The Best Surprise Of All

Adrian was going to pop the question, I knew it. So would it be accompanied by a flash mob, fireworks or a chopper flight?

I had a strong suspicion that my boyfriend planned to propose during our weekend away.

As the snow-dusted countryside flashed by the windows of his car, I wondered how he’d do it. I’ve never known him do anything by halves. Adrian is a showman.

I pictured him hiring a crane. While clutching a ring box, he’d dangle outside the bedroom window of our holiday-let when I woke on Saturday morning.

Or maybe he’d borrow a tractor and trailer and haul a giant Marry Me! placard through the fields of sheep?

Was it a step too far, imagining him joining in a tightly choreographed dance routine with all his rugby mates?

I fiddled with my seatbelt as his car made another turn, well aware that I wore an acre of make-up on my face. I wouldn’t normally bother but any second during our trip I expected hordes of well-wishers to surround us pointing camera phones as he did something funny or spectacular while he popped the question.

I’d already practised looking gobsmacked. I had bursting into tears down to a tee.

My hands fought in my lap, then rearranged my seatbelt for the hundredth time.

“It’s a lovely cottage close to some really nice walks.”

Adrian kept sending little smiles my way. I could tell by the twinkle in his eye that he was keeping secrets.

A year ago his decree-nisi had arrived in the post. His ex, from what I’d seen of her, was the serious type. I struggled to imagine them together. She was a sullen little thing while he was a big bear of a man with a round, jolly face.

He always said he’d never marry again but I knew, since we were always laughing and joking together, that he’d changed his mind.

He turned the car down a country track. Up above on the hillside I could see an idyllic grey stone cottage.

Beyond it would sit the expanse of the ocean – and, knowing Adrian, a private beach.

I searched the fields we passed, hunting for anything strange.

Are those really sheep or all our friends in fancy-dress?

Being circled by sheep-people would make a very original proposal video. Adrian could post it on the internet. It would get a million hits.

I sat up a little straighter as he parked on the cottage’s gravel drive.

Right, here we go. It’s showtime.

I unclipped my seatbelt and climbed out to join my boyfriend.

I waited. So did he.

“What’s the matter?”

“Nothing.” I gave the sheep another wary examination. None of them darted over the hedge. They all looked very sheep-like from this angle.

Adrian went to the boot and hauled out our bags. I eyed the cottage, trying to see through the thick net curtains hanging at every window.

I wondered what waited inside. Was it rearranged to look like a hospital ward, maybe, to fit in with my nursing job?

No, no… think outside the box.

Balls! That seemed more like it. He’d have filled the ground floor with coloured plastic balls.

That’s what he does, you see. He works at a children’s soft play centre. He had access to coloured balls – thousands of them. When he opened the door, they’d all come rolling out.

Then our friends would bob up from the rainbow depths holding big letters that said, Marry me!

It would be hilarious. We’d chuckle over it until we were old and grey and living in a nursing home.

He touched my arm and I jumped.

“Are you OK? You look miles away.”

“I’m fine.” I gave an uneasy laugh.

He slipped the key in the door. He pushed it open, then… nothing happened.

Inside stood a flagstone floor and antique furniture. Not a sea of colour at all.

I peered up the staircase that loomed on one side of the lounge. Was there anybody up there?

I waited for creaks and whispers as if our friends and family had all turned into ghosts.

“How about a quick walk before dinner?” Adrian asked.

“OK. Why not?”

His following wink looked suspicious; so did the way he glanced at his watch.

He carried our overnight cases up to the bedroom. There, I started to unpack, hunting out my walking shoes.

I wondered if I ought to change. My travelling clothes looked a little creased. I picked up a sparkly top, then flung it aside. I picked up a jumper dress then abandoned it, too.

Adrian watched me with a furrowed brow.

“Are you sure you’re all right?”

“I’m fine.”

“I’m just going to give Josie a call, then, before she goes to bed.”

Josie’s his little girl. He’d agonised over when to introduce us. It all went fine over burgers in a fast-food joint.

The staff had arrived with balloons and a cake, although Josie’s birthday had still been days away. That’s a daddy’s lot sometimes.

He’d waved his phone taking photos, his round face like the moon, luminous with smiles. Josie had gone home with bags of presents and enough balloons to lift her off her mother’s drive.

In the bedroom I decided on my outfit. Jeans and sweater with a low neckline. Hmmm. Would I be too warm with my coat on top?

I bit my lip, the single sandwich I’d managed to eat before we set out doing back-flips in my stomach. Unlike Adrian, I’d never been engaged before. I wanted to get it right.

I re-applied my make-up while he chatted on.

His goodnight calls always take at least half an hour and they always sound so sweet.

“Yes, of course I’ll see you in your school play, Josie. I’m not going to miss it, am I? Do I ever? I love you, sweetheart. You sleep well now. I’ll see you very, very soon.”

With some major news, I assumed, about becoming a bridesmaid?

“OK, all set?” He pushed his mobile into his pocket then cocked his head. “You look very sexy… for a walk.”

I’d hurriedly straightened my hair just a bit.

His Adam’s apple bobbed. He hurried over and enveloped me in one of his bear hugs.

Usually he’d rock me and say grrrrr to turn it into a joke. Today he pulled away and stared into my face.

“Thanks,” he said as I gazed up at him.

“For what?”

“Everything. For being you… and for being with me.” He hugged me again and I swear I heard him sniffle.

“Oh, come on,” I said. “You’re not that miserable today, are you? Things are looking up.”

He’d almost lost his job last month.

The play centre was losing trade. He’d barely smiled for weeks.

He adored being with screaming kids all day, since he was pretty much a big kid himself.

Then the manager had implemented a plan of special offers and deals to get things moving again. Adrian had even roamed the streets dressed as a purple dinosaur.

Now he clung on to me, and me to him, for a long, long moment.

“Right then.” He grinned, the twinkle in his eyes returning. “Let’s get some fresh air.” He checked his watch again.

He was definitely up to something.

A copse of trees at the back of the cottage led on to fields full of those sheep again.

They really were just sheep, I could tell as we walked closer. They all looked round as in the distance came the unmistakable choppy whoop, whoop, whoop of a helicopter.

Adrian hasn’t hired one of those, has he? Has he arranged a trip around the bay? Will we land in the little town and head for a huge engagement party?

My heart started to pound. The truth is, I don’t like air travel; I get very sick.

Adrian took my hand, striding out, leading me towards a patch of field where no trees or hedges grew – a perfect place for a chopper to set down.

As the dipping sun painted the sky pastel shades of pink and lilac, the lights of the helicopter flashed. Closer and closer it came as Adrian watched.

It’s hard to surprise someone with a two-tonne flying machine so I ignored it and kicked at the long grass.

The noise grew deafening.

The helicopter – a sleek blue-striped machine – streaked across the sky.

“That’s coming in low,” Adrian remarked. We both craned back our necks as it thundered overhead.

“Oh,” I said as it shot right by. I watched it, feeling sure it would arc about, slice through a few clouds and come hurtling back. Only no. It flew ruler-straight inland until it looked like nothing but a speck of dirt.

OK, that wasn’t his surprise. He isn’t going to propose three miles up.

“Is something wrong?” he asked.


“Come on then.”

We walked again, hand in hand. We reached the lip of the cliff where a fence stood. The sky was a deeper shade of red now as the ocean murmured below.

“Isn’t this view amazing at this time of day?” Adrian said. He took a deep breath. Then his left knee bent.

Oh lor, here we go. My heart thudded against my ribs, adrenaline surging as I glanced about, expecting a crowd to appear, balloons to pop, fireworks to spit and crackle. A band was sure to play and a crowd of pom-pom-waving cheerleaders would certainly turn up.

I checked the sheep again, then peered behind the trees.

Adrian on his one knee held up a black velvet box.

“Lisa, will you marry me?”

“Oh,” I said, a hand to my chest. I still felt like a deer caught in a car’s headlights. But no, nothing else happened.

Was this it, then? Was it just going to be him and me? As my pulse roared in my ears, I expected to feel crushed. Where was all the pizzazz?

Only… I felt relieved.

My feelings for him don’t need a dance routine by his rugby mates dressed as Tiller girls, after all, to make them real.

And his question to me felt honest now. It felt stripped back and raw, as sincere as that moment he’d hugged me and thanked me for being in his life. I’ll always remember that.

I looked into his face as his brows creased. Without anything to distract me, I could see his anxiety so clearly.

“Thanks for not dangling from a crane or turning up with a twenty-foot placard with a hundred friends,” I said.

“It never crossed my mind.” He smiled. “I’d much rather we did the really important stuff quietly on our own.”

I can’t imagine a single loud or quiet moment without him now.

“I will marry you,” I said. “My answer is yes.”

His ring of two matching diamonds fitted on my finger perfectly. We stood entwined in silence and watched the sun go down, just the two of us… all alone.

I knew he had something extra special planned. He always does surprise me.

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