Maria knew that she had a big, silly, and stupid-looking grin between her flushed cheeks, but she didn't care. She was too happy and comfortable, snuggled up to her husband under the warm covers of their bed, bathing in the afterglow. Georg had made love to her as passionately as he had on their wedding night, ravishing her to the point where he had to cover her mouth with his to quiet her cry of ecstasy.

When she heard the clock in their bedroom give a low chime, announcing half past six, she sighed with resignation. "We should get up, so we can get the children ready for school."

Georg's arms tightened around her. "Don't worry, love. I asked Frau Schmidt and Liesl to take care of getting them all up on time. So we can have a bit of a lie-in before joining them for breakfast."

Maria smiled, but then looked at him with questions in her eyes. "I don't remember coming home, or you finding me. What happened?"

Georg sighed and leaned over her, running his fingers along her collar bone. "After dinner, I knew I had to find you and make things right. I tried to think like you: where would you go to feel safe? I phoned the abbey, and the Reverend Mother told me you have come for a mass and you'd talked to each other, but she said you weren't there anymore and didn't know where you'd gone. The next place I thought of was your mountain…Without you to guide me, it took me a while to find your spot in the dark…when I finally found it…and saw you lying there…so still…"

Maria saw the anguish in his eyes, and knew that he had been more than punished for his behavior yesterday when he saw her like that, especially considering what had happened four years ago that day. To help drive that away, Maria wrapped her arms around Georg and held him to her. "I'm right here, Georg," said Maria firmly. "And thanks to you, I'm not the worse for wear."

Georg kissed her neck, his head resting on her shoulder while he supported himself on his forearms to keep from crushing her. "Well, I picked you up, wrapped you in that blanket I keep in the car, and drove you home as fast as was legally possible. The children had just been put to bed, so I was able to get you straight to our room without a panic. Frau Schmidt helped me, and we discerned that you were not injured or feverish; you'd most likely passed out from exhaustion, or stress, or a combination of both."

Maria nodded, running her fingers through his hair. "That sounds accurate. I remember I stood up quickly, determined to go straight home and confront you about what was going on. But once I did, I felt so dizzy I couldn't see, and then…I woke up safe in my bed."

"And that's just where I plan to keep you today," Georg whispered in her ear before beginning to kiss her neck. "I have nothing planned today…except making up for the hours I shut you out…Is that acceptable to you?"

"Mm," Maria moaned, closing her eyes as her back arched. "Absolutely, darling."

Georg smiled at that and lifted his head, chuckling when he saw her reactionary face to his stopping his kisses. "However, we will have breakfast with the children. After what happened at dinner last night, they would have my head if we didn't."

Maria raised an eyebrow. "Oh? What happened?"

Georg turned them over so they lay on their sides, facing each other (Georg kept an arm securely around her waist). "Well, I was the last to arrive for dinner, to find the seven of them staring daggers at me. After the blessing was said, the dam broke loose. All of the children demanded to know why I was not talking to you, why I had spoken to you like that; the one that really broke my heart was Marta, who said 'You made Mother cry!' while she cried. If I hadn't already seen the grave error of my ways when I saw your tears, I certainly would have then."

"Oh, my goodness," murmured Maria. She could easily picture the entire scene, especially considering how the children had comforted her after he had snapped at her. "Louisa did tell me that if you didn't apologize, they would make you."

Georg chuckled, stroking her hip. "I should have known that the children would someday repay their debt to you."


"Oh, yes," said Georg seriously, nodding. "They became indebted to you that day you all fell in the lake and we had that argument. You were their knight in shining armor, and rightfully so. Now they have done the same for you." He sighed and pressed his forehead to hers. "But one thing doesn't change: I'm always the evil monster."

Maria's heart went out to her husband, and she held him for a moment, before pulling back and gripping his chin so he looked at her. "Captain," she said with authority, half-teasing and half-serious. "Brooding is not an option this morning. Now let's make good use of our lie-in before the morning meal, eh sailor?"

Instantly, Georg's sad expression became one of loving mischief. In the next moment, Maria squeaked as Georg rolled them over so he was above her. "Yes, ma'am."

Maria's giggles were soon silenced by kisses.

When Maria and Georg walked into the dining room just (barely) in time for breakfast, all seven children gave hopeful smiles when they saw their smiling parents walk in with joined hands.

"Is everything all better now?" asked little Gretl, watching her parents carefully. It had scared her more than she knew when she watched her father speak to her mother in a way it made her mother cry. She'd never seen a grown-up cry before.

In response, her father gave a look of pretend concern to Maria. "Let's make sure they have no doubts about that, shall we?" Then, without a word or indication of warning, Georg wrapped his arm around Maria and kissed her with a theatrical dip. While the girls went "Aw!" and the boys went "Ew!" all seven of them laughed with joy and relief.

Maria walked to her seat beside Gretl – her face red as a tomato – caressing each child she passed along the way. Sitting down, she leaned over and kissed Gretl's head. "Yes, darling, everything is all better now. None of you need to worry anymore."

While all seven children knew that their mother was an extraordinary woman who was capable of a lot of things, they knew that she was not a very good liar. So those words, along with the sight of her happy eyes and smile were more than enough reassurance for them that their parents' relationship was as strong as ever, perhaps even stronger.

"Darling, would you please say the blessing?" asked Georg, smiling at her from the other end of the table.

"Certainly," replied Maria. After that was done, breakfast commenced with much chatting and merriment, as there usually was. Frau Schmidt came in and out, filling cups and taking plates away, smiling at the sight of the family mended and happy again. Seeing her mistress unconscious the previous night had given her a great feeling of fear, and prayed to God that He would not let history repeat itself. Her prayer had been answered, it seemed.

Near the end of the meal, she was about to exit for the kitchen after refilling Liesl's orange juice, but her employer stopped her with a smile. "Wait just a moment, Frau Schmidt. I'd like you to stay for this." The Captain turned his gaze to Maria and gave her a smile and wink, a silent message. Looking at his children again, he said, "Your mother has some news to tell you."

Maria's face reflected the excitement and nervousness that was battling inside her. She seemed at a loss for the right words, so Gretl took her hand and said, "What is it, Mother?"

This action seemed to give Maria the right words. She grasped Gretl's hand and said to the five-year-old, "Well, Gretl, let's just say that soon, you will not be the youngest anymore."

A moment of silence followed, and then all of the older girls gasped, smiling. "Oh, Mother! You're going to have a baby?" asked Brigitta with joy.

Maria's smile was radiant. "Yes, children. Soon you will have a little brother or sister."

"Oh, I hope it's a boy," said Friedrich, even as he got up with his siblings to kiss his mother in congratulations.

"Yes," agreed Kurt, kissing both of his mother's cheeks before turning to his father. "There are enough girls in this family, don't you think, Father?"

Both boys looked across the table at their beaming father, who only said neutrally, "My only wishes are for the baby to be born healthy and for your mother to be safe, and I know you boys would love a sister just as much as a brother." He gave both of them a pointed look, but a kind and understanding one that made both boys smile and nod at their father.

"May I help you when the baby comes, Mother?" asked Marta, hugging her mother tightly.

"Of course, Marta!" said Maria, kissing her head. "I would welcome your help."

"And that goes for all of you," said Georg, looking at all seven children meaningfully. "I'm counting on you to help your mother any time she needs it."

All seven children nodded and said words of affirmation to their father's veiled command.

"That won't include changing diapers, will it?" Maria heard Friedrich whisper to Louisa, which made her softly chuckle.

"When will the baby come, Mother?" asked Brigitta, looking at Maria's tummy.

"I would say…early July, so next summer," replied Maria with a smile, already dreaming of her summer baby.

Then Gretl asked abruptly to the room at large. "Where do babies come from, anyway?"

This made the room dead silent, so everyone could hear the clock time eight times. "All right, children!" said Frau Schmidt, taking action. "The school bus will be here in fifteen minutes, so let's gather our things and get our coats on!"

Fifteen minutes later, Maria stood at the gates of the villa, waving to the children as the school bus began to drive away down the road. Once it was gone, Georg dropped his hand and wiped his brow theatrically with an even more theatrical, "Whew!"

Maria threw her head back and laughed, knowing exactly why he was doing that. "Well, I know that school will cause her to forget about that question before she gets home. However, I'm sure she'll be asking questions again as I get bigger."

Georg chuckled and scratched the back of his neck. "Ah, I know. I greatly look forward to having that little talk with Marta and Gretl." His tone dripped with happy sarcasm, and turned to look at Maria. "And you have to join me, former postulant or not."

Maria laughed and nodded. "All right. But prepare me now about what should be said. After all, you've done this five times before."

"Well," said Georg, smiling at his explanation. "We will say that the father plants a special kind of seed in the mother's tummy. In nine months, that seed grows into a baby."

"Hmm," said Maria, smiling at the explanation. "Simple yet true." Her eyes acquired an adorably wicked gleam. "But I'm sure at least Brigitta has asked you just how that seed got into the mother's tummy. After all, you can't just dig a hole in my stomach with a spade and drop it in."

Georg laughed at the conversation, which had turned to flirting, and wrapped his arms round her waist. "You're right. I simply said that the mother and father do a special kind of cuddle only they can do."

"Ah," said Maria, wrapping her own arms around his neck, even more amused by his explanations. "Special kind of cuddle, eh? I've never heard it put in such terms before. Might I ask that you enlighten me on the, um, adult, definition?"

Georg made no verbal reply, but instead scooped her up in his arms and walked back to the villa at a good, eager pace, a wicked but extremely happy smile on his face.

Maria laughed just as happily, leaning her face against his neck and relishing in every sensation in that moment – and the ones that followed.

All was right with the world.