By the time all of the guests had been greeted, the party was in full swing - drinks and delectable savory treats being passed on trays by hired waitstaff, the chamber orchestra playing waltz after waltz. Elsa had asked Franz, Georg's butler, to keep her informed of the time, so that there would be ample opportunity for the children's surprise song before dinner would be served.

However, first on her list was to find Max. After walking the perimeter of the ballroom several times, she spotted him in the main hall near the grand staircase. She smiled as she saw he was holding court with two of the wealthiest men in attendance, no doubt trying to get them to support his next musical venture.

As she approached, all three men turned to notice her. Dressed in an elegant gold lamè sheath with a large tulle bow at her shoulder and diamonds dripping from her ears, Elsa had chosen the ensemble deliberately to attract attention. Seeing their faces, she was quite pleased it was having the intended effect; she loved dressing up, and entertaining, and being the life of the party. Once again, she realized how very wrong it would have been for her to marry Georg.

"Ah, gentlemen, I do hope you are enjoying yourselves?" she asked, ever the coquette. After their assurances, Elsa requested the other men excuse her for stealing Max away.

"Lovely timing, my dear, I was just about to get Baron Kruger to fund . . . ." Max began with a frown.

"Never mind that, are you prepared to insist that Fraulein Maria join us for dinner?" Elsa whispered, lest anyone overhear.

"Yes, yes. But I don't think I'll have to do much convincing, for either one of them," he answered.

"What do you mean?" she asked, as she selected a saucer of champagne from the silver tray of a passing waiter.

"I mean, Georg was like a lovestruck schoolboy today, watching every move she made with the children. He couldn't keep his eyes off her. And each time she noticed she turned three shades of pink, " Max grinned.

Elsa smiled again. "Did you say anything to him? Or he to you?"

Max chuckled. "I did remark that he seemed smitten. He of course said he'd been just watching Gretl, but he was clearly flustered."

"Georg? Flustered?" Elsa repeated, disbelieving, as Max nodded.

"Oh, yes. It was highly amusing. He did agree that she is rather attractive," he added. "As well as wonder aloud why someone so full of life would want to shut herself away in a convent." Max smirked at Elsa. "May I say, your plan to nudge them along may just work after all."

"And then your plan to get those children in the festival may actually have a chance, which is why you are finding all of this so amusing, isn't it?" Elsa teased.

"Well, now that you mention it," Max replied, when Franz appeared.

"Excuse me, Baroness Schraeder, dinner will be served in thirty minutes, as per your request."

"Thank you, Franz." She acknowledged, as he bowed slightly and disappeared again. She glanced at Max. "Why Georg puts up with his surly attitude is beyond me," she muttered, "but now I must go and tell Fraulein Maria to get the children ready with their surprise performance." Max raised his now empty glass to her, as she swept away in search of the governess.

XxXxXx

Elsa stood for a moment at the edge of the ballroom, searching for either Fraulein Maria or any one of the children. Finding none of them, she walked out toward the French doors leading to the garden patio. There she spied several of the children, standing still with their backs to the doors. When Elsa stepped outside, she saw what was keeping their attention.

Their governess and their father were engaged in dancing the Laendler, the traditional Austrian folk dance. Elsa had never liked it much, preferring grand waltzes, but now she could appreciate the complicated steps, as she watched the two people she thought belonged together engaging in the dance of courtship. She joined Georg's children, mesmerized by the dancers in front of them.

As they performed the twists and turns with the intricate arms holds, Elsa couldn't help but notice how elegantly the two moved together, or how beautiful they looked. Georg was devastatingly handsome in his white tie and tailcoat, the cross of valor earned in battle on a red and white ribbon around his neck. His partner was less formally dressed, but she moved with no less grace in a dress reminiscent of a dirndl. The two seemed lost in each other, as they slowed and finally stopped turning, lowering their arms in tandem. There they stayed, facing one another. Elsa waited, the obvious attraction between them riveting.

Without warning, Maria took several steps back, moving away from Georg, but offering a shy smile. "I - I don't remember any more."

Brigitta stepped forward toward her governess. "Your face is all red."

Maria brought both hands to her cheeks. "Is it?" She paused. "I don't suppose I'm used to dancing." Elsa noticed the young woman still hadn't taken her eyes off of Georg, and she couldn't help but wonder of his own expression. Then she remembered why she had been looking for the children and their fraulein in the first place.

"Why, that was beautifully done. What a lovely couple you make." Elsa spoke gently, hoping not to break whatever connection remained between them. They did, however, both look toward her.

Her next statement was directed toward Maria. "I think it's time the children said good night."

The young woman seemed finally to realize where she was, and what should be happening. "We'll be in the hall. We have something special prepared, right, children?"

"Yes, come on!" The children dashed into the hedgerow toward the path that led around to the front of the house, Maria following behind them, Georg's gaze lingering at the spot where they'd disappeared from view.

Elsa smiled to herself. "All that needless worrying, Georg. You thought you wouldn't find a friend at the party." She took his arm, and began to lead him inside.

His look was that of a child with his hand caught in the cookie jar. Ignoring her statement, he tried to change the subject. "A bit chilly out tonight, isn't it?" he asked, nervously tugging at his collar as they strolled back into the house.

"Oh, I don't know. It seemed rather warm to me." She teased, but he didn't reply. Then a clear, sweet voice called out above the din in the ballroom.

"Ladies and gentlemen. The children of Captain von Trapp wish to say goodnight to you."

Georg looked at Elsa, puzzled, then he dashed forward into the main hall, leaving her to follow along behind him, just as the children began their song. Elsa moved her gaze from the children's performance, to their father, trying to read his expression. His initial shock was replaced with amusement, and then pride, as each of the children in turn exited the hall.

As soon as they were finished, the room began to hum with the comments of the guests. So many compliments were heard, how proud Georg must be, how talented the children were, and many wondering aloud who had taught the children such a lovely routine. Elsa looked around, trying to find Max. She was relieved to see he'd already gotten to Georg, and she moved toward them.

"Extraordinary! What they'd do at the festival!" Max exclaimed, in a misguided effort to speak first to Georg about the children. Maria nearly snuck past him to follow the children to the nursery, Max grabbing her elbow as she went to start up the staircase.

"Young lady, I must have a word with you." The impresario turned back to his friend. "Georg, you mustn't let this girl get away. She must join the party."

Maria protested, "No, really l-", when Max interrupted her. "Stop. Stop it now. Georg, please." -

Georg glanced nervously at the young woman. "You, ah, you can if you want to, Fräulein." He remarked, seeming uninterested and turning back to the other guests.

Maria tried to object again, but Max continued. "I insist. You will be my dinner partner." He stopped the passing butler. "Franz. . . set another place next to mine for Fräulein Maria." That got Georg's attention again.

Franz turned toward his employer, who simply nodded. "Whatever you say," the butler muttered, then left to add another place setting.

"Well. It appears to be all arranged." Georg off-handedly declared.

Elsa smiled. "It certainly does."

Maria's voice caught her attention. "I. . .I'm not suitably dressed," she argued nervously. Elsa noticed she looked toward Georg, almost imploring him to release her from Max's request.

"You can change, Fraulein, we'll wait." Another curt statement, as he turned away from them, receiving Baron and Baroness Elberfeld.

Maria's face fell, and she started up the stairs. Elsa caught Max's eye, and signaled to him she was heading up herself.

XxXxXx

"It's very kind of you to offer to help me, Baroness." Maria awkwardly held the dress she'd just removed in front of her, Elsa having surprised her.

"I'm delighted, Maria," she said, seeking to reassure the young woman.

"I really don't think I have anything that would be appropriate," she stressed, touching each of the fiive other dresses she owned in turn.

"If I may, I have something that I think would be perfect for you. Would you wait here for a moment, dear?" Maria assured Elsa she would, and Elsa quickly went back to her own room to fetch the stunning yet simple gown she'd purchased.

Returning to Maria's quarters, Elsa held the dress out to her. "Here we are."

Maria took the hanger from her, and held the dress in front of herself, then away again, taking in every detail. It was white, made completely of layers of chiffon, with a twist of chiffon over the bodice adding subtle sophistication. Thin straps on the shoulder held a length of chiffon the fell down the back of the dress, and a small rhinestone details at the top of the empire waist lent a bit of shimmer.

She gasped, and held the dress back out to Elsa. "It's so beautiful, but I just couldn't wear one of your gowns. What if . . ."

"Nonsense, and it isn't mine. It's yours, I purchased it for you. Consider it a thank you gift, for all you've done for Georg and his children."

Maria looked longingly at the dress again, then back at Elsa. "Well, if you insist," her voice a quiet whisper. Elsa smiled and nodded. "I'm afraid I'll need your help to put it on, I've never had anything so elegant!"

When the last of the buttons up the back were fastened, Elsa exclaimed, "Just lovely! The Captain won't be able keep his eyes off you." She handed Maria the evening gloves to match her gown.

Maria looked up at her, eyes wide. "Keep his eyes off me?"

"Come, my dear, we are women. Let's not pretend we don't know when a man notices us."

"The Captain notices everybody and everything." The young woman seemed to wince, as if expecting a blow.

"There's no need to feel so defensive, Maria. You are quite attractive, you know. The Captain would hardly be a man if he didn't notice you."

"Baroness, I hope you're joking." The troubled look on the governess' face confused Elsa for a moment. "I've never done a thing to-"

"You don't have to, my dear. Nothing's more irresistible to a man than a woman who's in love with him."

"In love with him?" The fraulein's eyes widened again.

"Of course. What makes it so nice is that I think he's in love with you." Elsa smiled gently at the governess.

"But that's not true." Maria bit her lip, clearly nervous.

"Surely you've noticed the way he looks into your eyes. And you know, you blushed in his arms when you were dancing just now."

Maria opened her mouth as if to respond, but no words came. Instead, tears filled her eyes.

"Then I must go, I mustn't come between you," she choked, trying to maintain her composure.

Elsa was taken aback - could she have been wrong? - until she realized the girl had no clue that Georg and Elsa had abandoned any plans for marriage.

"Maria, no, you must stay. You see, things have not worked out for myself and the Captain, for reasons that have nothing to do with you. We are dear friends, but that isn't enough reason for us to marry. We at least agreed on that." She moved toward Maria, and gently touched her shoulder. "Please, join us downstairs."

She watched as the young woman considered what Elsa had said. "But I've pledged my life to God's service," she said quietly, her voice wavering.

Elsa thought for a moment. "I am not a woman of great faith, my dear. But perhaps you were sent here for a reason?"

XxXxXx

The two women descended the staircase, Elsa scanning through the guests mingling about to find Georg. She guided Maria toward the ballroom, walking carefully near the wall to avoid the couples waltzing about the lavish space. As if by magic, the crowd parted and Georg appeared in front of them.

Elsa would later remember the look on his face as the purest expression of love she'd ever witnessed. As he gazed upon the young woman, for all intents and purposes making her debut into society, Elsa took Maria's hand and held it toward him.

"Captain Georg von Trapp, may I present Fraulein Maria Rainer?"

Baroness Elsa von Schraeder watched as he swept the young woman into an elegant waltz, and smiled to herself.