By the time Georg awakened, the sun was heading toward its highest point in the sky. He hurriedly showered and shaved, then looked through his closet for appropriate picnic wear, before donning a pair of brown pants, a tan shirt, and boots. He left his room, and could hear the children in the nursery as he was passing by. A low murmur came through the door, and he decided not to interrupt them just yet.
When he arrived in front of the door to Maria's room, he first listened for any indication she was awake. Hearing nothing, he knocked softly, then a bit louder after getting no response. Georg's first thought was cold fear, that last night had been a dream and she really was gone. He shook that off, and opened her door.
To his great relief, Maria was soundly sleeping, her face turned toward the door. Georg gazed upon his love; she looked so completely at peace that he hesitated to wake her. He crept quietly across the floor and knelt beside the bed.
"Darling?" he whispered. "It's time to wake up." He brushed a wayward lock of her strawberry blond hair away from her cheek, and was relieved to see there was no bruising from the incident the night before. He then ran his thumb across her pink lips, before leaning down to kiss her.
Her eyelids fluttered before she fully opened them, and when she focused on the face of her beloved, she smiled.
"Georg? What a lovely way to wake up. Will you do this every morning?" She lazily brought her arm up, and placed her hand on Georg's cheek.
He kissed her palm. "Once we're married, absolutely. After today, I fear there will be too many chaperones about to allow me anywhere near your room until then."
She groaned. "Then let's elope."
Georg laughed. "Oh, don't think I wouldn't consider that, my love. But I have a feeling there will be seven people very upset with us if we do."
Maria grinned at him. "I certainly hope you're right, and they approve of...well, us."
"They will, my darling, have faith. Now, the sooner you are up and dressed, the sooner we can get up on that mountain and see how quickly they figure it out. Trust me." He kissed her once more, before leaving her room.
Georg walked back down the hall toward the nursery when he heard a door open, and he watched as his seven children ran out of the room, laughing and talking in a most excited manner. He continued down to the landing, and waiting for them to notice his presence. It didn't take long. The lot of them stood, staring at their father. It wasn't often they saw him in just rolled-up shirtsleeves and an open collar; it made it real, they really were going on a picnic with him.
"Father, we were just finished with all our work, and going to help Frau Schmidt pack the baskets!" Gretl practically shouted at him.
"You were? Do you mind if I come along and help?" He tugged on one of her braids, and she grinned at him.
"No, come on!" she grabbed his hand and tugged him down the stairs, with all her five-year-old might.
The rest of the children followed, and the whole family descended upon the kitchen at once. Frau Schmidt was still filling the baskets, and the children took turns peeking in and claiming their favorite treats.
Liesl stood back a bit, and spoke directly to the housekeeper. "Frau Schmidt, is there anything we can help you with?" Georg smiled at his little girl, who wasn't so little, and wasn't a girl any longer but a young woman. Yet another thing Maria had been correct about, he thought, and smiled as the image of his fiancee came to mind.
The baskets were filled when Maria made her way to the kitchen. "Well, what do we have here?" she exclaimed.
"We're going on a picnic with Father. Would you like to come, Fraulein Maria?" Gretl could barely contain her excitement.
"Why, I suppose that's up to your father, of course," Maria was finding it very difficult not to go to Georg and hug him, but she managed to stay where she was. They shared a smoldering look at one another; which none of the children seemed to notice.
"You are most welcome to join us for our outing, Fraulein. I do hope you'll join us?" He smiled, and gave a little nod, to make sure she was still willing to play along.
"I'd love to, Captain, thank you." Maria felt the now-familiar blush creeping up her cheeks, and looked at the baskets, still sitting on the countertop.
Marta was the one that walked to her father, and she gently pulled on his sleeve. "Father, is the Baroness coming on the picnic with us?" He noticed her eyes were enormous, and clouded with uncertainty.
He reached down and gently touched her cheek. "No, darling, the Baroness will not be joining us. In fact, she has gone back to Vienna and she won't be visiting us again."
The relief that filled the room at his announcement was palpable. Most of the older children tried to hide the happy smiles that came to their faces; the younger ones didn't seem to bother. Brigitta spoke for all of them when she asked, "You mean, she's never coming back?"
"No, Brigitta, she isn't."
This time Louisa spoke. "Does that mean you'll be going to Vienna again?"
Georg tried to suppress his own grin; he knew what they were trying to ask, but wasn't sure they knew themselves. "Louisa, I may have to go to Vienna from time to time. But it won't be to visit the Baroness."
Gretl, who was growing increasingly impatient, stamped her foot. Everyone looked over, and Maria asked, "Gretl? Is there something you wanted to say?"
"Yes. Can we go NOW?"
The entire family dissolved into laughter, grabbed the picnic gear, and set out for the afternoon.
The trip up to the mountain-"Maria's mountain", as Gretl and Marta kept reminding everyone-was uneventful for the children, and full of shared glances and secret touches for Maria and Georg. Once they reached the end of the train line, the seven youngsters ran ahead, with the adults bringing up the rear. Several times Georg took Maria's hand, even pulling him to her once for a kiss. With the exception of Liesl, none of them noticed. Liesl, however, did see him squeeze Maria's hand once, he knew, because her eyes flew open in surprise and she quickly turned her head.
They reached the summit and Friedrich helped Kurt spread out the blankets they'd brought, then the two boys ran off to play ball. Liesl and Louisa asked to walk a bit further into the woods, and Brigitta and the little girls ran off toward the brook to look for smooth, shiny stones with which to play jewels; a game they'd created with rules that were constantly changing. Georg was delighted to be alone with his fiancee at last.
"Can I tempt you to come sit beside me, Fraulein?" The title he'd once spat as a curse now took on a most loving quality, especially when accompanied by the grin he gave her. It brought out a gleam in his eye, and a dimple on his cheek, and Maria felt a particular type of warmth spreading through her.
"Perhaps, Captain," she replied, "but it depends upon what you'll be tempting me with." She met his grin with her own, as she knelt beside him.
"Well, I could tell you, but demonstrating might be a bit more fun..." his voice trailed off as he leaned in to kiss her.
"Oh, definitely more fun," she answered as their lips met. Knowing the children were nearby kept their kiss chaste, and when they separated both looked around to see if they'd been seen.
"How long are you planning on trying get them to catch us, darling?" Maria asked as she toyed with Georg's open collar. She loved how relaxed and happy he was; the top buttons of his shirt being undone again today was intriguing her.
"I don't think we'll have to try for long, my love. I think Liesl spotted us earlier." He told Maria what he'd witnessed, and they continued to talk and relax on the blanket as the children played around them.
Liesl and Louisa headed for the treeline, where they often sat in the shade rather than in the bright summer sun. This time, Liesl couldn't wait to tell Louisa what she'd seen.
"Louisa, I'm certain that is what I saw-Father squeezed Fraulein Maria's hand, and she blushed and smiled at him, just like she did last night when they were dancing."
"You're crazy, Li. Why would Fraulein Maria be interested in Father? I mean, he's old." Louisa lead back against the tree trunk, and continued tracing a stick through the dirt.
"Lou, he's not old, just older. And lots of women would love to get him for themselves, I heard some of them talking last night. They thought it a shame that he was 'spoken for' by the Baroness."
"But still, isn't Fraulein Maria going to be a nun? I don't think nuns can have boyfriends."
"Of course they can't. She could if she decided not to be a nun, though," Liesl retorted. "Let's just wait and see."
Soon enough, everyone wandered back to the blanket, ready for lunch. An assortment of cold meats, cheeses, fruit, and bread was quickly devoured, followed by cookies. Friedrich suggested a game of tag, and asked their father to join them. Georg was happy to do it, and Maria offered to stay behind and clean up. As he stood to join the children, Georg gently touched her face, and she kissed his fingers as they drifted across her lips. She watched for a few moments as Georg played with the children, chasing them but never quite catching the little ones on purpose. Maria smiled to herself, and went about clearing the lunch mess off the blankets.
A sudden, sharp cry caught her her attention, and she looked up to see Georg carrying a crying Gretl back to the blanket.
"What's wrong, sweetheart? What happened?" She asked the five-year-old, as she began looking the girl over after Georg placed her on the blanket.
"I tripped and fell, and something bit me!" Gretl stammered between sobs.
"Where, darling? Show me," Georg began his own examination.
"Here", she said, as she held up her right arm. On the underside of her forearm was a white hive, with a growing circle of red surrounding it, and a small black dot directly in the center.
"It looks like you have a bee sting, we can take care of that," he said. Turning to Maria, he whispered, "the stinger is still there, and I have to remove it. Is there something in the basket with a sharp, firm edge?"
Maria was already looking through the basket, searching for a clean cloth. She pulled out a cheese knife, and wiped it clean before handing it to him. "Will this do?"
"Perfect." He then turned to Gretl. "the stinger is there, and I need to get it out. So you hold onto Maria, and stick your arm out behind you, so I can see it. Can you do that for me?"
Maria put down the napkin and the thermos of water she was holding, ready to soothe the sting, and sat Gretl on her lap. She hugged the girl tightly to herself, and whispered soothing words to her as Georg scraped the stinger away. He poured some of the cold water onto the napkin, and held it on the sting.
"There, you'll be good as new in a few minutes." He bent over her and kissed the top of Gretl's head, and couldn't resist the urge to plant a kiss on Maria's lips. The three of them sat quietly, as Gretl's sobs turned to sighs.
Maria rested her head on Georg's shoulder, admitting, "I'm certainly glad it wasn't something worse. Her first cry scared me so."
"I know, darling. It frightened me as well." He moved the cloth away from the sting. "Well, Gretl, it looks like it isn't swelling any more. You'll be fine in no time."
The little girl turned her head to look at him. "Father?"
"Do you like Fraulein Maria?"
Maria lifted her head from Georg's shoulder, eager to hear what he would tell her.
"Why yes, Gretl, I like her very much." He smiled at his baby girl, and wondered where she was leading with her question.
"Fraulein Maria, do you like Father?" Maria and Georg shared a look, before Maria answered.
"Indeed I do, Gretl." then planted a kiss on the girl's forehead.
"Then Father, can you marry Fraulein Maria, so she can be our mother? If you like each other and you kissed, that's what fathers and mothers do, right?"
Georg smiled and chuckled, then answered truthfully. "Yes, Gretl, fathers and mothers do like each other, and do kiss. Would you really like your fraulein to be your mother?"
Gretl's eyes lit up immediately. "Yes, Father, yes!" She then turned her attention to Maria, and placed her chubby hands on Maria's cheeks.
"Would you, Fraulein Maria? Would you be our mother?" Maria's heart melted at the sight of the little girl, lips pursed and eyes open wide, waiting for her response.
"I would love to, Gretl."
Gretl turned back to her father. "Then it is all settled, Father. You have to ask her to marry you, okay?"
"Very well, sweetheart, I will. But, you have to run across the field, and get your brothers and sisters to come back here, all right?"
"I'll go get them right now!" She shouted, climbed off of Maria's lap, and ran off to find her siblings.
"What did I tell you, darling? Gretl is thrilled, and the others will be, too."
"I'm so happy, Georg. It would have been awful if they didn't want us to marry."
"Let's see what the rest of them have to say, here they come now."
All seven of the children were running like mad toward the blanket, where their father and their fraulein sat, hand in hand. Shouts of "really?" "married?" and simple "yay" were heard along with Louisa's voice carrying over them all, with "You were right, Liesl!".
Georg stood aside, smiled, and watched as his seven children swarmed his love, his bride, his Maria.