"Project 'Fraulein Maria Appreciation Day' here we go."

Chapter Fifty-Eight

Maria was dreaming of pancakes. Stacks and stacks piled as high as the eye can see. Suddenly a cascade of syrup falls from the top of the stack, and droplets land all over her face. Her eyes are searching for Georg to lick it off – where did he go? He had just been there a moment ago… She sees him smiling at her from one of the higher pancakes, and she begins to climb up as he calls to her 'come on!". But the syrup has made the pancakes slippery, and she loses her footing and falls backwards…

With a jerk Maria woke, only to hear the same call of 'come on!' only this time it was a female voice. Louisa, if she was not mistaken. Another reminder of her dream, Maria was confused by the smell of pancakes that lingered in the air. It was Friday, a weekday, so breakfast should have been eggs, toast, and fruit or cereal.

The tap on her down was quiet and physically low on the wood, and momentarily disappointed Maria when she recognized that the knocking hand did not belong to the Captain.

"Come in" she called, believing Gretl or Marta to be at the door; however, to her surprise, seven bright faces wished her a good morning when Marta pushed the door open.

Even more surprising was the contents of their hands – all seven carried trays piled high with platters of food: pancakes with syrup and fruit, eggs scrambled with cheese, crispy bacon, shredded potatoes with chives, raisin toast with cinnamon and brown sugar, and a large pitcher of orange juice.

"What is all this?" she gasped, taking in all the food.

"Exactly what I was going to ask" came the familiar deep voice from her doorway, causing blood to rise immediately to Maria's cheeks. "When Marta asked me to come to your room in five minutes, I assumed that you wanted to speak to me about getting more material for play-clothes. Where did all this come from?"

"We wanted to make Fraulein Maria breakfast in bed" Kurt explained, taking a seat in the chair by the window. The other children followed suite, making themselves comfortable around the room as they explained.

"You've done so much for us this summer – working through our lessons with us, taking us on field trips, teaching us to sing…and we're so excited you're going to be our teacher at school too!" said Brigitta.

"We just wanted to thank you, to congratulate you, and to let you know how much we all love you" Liesl explained, taking her governess's hand in her own.

Maria's eyes were tearing up.

"I am so blessed to know every one of you – you are my family and I love you all dearly. Thank you – this must have taken you hours."

"Oh and we invited Father because he gets grouchy if he doesn't eat breakfast" Kurt added casually as everyone began to fill their plates.

"I should make you do all the dishes for that comment Kurt, but these eggs have put me in too good a mood" the Captain joked and the children all laughed.

"Everything is wonderful – you must have been up before the sun to get this all prepared."

"I'm not sure that the moon was even fully up yet…" Louisa mumbled under her breath, but a swift elbow in her ribs accompanied by Brigitta's signature glare silenced her before she could repeat the comment at an audible volume.

The Captain watched with great interest as his children interacted with their governess – they all were now sitting on the bed with her, laughing at what must have been inside jokes (as there was nothing funny about blowing one's nose during dessert!), hitting each other with a pillow if somebody said something silly…


The Captain was so startled when a pillow swung by his youngest son hit him square across the back, sending him belly-flopping into the pile of blankets and pillows that were now lumped in a pile on Maria's bed.

He lay face down in the white sheets completely still for a moment, partially out of surprise (he had become so accustomed to acting as an observer to his family's interactions he still at times did not expect them to recognize his presence) and partially because the overwhelming scent of Maria was blissfully around him. He could see glimpses of her bare ankles and shins between the covers, and the realization that she still was not dressed almost caused him to moan out loud.

"Two points to Kurt" he heard Liesl laugh. "Our newest contestant in this battle!"

When a second pillow hit him on the back of the head, he was both frustrated at leaving the haven he had found, and grateful for the distraction. Clearly he was not the only adult in the room that was being pummelled as the feet he had seen were moving and by the time he rightened himself, she was kneeling on the bed tickling a Gretl and Kurt, both who were screaming for mercy. Brigitta Friedrich, and Louisa had taken it upon themselves to attack their father, and were knocking him, and each other, incessantly with pillows on the verge of bursting. Liesl sat on the chair at the window with Marta in her arms, shaking her head with a grin on her face.

The Captain was about to smother his three troublemakers with Maria's duvet, but stopped mid-swing at the sight of the governess, wearing only her nightgown, stand fully up on the bed to escape his children's clutches.

Dressed only in white, with the morning sun reflecting off her hair, she looked just like an angel. Well, an angel that was furiously beating children with a pillow. A pillow fight with the most gorgeous woman in the world – it was every man's fantasy.

And then her pillow hit him over the head.

And that meant war.

Fifteen minutes later the Captain, all seven children, and Maria were sprawled across her bed, gasping for air. Not one of them had been spared from the "Great Feather Blizzard", and soft whiteness clung to their hair and clothing.

Each time one tried to sit up, the sight of disarray was enough to cause a cacophony of laughter, resulting in another collapse on the bed.

The Captain turned his head so he could see Maria lying beside him staring at the ceiling, her cheeks red and tears running down her cheeks from laughing so hard.

Maria could feel his gaze, and like magnetism her head turned to meet his eyes. They were both already smiling but for Maria the rest of the room blurred slightly so that his face was the only thing in focus. She could feel her heart beating loudly at the base of her throat and her last remaining thoughts forced herself against the only instinct she felt, tightening her neck and shoulder muscles to keep herself from moving towards him.

The strain was clear on the Captain's face as well, and Maria audibly sighed in disappointment when his eyes left hers; however, she was slightly appeased when his fingers found hers.

Like a wave washing over the sand, feelings of belonging and purpose lapped over Maria as he was lying side-by-side and hand-in-hand with the Captain, surrounded by the giggling children. She felt a thumb tracing small circles on the skin connecting her thumb to the rest of her hand, and she tightened her grip in the slightest.

All too soon the children began to sit up and gather the dishes that were scattered around the room. As discretely as she could, Maria took her hand out of the Captain's, trying her best to ignore the feeling of loss.

"So what would you children like to do today?" she asked, sitting up and pulling the duvet up under her chin, all of a sudden acutely aware that she was still in her nightclothes that was not lined as properly as a dress should be, and that the Captain's eyes were not leaving her.

The children all exchanged a glance before Louisa replied.

"Today is your day, fraulein Maria. What would you like to do?"

Maria was surprised when the other children all nodded without anybody contesting the idea. It gave her the slight suspicion that this had been decided beforehand which, considering the breakfast they had all prepared, was highly probable.

"No, no darlings you only have a few days of summer vacation left."

"Fraulein Maria, we insist," said Brigitta, leaning against the headboard with her arms filled with dishes.

Maria did not have to think – the sun was already shining brightly with no signs of rain.

"What about a picnic in the mountains?" Maria asked, earning eight grins.

"We were hoping you would say that!" Friedrich laughed. "The picnic basket is already packed and waiting for us in the kitchen!"

Maria laughed along with him. "You children know me much too well! Well let's go!" She jumped out of bed and headed for the door, but was stopped by a large hand encircling her wrist.

"Maria, your clothing choice may keep you cool in the heat, but I'm afraid it may turn some unwanted heads" he raised his eyebrows wryly at the young woman.

Maria looked down the nightgown that she had altered since the summer heat had began – she had cut off the long sleeves she had sported at the beginning of the summer so that the entire gown was held up by thick straps, and the bottom ended at knee level. Her face turned even more red, if that was possible.

"Give me ten minutes?" she asked weakly.

"You have seven – then we're going to celebrate Maria-Day without you" he joked. The children looked at each other in surprise at his naming the day the same as they had, but their intentions were obvious enough that no one dwelled on the point.

The children filtered out of the room with the dishes from their breakfast. Hearing their feet on the staircase, the Captain paused in the doorway, then turned back to Maria who was still standing beside the bed.

"You are beautiful when you blush" he spoke quietly, running his hands over the top of her head to calm the static the pillow-fight had caused before leaning in and kissing her softly. "See you downstairs."

It took Maria four of the seven minutes that she had to calm herself down and stop her hands from shaking before she was able to change into her dress for the day and running a brush through her hair.

Despite the delay, exactly six minutes and 52 seconds later Maria jumped off the third from last stair, announcing loudly "with 8 seconds to spare!"

The entire family was waiting in the front foyer, divvying up the baskets and bags.

"If you were on my ship, I'd give you an extra helping of bangers and mash," the Captain joked.

"Which one is mine?" she asked, approaching the group and gesturing to the bags.

Liesl pushed her youngest sister towards Maria.

"This one" she laughed, as Gretl stuck her tongue out.

"I want to walk with Fraulein Maria and Father" she whined.

"I don't see why that would be a problem – the rest of us can carry the bags." Friedrich agreed, leading his siblings out the door before the Captain could intervene. Gretl's comment hadn't been scripted, but it seemed like a good idea to him.

Gretl stood between her two parent figures and held out her hands expectantly. Trying to suppress a grin, Maria took one of the small hands, thankful that it was not sticky, and the Captain the other as they followed the children.

By this point the children had been to the mountain so many times that they no longer needed Maria to guide them through the forests and across the little stream, her 'shortcut', so they left the two adults and Gretl at the end of their group, usually five or six paces behind as Gretl had difficulty keeping up but refused to be carried.

As they walked, every so often Maria and the Captain would exchange a look then out loud begin to count. Gretl's eyes would brighten and her arm muscles tense, as when they got to three, the two adults would lift her high in the air so that her legs could swing and she would squeal.

Their walk was filled with Gretl's playful chatter that became more and more animated as the two adults actively asked questions and prompted her dialogue. Needless to say, Maria and the Captain shared many mirthful smiles as the youngest von Trapp child told her view of the world and her anticipation of what school would be like.

Neither had the heart to tell her that, though school supposedly taught you what you needed to know to "be whatever you want", it would not be able to prepare her for a career as a unicorn-riding fairy princess.

They arrived at the mountain when the sun was high in the sky, and laid out their blankets in the shade of the forest where Marta months ago had led their nature hike.

Despite the long walk, the large breakfast had filled everybody up, so it was decided to have a late lunch. The children were filled with energy, so Maria suggested they play a game.

"What kind of game?" asked Marta with her characteristic wide eyes that resembled so much the Captain's.

"What about sardines?" Maria suggested, knowing that it was not a game that the children had played before. They had forgotten to bring a ball or Frisbee, so the options were limited.

"Those smelly fish that come in a tin can?" Brigitta asked in confusion, sending up a silent prayer that fraulein Maria's wish would not be to make a meal of those disgusting little creatures.

"It's a game, like hide-and-go-seek but only backwards." Maria explained. "If, for example, Friedrich was it, the rest of us would close our eyes and count while he would run and hide somewhere. Then we'd all try to find him. If, for example, Louisa found him right away, she would have to hide with him, and every time somebody else finds the group, they would have to hide there as well, until there is only one person left searching and then the game starts again."

"That's a strange game," Kurt noted, but Maria could detect some excitement in his voice.

"The best part is when there's a huge group of people all trying to hide in a very small space" she smiled.

"Would you like to be 'it' first, fraulein Maria?" Marta asked, and was delighted when her siblings sent her a subtle thumbs-up.

"That would be wonderful" Maria agreed.

"You have until the count of 30" Liesl warned, closing her eyes.

"At least it's longer than seven…" Maria grumbled as she took off, smiling to herself as she heard the Captain snickering.

Her eyes roamed the forest – she knew she could completely disappear in this forest if she needed to, having done it in the past many times, but she did not want to make it too difficult for the children, so instead found a large tree and, with a finesse only earned by years of practice, scaled to the top. She reached one of the higher branches by the count of 20, and allowed herself to relax into the bend of the tree.

Shrieks and giggles alerted her that the children were searching, so she quieted her breathing and tucked in her legs.

She did not have to wait long until a slight shaking of the tree alerted her that someone was climbing up, and was not surprised when she opened her eyes from the cat-nap she had been taking and found in was Georg.

"Climbing trees – why am I not surprised?" A pointed look.

"From the way you scaled up that trunk, I have to assume that you've climbed a few in your day as well" she said as she watched him nimbly move from branch to branch towards where she was seated.

"I suppose I too was a 'local urchin' in my time" he teased back.

"In your time? Why Georg I do believe you're in a tree right now…

"Only so I can do this…" he finally arrived at the branch just below hers and, standing on it while she remained seated, their heights were perfectly level. He kissed her playfully on the nose, wishing desperately he could release the branch and take her in his arms instead, but not daring to tempt Fate.

Maria, however, had full usage of her hands, and with delicate strokes traced along his cheekbones down to his jaw line and back up to his lips. She ran the pad of her thumb over them, smiling when he kissed her fingers, then leaned across and, careful not to apply enough pressure to cause him to lose balance, kissed him fully on her own accord for the first time. When he responded, the feeling of extreme power course through her and she had to laugh out loud to release some of the energy.

Her laughter must have been enough to alert at least some of the other children to her position, as the sound of approaching footsteps was heard. The Captain rested his forehead on Maria's momentarily before pulling back, winking at her, and curling up on his own branch.

Slowly one-by-one six children gathered in the branches of the tree, always staying on the branches closer to the ground than their governess or father, until Friedrich was the last one searching.

He was deemed 'it' for the next round, and so the morning and early afternoon progressed.

By 2:00 according to the Captain's watch stomachs began to grumble and mumble, so the game was ended and lunch set out. The children slowly began to drift off after eating; getting up before the sun to make breakfast took its toll on the person. Soon only Louisa, Friedrich and Liesl were left awake.

"Father, we brought something for you" Liesl said, reaching into the basket that she had been carrying and pulled out what appeared to be two notebooks and a laminated piece of paper. "I don't know if it's something fraulein Maria would like to play, but we remembered how much you used to love it…"

"Broadsides?" the Captain asked with what Maria could only describe as child-like excitement.

"The Game of Naval Strategy" Friedrich intoned in a bored voice, as though he had heard about this game one time too many.

"Why they can't just call it something simple like 'Battleship' baffles me" Louisa was rolling her eyes.

"I thought you children loved this game" the Captain asked, surprised at the children's response.

"Father, we only loved it because you did."

"I can't believe you found it – we haven't played this in years!"

"We thought that maybe you and fraulein Maria might like to play?"

"We're kind of hoping that you'll at least find it tolerable, fraulein Maria, so that you can play it with father from time to time instead of us" Louisa continued. In truth the children didn't mind the game that much, in moderation it was actually a lot of fun, but they needed Maria to be the one having fun that day.

"What is it?" Maria asked with curiosity, wondering what game could possibly get the Captain so excited.

"It's played on these grid papers" the Captain began, opening the notebook so Maria could see four grids on each page. "On one grid we arrange our 'boats' – there are different types of boats that all have a different number of squares that they occupy…that's all on this instruction sheet. We have to try to guess where the other person has their boats by guessing squares of the grid by their coordinates – that's what the other grids are for. If you hit all the squares that house a single boat, it's like the boat sinks and the last person with a boat still afloat wins."

"Well I certainly see why you would find this so appealing" Maria was trying to contain her laughter as she got a glimpse of what the Captain must have been like as a young boy.

Maria turned to the children to make sure that they didn't want to play, but all three were already engrossed in books they had brought along.

Following his instructions, Maria carefully placed her boats on the grid, and the game began.

The following hour passed quickly as they played through four rounds, the Captain winning the first two and Maria the second two. She was getting the hang of the game, and there was an unspoken competition for who could make the most original pattern out of the different 'boats'.

"Best out of five? Winner gets the last cookie that I saw hidden in the corner of the picnic basket?" the Captain challenged, and Maria readily accepted.

At the same time both turned the page of their notebook, and looked in their respective laps as a small thick piece of paper fluttered out. Liesl had to hide her grin, and Louisa chortled out loud as the pair gasped simultaneously, reading what was written.

"Children…what's this?" Maria barely breathed, noticing for the first time that all seven of them were awake and watching them in anticipation. She could not believe what she was reading on the small piece of paper.

"It's a gift, so you have to take it" Louisa chose her words carefully, knowing that Maria's first instinct would be to refuse to accept it, insisting they return it for a refund.

"A gift for what?" she asked aloud, sensing that the Captain was as shocked as she was by his dumbfounded expression.

"Like Liesl said this morning – a thank you and a congratulations." Friedrich intervened.

"But that's what breakfast was…" Maria trailed off, not knowing what to say. "This must have cost you all a fortune."

"Not really – we divided it seven ways" Louisa shrugged. Maria's eyes returned to the paper to re-read the typed text.

"And I get one too?" the Captain asked specifically Brigitta, sensing she knew the most about what was going on even though she was saying the least.

"Well we couldn't very well have fraulein Maria going by herself" Liesl reasoned for her younger sister.

"They might discover her and keep her as their own!" Friedrich agreed.

"I honestly don't know what to say – thank you all so much. Where did you ever come up with this idea?" Maria asked, having memorized the text from reading it so many times.

"We thought that…well, if it wasn't for us you would have been there tonight…" Brigitta finally spoke

"Brigitta I would choose to be here any day" Maria spoke truthfully.

"We all thought that if you can't perform in it, you should at least watch the final ceremony of the Salzburg Music Festival."