Maria stood frozen at the doors at the back of the house, one hand on the door handle. Her nerves were catching up with her again, at the thought of once again being with the Captain. Would they come as close as they had been before they were interrupted? Goodness knows, there hadn't even been a foot of space between them when he'd touched her chin…

What is going to happen now? she wondered.

Maria recalled the last words he had spoken to her: "You can't marry someone when you're in love with someone else, can you?" Did she dare hope he meant her? Well, after saying that, he had touched her chin and begun to move closer to her as if he were going to…

She blushed again. Well, with that action, who else could he have meant?

I have confidence in confidence alone, besides which you see I have confidence in me, Maria thought as she opened the door slowly.

The night breeze on her flushed cheeks felt like the breath of heaven when she stepped outside. It calmed her nerves, but only for a moment. Her gaze soon fell on a distant figure standing at the gate to the lake – it could only be one person. Her heart began to flutter.

But she couldn't turn back now, so slowly, Maria began to walk across the verandah and down the stairs, towards the Captain's silhouette.

When Maria was about six feet from him, she stopped. He made no sign that he knew she was there or that there was a presence behind him. From his silhouette, Maria deduced that he was deep in thought. Perhaps he wanted to be left alone, and Maria knew by experience that it was not wise to disrupt a person in deep thought unless it was for a very good reason.

She had barely taken two steps back towards the house when a voice stopped her.

"Please don't go."

Maria's feet froze and she turned her head. The Captain had indeed spoken – softly, almost pleading – but he did not turn his head.

"I didn't want to disturb you," said Maria softly as she walked slowly back towards him. When she stopped by his side at the gate, he turned his head to look at her.

"I hoped you would come back outside," he said, his tone like a caress to her ears. The smallest of smiles played at his lips as his eyes caressed her face, a smile of contentment. Maria felt her cheeks flush again, but not out of being embarrassed or uncomfortable. "Is Marta all right?"

Maria nodded, finding her voice again. "Yes, she's sound asleep now. She had…a nightmare." Her voice faltered as she spoke, and turned her gaze to the lake. Needing to change the topic, she spoke in the best normal tone she could find, "You chose a beautiful place to call home, Captain. So much space and beauty..."

"I'm glad you think so, Maria," said the Captain, and Maria couldn't deny how much she loved to hear her name coming from him. "I must confess that space was what I wanted when I bought the property – our old house was not smaller but cozier, by a forest."

Maria turned to look at him. "How long have you lived here, then?"

The Captain sighed, his gaze on the lake. "Since the children's mother died. You, of all people, know that I tried to push everything that reminded me of her away. The house was the easiest to run away from." He sighed again, and hung his head; his hands reflexively gripped the railing tighter. "The only easy thing to run away from…"

Maria's heart filled with even more compassion for him, if it were possible. She knew that the Captain would give his wealth, his titles, his limbs, even his life to take back how he'd treated his children the past four years.

Without thinking twice, Maria reached out and covered his left hand with her right.

Her touch seemed to startle the Captain a little; his gaze immediately shifted to their hands. Maria kept her voice, determined to say what she wanted to say to him. "Captain, look at me."

He did; she could see something akin to vulnerability in his eyes, and not for the first time, either. He trusted her, and she valued that trust with her life.

"You are the best man I have ever known: a good man, who holds true to what's right and is brave enough to face his mistakes and learn from them. You've survived things no man should go through, and all of the blessings in your life…your lovely home, your beautiful children…you more than deserve them."

She meant every word she spoke, and she spoke with conviction. But for a moment, Maria felt extremely vulnerable. Perhaps she'd gone too far, spoken too much, as she always did; the Captain looked like he couldn't quite believe what was happening.

After a few moments of loud silence - terrified, on her part - his gaze lowered again to their hands. Wordlessly, he turned his hand around and grasped her fingers, lifting them up to the level of his heart. With his other hand he caressed the back of her hand. Maria's heart began to flutter again; little jolts of pleasant electricity seemed to tickle every inch of skin he touched.

And when his eyes met hers, she could have sworn her heart stopped for a moment.

"I never would have realized how blessed I am if it hadn't been for you."

Maria lowered her eyes in modesty, but the Captain once again cupped her chin, tilting her face upward to meet his gaze.

"I know what Marta's nightmares are about, Maria," he said softly.

Tears filled Maria's eyes, and she spoke best she could past the lump forming in her throat. "I'm so sorry…I never wanted to hurt anybody, I was just so afraid and didn't know what else to do…I thought I had betrayed my promise to God by…by…"

"By what, Maria?" asked the Captain almost breathlessly, his eyes radiating anticipation, even hope.

But Maria couldn't seem to form anymore words, so she took the hand that was cupping her chin and, very shyly, kissed his palm.

When she nervously met his gaze again, her heart swelled. The expression in those beautiful blue eyes were sparkling with as much emotion as she felt coursing through her veins. He held both of her hands, encasing her small ones in his big ones, and placed them against his strong, beating heart. She gave a sigh of relief, realizing he was returning the gesture she'd given him that said so much.

"Maria, will you stay?" he asked, in the most vulnerable voice she'd ever heard him use. "With the children? With me?"

The young woman could finally give the answer she wanted to give: the truth. "Forever, if you'll have me."

And the Captain smiled, a relieved and joyous smile. He leaned forward and their foreheads rested against each other. "Oh, I do," he whispered, his breath laced with that emotion that had yet to be directly spoken.

But just when their faces came a millimeter closer, a distant giggle caused them to turn their heads towards the house and break contact.

Just in time to see the three eldest daughters, in their nightgowns, gasp and rush back inside.

Maria watched the Captain battle annoyance and amusement with his face and couldn't help laughing at the situation. That laugh quickly turned into a big yawn which she tried to stifle with her hand.

Opening her eyes again, she found the Captain looking at her tenderly. "I think you deserve a good night's sleep after the events of today; I'll make sure my three nosy and incorrigible daughters are in bed where they belong." They shared a laugh this time.

Exchanging shy smiles, Maria and the Captain walked back to the house. And when their hands brushed each others, the two hands entwined comfortably. A perfect fit.

There was no hurry. Even with the many interruptions that came from at least seven children, they had the rest of their lives together to make up for each.

A/N: I never planned for this to go past that night, so don't expect anymore. At least under this title...I mean, come on, they haven't even kissed yet!