Staring at the diamond ring he’d purchased two days ago, Mark wondered how he’d propose to Abby to ensure she’d say yes.
He didn’t actually fear she’d say no, considering they’d discussed marriage multiple times already. Abby wasn’t the type of woman to say yes to marriage without a discussion beforehand. Mark both loved and hated that about her—mostly loved. 99.9% loved.
The diamond ring sparkled in the sunlight. Darcy, one of Abby’s cats, hopped onto the coffee table and leaned down to sniff the ring.
“No way,” Mark growled at the cat, snatching the ring before Darcy could knock it off the table. “You aren’t getting near this.”
Darcy swished his tail and jumped off of the table without a backwards glance.
Abby would arrive home from work in about two hours. Mark had already gotten everything ready: the blanket, the champagne, the strawberries, etc. It was the end of May, and when the day had proven to be as warm as July, Mark had known tonight was the night.
So, what should he say?
“Will you marry me?” he said out loud, but the words sounded so…trite. Unoriginal.
“Will you be my wife?” he tried again. He grimaced. He sounded like he was asking for someone to extract a rotten tooth.
He didn’t know why it mattered, when the outcome was guaranteed. Abby wasn’t the type of woman who would say no because the proposal hadn’t been up to her imaginary standards.
And yet, he wanted it to be perfect.
He wanted to tell her exactly how he felt, although he’d never been good at words. Or speaking. Or being honest about his emotions.
He knew without a shadow of a doubt that he loved Abby, and he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. She’d brought him back to life; she’d given him a reason to enjoy life.
Placing the ring inside his pocket, he checked the food once again, shooing away a cat who tried to climb into the picnic basket.
He was not going to take Abby to their favorite spot having accidentally carried some feline stowaway with them.
“Stay there,” he commanded the cats. “On the floor. Where you belong.”
Wentworth blinked; Darcy flicked his tail. Mark would take that as a yes.
Since Abby wouldn’t be home for a while yet, he decided to check on the horses. They didn’t need checking on, but maybe they’d give him some ideas in what to say.
All four horses greeted him as he arrived. The new barn had been finished earlier that spring. Mirielle was now tall enough that she could stick her nose over the outdoor enclosure’s fence.
“How are my girls?” Mark asked. Delilah came right over, wanting her nose rubbed, and Mirielle copied her. Mirielle was the spitting image of her mother, although her coat had darkened. Her sire had been a dark brown stallion, and Mark had a feeling Mirielle would have a coat that was a mixture of both of her parents.
“What do you think I should say, hmm? Or should I just get over it? Am I overthinking it?”
Delilah nodded, which made Mark laugh.
He didn’t know why he was so fixated on the words. Was it because words had never been his strong suit, so he didn’t want to mess this up?
Or maybe you're afraid that Abby will say no.
He pushed that thought away. He was not afraid—not anymore. He’d embraced his love for her and had never looked back. The past was in the past.
He’d done this once before, hadn’t he? Bought the ring, thought about what he’d say, been giddy with excitement.
And look how that had ended.
He rubbed his temples. Wallowing is not what I need right now.
“I need to get over it.” He rubbed Mirielle’s nose. “I’m an idiot.”
He pushed his anxiety away and focused on what he would do tonight. He'd take Abby out to their favorite spot to look at the stars, and then he'd ask her to marry him.
When Abby arrived home, he gave her a long, thorough kiss, which set her cheeks ablaze.
“What was that for?” she asked breathlessly.
“Just glad you’re home.”
She grinned. “Me too. I’m starving.”
They ate dinner and once the sun began to set, he told her to get her riding gear on. When she tried to ask questions, he only said, “It’s a surprise.”
That only resulted in her trying to ask more questions, but if Abby was good at talking, then Mark was even better at not saying a word.
He saddled Delilah for himself, Rosemary for Abby, and after getting everything in the saddlebags, he turned on lanterns that would guide them along the path. It was twilight now, the forest streaked in purples and blues.
“Are you taking me to your secret lair?” Abby asked excitedly.
Mark gave her a wry look. “What, like a cave somewhere?”
“Maybe. Or a dungeon.”
“What is it with you and dungeons?”
She leaned over to pat his shoulder. “Because you get so growly, just like a beast who’d totally have a dungeon.”
They arrived when the sun had set completely, the stars revealing themselves overhead. Abby breathed in as she tipped her head back.
“Wow,” she said finally. “Wow.”
Mark laid out the blanket, wrapping himself and Abby in a second blanket. He set the lanterns next to them and then turned them off.
Abby inhaled. Her hair brushed his chin, and he couldn’t stop himself from remembering the first time he’d taken her here. That day when he’d kissed her and heard her cry his name as she came.
He swallowed and forced the memories away. He didn’t think he’d be able to stop himself from having a repeat performance.
“Do you know any constellations?” she asked.
Mark pointed to an M-shaped one. “That’s Cassiopeia.” He took Abby’s hand, and they traced it together. She laughed softly.
“I see it now. I love how you can see the stars out here. I never lived in a place that was so far out from any city.”
Mark pointed out a few other constellations he knew—Virgo and Leo and Cancer—keeping Abby’s hand in his the entire time as they traced the stars together.
After that, they sat in silence, not needing to talk. Mark pressed a kiss to her temple; she took a deep breath.
He struggled to find the words he needed to say. The ring was heavy in his pocket, and he brushed it with the side of his hand to make sure it was still there.
Abby, I love you.
Abby, I want to marry you.
Abby, how do I tell you how much you mean to me when I can’t even explain it in words?
“You’re quiet tonight,” Abby said into the night air. She snuggled closer. “Even more than usual, which is saying something.”
She tipped her head back, although they could barely make each other out in the moonlight. “Now you have to tell me. What is it? Did Delilah kick you?”
“Did your brothers say something dumb?”
“Yeah, but they always do.”
“Good point. Did your mom call you?”
That made him laugh. “My mom doesn’t call me because she thinks I should come home to see her. So, no.”
Abby folded her arms. “Now I’m just getting annoyed. Tell me,” she said in a wheedling voice.
He thought about the proposals he'd watched on YouTube, the proposals in famous romantic comedies. The ones where people had bands playing, or had an airplane with the words WILL YOU MARRY ME emblazoned on a banner high in the sky. The ones where some celebrity watched as the guy proposed, and everyone cheered like it was a football game.
If he didn’t say this right, would Abby say what he needed her to say?
He pressed his hand against the ring in his jeans, and Abby felt the movement. Turning in his arms, she started running her hands down his torso like some kind of squirrel looking for nuts.
“You have something! I’m going to find it. No, no, no, don’t!”
He grabbed her roving hands, pushing her down onto the blanket and holding her there. She giggled when he started to tickle her, her breathless laughter echoing in the gorge below.
“Don’t. Distract. Me!” She said as she panted for breath.
Mark kept tickling her until she begged for mercy.
He sat next to her, hoping she’d given up the search, but he should’ve known better. After snagging a lantern and turning it on, Abby peered at him. They both blinked at the sudden wash of light.
“Either you show me what you have or I’m going to de-pants you and find it myself,” Abby warned playfully.
Just as she was reaching for his pants in question, he laughed and shook his head.
“You win, you win.” He reached into his pocket and pulled out the velvet box, presenting it to her on the palm of his hand.
She went quiet. She stared at the box, then her gaze flicked to his.
“Mark…” she whispered.
He sat up, setting the box on his knee so he could take her hands in his. He rubbed her fingers, although he wasn’t sure if he needed the reassuring touch more than she did.
“I tried to write you a poem,” he said quietly, “so many times that I used almost an entire notebook worth of paper. I found out that I can’t write poems—not any good ones. Then I tried to write you a speech, but I’m no good at those, either. The words came out all wrong.”
She squeezed his hands.
“I wanted to get this right,” he growled, frustrated with himself. “I wanted to say the right words, to show you exactly how I feel.”
“How do you feel?” she whispered.
“I…I don’t know.” He laughed, frustrated. “No, that’s not true. I’m just not good at making things sound poetic. I never will be. I wanted to tell you how I felt so you’d know I meant the question I wanted to ask you. So you wouldn’t have a reason to say no.
“But with you, Abby, there are no right words. Because there never will be the exact right words to tell you that you’re my heart, and my soul, and everything in between. Or how I wake up thinking about you, or how I go to bed thinking about you, or how I love to watch you brush your hair, or watch your cook, or watch you talk to your cats like they’re babies.
“Mostly, though, I just love how love me. You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me.”
He saw in the glow of the lantern that she was crying. He wished she’d say something—anything.
“God, Mark, warn a girl, will you?” She wiped at her eyes. “What the hell are you talking about, not finding the right words? Those sounded like pretty good words to me.”
She launched herself into his arms, although he had the instinct to grab the ring box the second before she moved. Holding her close, he inhaled the sweet scent of her, his heart pounding from excitement.
“I didn’t ask you my question,” he rumbled.
Abby sniffled. “What?”
“Abby,” he intoned, moving so he could see her face as he opened the ring box, “will you marry me? Be my wife?”
He almost laughed at her shocked expression, but when she nodded, his heart exploded in his chest. His hand shook as he placed the ring on her finger.
Even with her face tear-streaked and red, she was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen.
“I love you. So much.” Abby hiccupped and hugged him close. “Of course I’ll marry you. I’ve been waiting for you to ask me.”
He wrapped his arms around her. “I was afraid you might say no,” he admitted.
That made her squawk. “What? Are you insane? Mark Thornton, you idiot, why would you think I’d say no?”
He looked away, embarrassed. “Because I’m an idiot?”
“That’s right. You are, but you’re my idiot.” She looked at her ring, and he could feel her smile. “And I can’t wait to be your wife.”
“And I can’t wait to be your husband.”
Mark forgot about the strawberries and the champagne. When they arrived home later, Abby discovered them in the saddlebags.
"Oh, look! What a romantic you are." She grinned. Then her eyes turned to a gleam. "You know what, though?"
He almost wasn't sure he wanted to know. "What?"
"We should use these. Tonight." She pressed against his arm, her smile sultry. "I've always wanted to eat strawberries and drink champagne in bed. If you know what I mean."
His nostrils flared. Plucking the bottle of champagne from her hand, he growled, "You have one minute to get undressed before I rip your clothes off of you myself."
Abby squealed, laughing as she ran away. A second later, Mark chased after her, champagne and strawberries forgotten--for now.