Hearing Maria's voice speaking what had to be some of the most reassuring words he had ever heard – "I'm here, Georg" – he finally realized he wasn't imagining things. She was really here!

Reaching out for her as she ran toward him, Georg wrapped Maria tightly in his embrace. Lifting her slightly off the ground, he spun around with her in his arms, still afraid to believe she had really come back to him.

Held tightly in Georg's arms, Maria finally knew this was real. He was real! Her captain was holding her as if he would never let her go!

Georg stopped his circular motion and gently set Maria on her feet. He reached up and touched her cheek, needing to feel the warmth of her skin, just to prove to himself that he wasn't dreaming. Tilting her face up slightly, Georg leaned over and kissed her, very gently at first, and then their lips clung to each other, not wanting to break contact.

Finally, they drew apart just enough to look in each other's eyes. "I love you," they said simultaneously.

Maria giggled slightly, loving just how in tune with each other they were. She reached up and stroked Georg's cheek, and then he turned his head and pressed a kiss against her hand.

Still holding Maria with one arm, Georg moved to pick up her things. He held her carpetbag with his left hand, his right arm still wrapped around her. Maria picked up her guitar with her right hand, her left arm tightly around Georg. Together they went through the wrought iron gates, which Georg stopped briefly to lock. Then, holding each other and carrying Maria's belongings, they walked back to the house.

Inside, Maria took her things upstairs to her room, while Georg made them each a cup of hot tea. Within a few minutes, they were snuggled together on the sofa in Georg's study.

While both knew they needed to talk, Georg would have been happy to simply sit and hold Maria, without either of them saying a word. They sat quietly for a minute or two, just thankful to be together again.

Sipping her tea, Maria broke their brief silence. "I am so, so sorry that I left you last week. It was wrong of me; please forgive me."

Georg gently removed the teacup from Maria's hand and set it on the coffee table, then drew her into a tight embrace. "Maria, you are forgiven, my darling. But please tell me why you left."

Pulling back slightly so she could look into Georg's eyes, Maria tried to explain. "As you said in your letter, I was shocked by what happened when we were dancing. Frightened, even, because I didn't really understand what was happening, and I didn't know how to handle it."

Stroking her hair, then her cheek, Georg smiled. "That makes two of us. I was totally off balance in that moment, not sure what was happening, either. I only knew I hadn't felt anything so intense in a very long time. Was that why you left? It's not like you to run away from things. You've never been shy about saying what's on your mind, so I'd have expected you to stay and deal with it, the way you do most things."

Maria looked down at her hands, knowing she needed to tell him about her encounter with the baroness, but hating to feel like she was tattling. Still, knowing Georg and the baroness had ended their relationship, she felt that she could safely tell him what had happened.

Sensing Maria's reluctance to say more, yet certain there was a lot more to be said, Georg took her hands in his and gently squeezed them. "What is it, darling?"

Looking up at Georg again, Maria drew a deep breath. "When I went upstairs to change clothes for the party that night, Baroness Schrader came to my room. At first, she said she just wanted to help me pick out something to wear. But then she said something about the dress I wore the night of the puppet show, that you couldn't keep your eyes off of me when I was wearing it. She went on to accuse me of being in love with you, and then said you thought you were in love with me. Her last comment was that you would get over me soon enough, because that's what men do. I was humiliated, so ashamed! I had no idea that I'd given away anything I was feeling for you, since I didn't understand it myself. Once I knew she had picked up on it, I knew I had embarrassed myself in front of everybody – you, the children, Max, and probably anybody who saw us dancing the Landler that night. All I could think of was that I had to get out of here, away from everybody, before I could embarrass myself again."

Georg was torn between anger at what Elsa had done and a desire to reassure Maria, and his need to comfort Maria easily won out. Dropping her hands, he drew her into his arms again, holding her close. "Maria, my darling, Elsa was wrong in so many ways. First of all, she was way out of line to say any of that to you. It was none of her business! And, I don't think I'm in love with you; I know I am, and it is not something I will 'get over'! And you have nothing to be ashamed of and no reason to be embarrassed! I love you, and if it weren't the middle of the night, I would want to walk outside and shout it to the whole world!"

Drawing back just enough to look at him, Maria responded, smiling, "I love you, too, Georg. And I would be out there shouting it right along with you!" She giggled slightly as she snuggled against him.

Still holding her tightly, Georg kissed the top of Maria's head and murmured, "The children are going to be in for a huge surprise tomorrow when they wake up to find you've come back!"

"Oh, Georg, how do you think they will feel about us? Will they be okay with the changes in our relationship?" Maria looked slightly apprehensive.

Georg gave her a reassuring smile. "I have no doubts at all that they will all be thrilled! They have missed you so much! And in many ways, you have already been a mother to them for quite awhile. You have nothing to worry about at all, I can assure you!"

"I'm so sorry Elsa scared you off," Georg said, holding Maria's hands in his again and gently rubbing them. "It breaks my heart to know that you were afraid, and all alone. Please, Maria, don't be afraid to ask me or tell me anything ever again! I promise to be completely honest with you, and I need the same from you."

"I won't be afraid again, Georg," she assured him. "Actually, as you said in your letter, I've been pretty honest with you all along, whether you wanted to hear it or not." She laughed softly.

Georg chuckled. "True enough. But you were telling me what I needed to hear." He hugged her tightly again.

"So, Georg, where do we go from here? You and me, I mean." Maria wasn't sure she was expressing her question quite right, but Georg understood.

"I want very much to marry you, but as I said in my letter, I will not pressure you for anything or try to rush you into anything. I think we should court for awhile, just spend more time getting to know each other, and let our relationship grow. Max is still here to serve as our chaperone, so everything will be proper in the eyes of the public. I just know that I want to be with you as much as possible, and if I could, I would hold you in my arms 24 hours a day, seven days a week!"

Maria laughed and hugged him tightly. How she wished what he had just said were possible! She could easily spend the rest of her life in his arms and be perfectly happy there!

Georg knew they both needed to go upstairs to their respective rooms for the night, but neither wanted to let go of the other yet. He pulled a leather footstool over in front of the sofa and urged Maria to put her feet up and get comfortable. Once she was settled, he put his feet up next to hers and leaned back against the throw pillows on the sofa. Still holding each other, they fell asleep.

Max woke early the next morning, certain he had heard voices and people going up and down the stairs during the night. Normally, he would have turned over and gone back to sleep, but curiosity got the better of him, and still in his robe and pajamas, he tiptoed downstairs to see if he could figure out what he had heard.

He found the door of Georg's study wide open, and there, on the sofa, Georg and Maria were fast asleep in each other's arms. Max smiled, happy to see that they had evidently worked things out last night. He knew he wasn't exactly doing his job as chaperone, but since the door was open, he decided to leave them alone. Knowing Georg's habit of waking early, he figured they would both be up and heading to their rooms before long.