. But this time she had smiled. And this time she remembered all of the steps.
She had seemed so calm, so sure of herself on her wedding day, and he had enjoyed her new confidence, which had always lurked just beneath the surface of her modesty. Now, though, he could see that she was frightened.
'Maria,' he called softly, and she jumped, her chin coming up sharply. Her eyes were wide beneath the gleaming cap of her hair. His hands ached to touch it, to feel the amber strands slipping through his fingers, the heat of her skin.
She rose slowly to her feet, bravely raising her chin to meet his warm blue eyes. Georg reached for her hands. 'My beautiful, brave Maria. My wife,' – saying it gave him a little thrill, like a young boy on his birthday, and he heard her sigh as the word met her ears. Grasping her hands in his own, he pulled her gently towards him, folding her tight against his chest. The tension seemed to burst out of her as she collapsed against him.
'Oh, Georg, I don't think I've ever been so happy,' she murmured, the words floating up to his ears like sweet music. He tucked her under his chin.
'Nor I, my darling,' he murmured back.
Georg felt her arms slip around him and groaned, all the longing he had felt for her in these past weeks rushing fast through his body, seeming to expand into his skin. She pressed close, the boning in her dress unnaturally stiff against his chest. He knew she should be soft. Drawing his hands from her back, he slipped them around to rest on the edges of her jacket, the place where it joined. Intent, he kept his eyes down, trying to figure it out. It seemed not to have any buttons or zippers. How did it stay closed?
'Who designed this infernal garment?' He asked grimly, finally raising his eyes to hers. They weren't there - they were fixed on his hands where they rested on her dress, just close to her breasts. Maria's head was down, her breathing fast, her body tense against his. A fine, constant tremble ran under her skin and through his fingers. Ashamed, Georg pulled his hands away. 'I'm sorry, my darling, I – of course, come over here, come and sit down. Come and sit by me.'
As she did he cursed himself silently. She was nervous, and he here was rushing in like she was a seasoned courtesan. Or the Baroness. Briefly, he spared a thought for that woman, the woman he might have married had Maria not come along, like an angel of mercy ... the woman who might be sharing his bed right now. He shuddered at the thought. Maria looked up at him quickly.
'Is everything alright?' She asked. He nodded briefly.
Maria wasn't sure what to do. The captain was being so gruff, almost taciturn – not at all like that night in the garden, when he had held her in his arms and made her feel magical, special. She loved him so dearly.
Slipping her slender hand into his large one, she rested her head on his shoulder and sang softly in his ear. 'Here you are, sitting here, loving me...' Georg smiled, his face crinkling against her lips. 'Whether or not you should,' she continued. The sweetness of the tune stirred his heart. Turning to her, he joined in, their voices rising like threads of silver smoke towards the ceiling.
'For somewhere in my youth or childhood, I must have done something good ...' Cupping his hand against her cheek, Georg drew Maria in for a soft kiss. His lips brushed hers gently, the heat of them rushing to fill her whole body and make her fingers clench in his.
'All I trust I give my heart to ...' She sang softly against his lips, and he laughed, not knowing the origin of her words. How was he to know her trepidation, when she had walked up to his gates? How was he to know of it now? At any rate it was slipping away, the longer his lips caressed hers, the longer he held her in his arms.
Maria pressed herself against him boldly, returning his kiss with growing passion. She felt his hands slip around her waist and copied his movements, amazed at the feel of him under her hands, the firm skin of his back and the heat of him there. Feeling braver by the second, she reached under his shirt and placed her hands on the bare skin of his back. Startled, he stopped kissing her. Maria pulled away in a flash.
'I ... oh, I – Captain, I –,' she broke off, embarrassed, pressing her hands to her hot cheeks. He didn't move but watched her, hands braced tautly on his thighs. Slowly she looked up and saw him smiling, that half smile that twisted over his face and made him seem mischievous and dear. His eyes were warm with amusement, and something else – something that made the blood rise up higher in her face until she thought she might faint. He looked ... hungry. Intent. 'Oh help,' she whispered.
'Maria, this dress is quite unsuitable,' he said, fingering the collar consideringly. She looked up at him in confusion and he grinned, sliding his other hand though her hair as he had longed to all day, feeling the heat of her trapped in his cupped hand. Stroking her slender neck, he continued, 'after all, we are married now, are we not? I think we should perhaps do something to ... remedy the situation.' His gaze was fixed on her delicate, glowing face, watching carefully for her reaction. What he saw caused his heart to rejoice.
'Why yes, Captain, most certainly,' she replied demurely, the glint in her eye matching his. 'I still have some drapes left over – why, I'll have something more suitable by morning.' Georg chuckled at her words.
'I was thinking of a more ... immediate solution,' he replied. She giggled, making his eyes widen in surprise. It was a high, fluting sound, much different from her merry laugh with the children, or her gentle smile with the nuns. He instantly claimed it as his.
Maria prickled all over at the fierce possessiveness in his gaze. This was Georg, but a different Georg – a man that she didn't quite know yet. The fact that he wanted to possess her made her feel quite light, as if her thoughts wasn't entirely real – like a stranger in her own body. Her heart was pounding wildly against her chest. She knew what this was. The nuns had prepared her.
Georg noticed Maria's stillness under his fingers and smiled at her, a slow, warm, crooked smile that chased away her last flimsy tendrils of fear. She didn't clutch at them. Standing, she squared her slender shoulders and reached for the hidden clasp, releasing it with her fingers. Silken white slid gently over Georg's knees and onto the floor. He didn't try to catch it.
Still standing, Maria gazed down at the man that she loved. His eyes were fixed on hers, flicking now and then over the creamy white chemise which bared the translucence of her arms, her shoulders, her throat ... then flicking back, to hold her gaze until it softened and took on a completely different look, a look with a weight in it. She stood before him with dignity, straight and unafraid. Her faith and trust in him shook his heart.
Her gaze had a pull to it, and he raised himself until he, too, was standing, not touching her, just standing inside her space, just near her. This sensible and kind woman, pure and gentle, sweet, beautiful, right – she was suddenly something else. He hadn't expected it.
She didn't break his gaze but reached her hands out, folding them over his until he gripped them tight. A glint in her hair caught silver in the light from the window, moon on the water, silk, but her eyes were still brighter and he drew her to him and kissed her, for a long time, the sweet syrup of her lips an intoxication that thrummed through his veins like wine. His head swam like the moon of her hair.
Slowly, the tone of the kiss changed, from soft to searching, and Georg was startled to feel her lips open slightly under his. She pressed herself to him with certainty. Her fingers laid themselves upon the curve of his torso. Emboldened, he slid his own hands from her hair, where they had found a certain comfort, and over the smooth, elegant arch of her back to rest upon her hips, then back up again, a caress.
His heart felt full, and surprised at how much he wanted just to hold her, and hear her sighs – the happiest sighs he had ever heard. Like music the heart might make. Like a prayer.
They were standing by the window now, and Georg turned Maria around to face it, wrapping his arms around her and fitting her firmly to his body. She relaxed into the safety of his embrace. Smiling, she took in the beauty of the moon-drenched gardens, the sight of the night before her. Her heart wanted to sing. 'Oh, Georg, it's wonderful', she said, 'just like a dream.'
'Yes, my darling, being here with you is like a dream. I don't believe I have ever loved anybody more.' Georg replied. Shocked, Maria turned herself around in his arms, meeting his eyes with a perfect stern gaze.
'But the children!' She protested, knowing that even his strongest feelings could not overcome what he felt for his own flesh and blood.
'Ah yes, the children. You and the children, my darling. You are my family, and I love you all very much.' He stopped speaking and cupped his hand around the curve of her cheek, caressing it with his thumb. 'But you, Maria ...' She raised her eyes to his, and he met them, each glistening with an overflow of emotion. His voice was husky, elegant, sure. 'I love you with all my heart. Maria.' Her very name was like a caress.
'Oh Georg, how I love you. You are everything in my heart.' Maria raised herself to meet him, and with each touch of their lips they drew closer, until the morning found them entwined, together, ready to face whatever they had to face. Together.