Down on one knee. The gentle brushstrokes of pink blush gracing her cheeks. Following her eyeline all the way down to the object held out in one hand - a silver ring topped with a generous diamond. Her hands jumping up to her face to hide her outrageous smile; her lips part and let out a single, whispered word: "Yes!"
That's how he wished it would happen. That was the fantasy that filled his mind as he gazed through jewellery shop windows, diamond rings laid out before him like stars in the night sky. In real life, there would be no romance, no smile and certainly no blushing. There would be just the word, muttered with some haughtiness: "Yes."
Even now, sat beside him, Emma wasn't smiling. Abigail, his brother's date, peered at her with some curiosity.
"So, how's your job going? Mark's told us you work as a model?"
"It's going great, thank you. No scrubs, at least." she added, with a flash of her eyebrows. Mark sighed at the childish jab. Abigail was a nurse.
"The scrubs aren't as bad as you think," she replied, laughing, "Beats the hairnets. Nevermind the god-awful hours."
"Oh yeah, the hours," Michael groaned, "some days I don't get to see her at all!"
"You've got it easy. Emma sometimes leaves for - how long is it?"
"Two weeks at most." she said, through a mouthful of food.
"Aw," Abigail said, wrapping her arm around Michael's, "I couldn't stand to miss him for so long."
Emma smirked, "No, don't worry. I don't miss him. He misses me."
Someone cleared their throat. The scuffle of forks and knives followed. Perhaps accompanied by a laugh the comment would have gone unnoticed. At the moment it was just embarrassing.
"Well, anyone for dessert?" Michael asked, and everyone busied themselves with picking between the house special chocolate fudge cake - served with cold ice cream! - and the créme caramel - our favourite!
To Mark's relief, Emma was mostly silent for the rest of the dinner, as was everyone else. Immediately after the plates were cleared, Abigail stood up, "Nice meeting you, Mark, Emma. I've gotta run. See you, baby." she pecked Michael on the cheek and hastily made her way out of the restaurant. "I think I'll go too. See you around, Mark." They slapped hands. Mark noticed Michael didn't even look at Emma as he left.
Just the two of them now. As always, Mark avoided her gaze. And as always, she pounced.
"What? Have something you'd like to say? Am I misbehaving?" she purred, teasing him. There wasn't a damn thing he could do about it, and she knew it.
"You don't have to be so-"
Mark sighed. Emma tutted and lifted his chin up so they were eye to eye - his dull brown to her lively green. "Aw, don't be so put down, Marky. Look at that rag your brother picked up." she stuck out her tongue, "Bleugh. Wouldn't touch her. But you've got me. And I just might let you take me home tonight. . ."
Mark felt his heart racing as he gazed at her in her glittering silver dress, form-fitting, so he could see the firm shape of her breasts beneath the thin cloth. Even now, after two years of dating, he couldn't believe he had scored such a head-turner.
"Yeah," he said, starting to smile, "Yeah, we could do that."
"Oh, looks like we've got company." Emma muttered, looking over her shoulder. Michael was standing some distance behind their table, but well within earshot.
"I need a moment with Mark." he said, apparently unashamed.
"Perfect, I was just leaving. Maybe some other night, Marky." Emma left, swaying her hips as she walked. Mark couldn't help but watch her all the way. Then he turned to Michael.
"I thought you left?"
"The only thing I left were my car keys on the table." he said, taking a seat and swooping them up in one hand, "Or were you too busy staring at your princess to notice?"
"What do you want?" He had heard enough of his brothers advice. Growing up and growing old.
"I see now why you didn't want me to meet her."
"If you're gonna tell me some crap about getting myself a kind, sweet-"
"Not a bitch."
"-girl," Mark finished, ignoring him, "then save it. What's between me and her is my business."
Michael raised his eyebrows,"Not anymore it isn't. Good thing too."
"Look, you have to trust me, I know what I'm doing."
"No, you do not."
A hesitant waiter interrupted them, saying that they would have to order something else or leave the restaurant.
"Looks like our time's up." Mark said, extending a hand. Michael smiled.
"I'll have a créme caramel, thank you." The waiter took the order and walked away happy. "Just tell me, Mark, is the sex that good? I get it, she's hot, she's a model, but come on. I wouldn't let her treat me like that, man."
Mark rolled his eyes, "It's not just the sex, for God's sake."
"What, she's the love of your life? You want to settle down, have kids?"
"Yes. I love her and she loves me. What's wrong with that?"
"She loves your money."
Mark opened his mouth to fire back, but the waiter had returned, holding a plate. He cleared his throat, "One créme caramel, Sir. Enjoy." There were two pairs of eyes boring into the back of his head as he left.
"Don't be ridiculous, it's not the money."
"Ever since you developed that app you've been rolling in money. And where did you say you met her? At an expo? For your app?" He took a large bite to punctuate the point.
Mark found himself suddenly angry, "You're just jealous because the girl you picked up is nowhere near my girl. All those hours you spend at the gym, thinking it would help you get girls. And look who ended up on top. Me."
Michael stood up, checking his watch. "She's an asshole, Mark, and she's making you an asshole too." he pushed the remaining half of the dessert towards him, "I'll remember to bring butt-wipes to the wedding. Take care of yourself." he clapped him on the shoulder and left, just like that. That was Michael. Never moved, never fazed.
No, not this time. And he would prove it.
Mark was hardly aware of himself as he turned the keys in his Rolls-Royce and pulled out of the restaurant parking. Despite his racing heart, he didn't push the car above sixty. Thirty minutes later, he was parked outside the finest jewellery shop in the city, with the slogan - we specialise in diamonds, for her, forever.
"I need your best." he said, running his eyes over the millions of pounds worth of silver, gold, and diamond before him.
"Going to pop the question, Sir?"
He nodded, "I want to amaze her. I want her to look at the ring on her left hand in fifty years' time and still be dazzled by its shine. Have you got something like that for me?"
The jeweller looked as if he'd been waiting for this moment since the day he was born. "Yes, sir." he said, "I have just the thing."
It was just as he had imagined. A shining silver band bearing a large, circular diamond, the kind that caught the light even in a dimly lit room, and when it did, it burst into a thousand colours. As expected, it was pricey, but nothing he couldn't afford.
"I'll take it." he said, and the jeweller bowed his head.
"Good choice, Sir. She'll love it."
And the deal was done.
Mark was careful not to choose a cloudy day for the proposal, but he didn't choose an especially sunny one either. He chose a day where billowing, lustrous clouds sailed the vast ocean of the sky, and gentle winds soothed swaying trees. He had rented out a small, private section of the beach for Emma and himself, and he had purchased a new suit. He had practiced proposing to the mirror in his bedroom, he had figured out precisely how he would say the words: "Emma, will you marry me?" he had done everything he could do to make the proposal go just right.
And yet it didn't feel right. Even as he started the hour-and-something drive down to the beach he was aware of his excitement turning nervousness - then hesitation and doubt.
After all, there was the problem of Trevor Macfield, Emma's attractive, burly manager who she spent so much time with. At a birthday party, he had once gotten so drunk that he had groped her passionately in front of everyone, including Mark himself. And Mark could swear - hand on heart - that she had winked at him afterwards. When he questioned her about it afterwards, she had slapped him. By that time he was used to it.
But Trevor wasn't the only one. Sometimes, Mark called her while she was in Paris, Rome, Hong Kong, wherever - he could hear the distinct chatter of men in the background. Emma claimed she was alone in her hotel room, and when he pressed further, she threatened to break up with him, as he clearly didn't trust her. Once they were married, it wouldn't be as easy as just breaking up. . .
The blair of a car horn wrenched him from his thoughts. He had drifted into the wrong lane and was now driving head-first into a Toyota. The Toyota honked again, and he just managed to swerve around it. "Not bad," he chuckled drily. That was when his car was flung from the motorway, skidded, and finally came to a stop, alarms ringing. Or maybe the ringing was just in his head. "Holy shit," Either way, his drool was on the airbag and the right side of his body felt badly bruised. He hadn't been wearing a seatbelt.
He stumbled out of the car, clutching his side. "No blood," he sighed in relief. The hit hadn't been too bad, but the tail light was badly smashed. "Oh boy, have I got to get my lawyers on you-" he muttered, looking back at the motorway. A young woman, probably a coed by her smooth face and bouncy stride, was rushing towards him, luckily unbruised.
"Oh God, are you okay?" she said, before he could so much as open his mouth, she was already running her hands over his side, checking for any injuries. He brushed her off, "Yeah, I'm fine. . .what about you?"
She nodded frantically, her eyes on his car, "Listen, I'm in a bit of a tight spot recently, I don't think I can-"
"It's fine," he said, not really knowing why, "Don't worry about it." He could pay it back far easier than she could. He ducked into the car and turned the key. Seemed to be working fine.
"Wait!" she yelled, running up to the window. He rolled it down. "I can't pay you back, but I did wreck your car pretty bad."
"Let me drive you."
Mark smiled. That's cute. "Thanks for the offer, but it's really okay." he checked his watch, "I should get going, anyway."
She leaned on the window, "I know a shortcut. Let me drive you."
He scoffed. She raised her eyebrows, dangling her car keys in his face. "You should always arrive a little early," she cajoled him.
He stared at her. There was no harm in it really. "Alright," he said, "My car or yours?"
Seconds later, they were back on track for the coast, in her considerably less luxurious car, but he found he enjoyed her company, shortcut or not. Her name was Olivia, but her friends called her Liv.
"What's the occasion at the beach, anyway?"
He shrugged, "I'm going to propose to my girlfriend." The words seemed strangely unreal once they were said out-loud.
Her smile faltered for a second, "Oh, that's great. Good luck. Won't get rejected, will you?" she said with a forced laugh.
"I'd hope not."
The car hummed gently.
"You?" he said, keeping his eyes on the road.
"Oh, I'm leaving my boyfriend."
"That's terrible. I'm sorry."
"It's okay." she gave him a brief smile. After a few moments of silence, she sighed, "I suppose you want to know why?"
"Only if you want to tell me." That was a lie.
"It's nothing dramatic anyway. He just wasn't right for me. I would think he is for a while, and then he would say things, do things-" she threw up the hand that wasn't on the steering wheel in frustration, "You know?"
She laughed, "You don't."
"I do," he said, his thoughts involuntarily turning to Emma, "trust me. You think you know them, but they keep surprising you. Upsetting you." he stared firmly out the window, "And you never understand why."
She smiled, "Exactly. I just couldn't deal with it anymore.
Mark hesitated. "Did he ever hit you?" he asked, remembering the countless times Emma had slapped him, just because she was in a bad mood.
"God, no. I would've jumped ship a long time ago if he had."
Mark suddenly felt hot in his suit. Boiling. "Of course. Now where's that shortcut?"
They talked about other things for the rest of the way, though Mark only half-heartedly; he was still lost in his thoughts. The shortcut turned out to be little-known route through a small town, and it meant that they arrived there a whole fifteen minutes early. The car came to a stop and the smell of seawater flooded in through the windows.
"Here we are."
He opened the door, "Thanks for the ride, Olivia. I enjoyed our talk." he smiled and made to step out of the car. Olivia gripped his arm.
"If you're going through something like I was, you need to get out now." she sighed, locking eyes with him, "Trust me, Mark, the love runs out. And then all you've got is each other, and if you don't like what's left, you're in trouble. At the very least hold off the proposal. Give it some more thought."
Mark felt his lower lip trembling, and the ring was suddenly a lump of hot coal in his pocket."Thank you," he said, giving her a hug, "I'll keep that in mind." It was different to hugging Emma. Warmer.
And now he was sure of what he was going to do.
"Stay here. I'll be a few minutes."
"What are you doing? Mark?" He was already walking towards the beach. She yelled after him, "Don't do anything rash! I'm such an idiot, I shouldn't have said-"
"Don't worry! This isn't rash." he felt the soft sand curl around his foot, "In fact, this has been a long time coming."
By the time he reached the shore, he was crying. A thousand questions, doubts, concerns were reflected in every crevice of his mind, but he knew it was giving into these doubts that had kept him chained for so long in the first place. He held the box containing what could have been of his future in one hand.
No one could have guessed how good it felt to hurl it into the ocean.