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She must have lost her mind. What was she doing walking on the rail trail late at night? Thick vegetation closed around her, leaving her little choice where to head. She shuddered. They’d been on this endless hike for almost twenty minutes. The pad of their footsteps on the vine-covered ground pierced the quiet that made her stomach churn. Why had she listened to Mr. Wonderful? She knew the answer. He’d talked her into the evening with promises of an epic date with a huge surprise.
Engagement ring, she bet! Yes, she was a sucker for a happy ending. Besides, this whole scene was her fault. She’d been so excited when he’d apologize after two weeks of angry silence.
He’d pleaded for another chance and promised she wouldn’t regret her decision.
Yeah, tonight he’d propose. She gripped her hands together to hide her excitement. Only, she’d never pick this spot for romance. She batted at the insect circling her head. “Hey bug, it’s December in Florida.”
She wrapped an arm around her waist and felt a pair of eyes on her from deep in the bushes. No, she imagined them, right? This wasn’t the old Florida with wild animals creeping nearby. Though teenagers still searched for out of the way places to party, and the homeless sought shelter in the woods. Was this path one of those places? A network of byways crisscrossed the main track. Who or what used them? She stumbled over a root in her wedge heels.
Okay, she was twenty-four years old, an adult. Stay alert. She’d be fine. Damn. He kept striding ahead as though she was a sheep following him. She regained her balance and blew out a breath. He expected her to move along using just the glimmer of the moon like he did? She removed her phone strapped to her arm and tapped on her flashlight app.
Slowing, she debated going onward. Could she convince him to go back? He could be stubborn. If she went alone, how safe would she be? Not very. She kept trudging after him. Suddenly, the flicker of battery powered tapers marked their course. He was trying to make their evening memorable like he’d sworn. In the past, she’d prayed that he’d commit to a life together. Finally, he seemed willing.
Something slithered in the overgrown woods a foot away causing the tall grass to waver to and fro. She stopped dead.
Two feet ahead of her, he paused and faced her. “C’mon. We’re almost there. Don’t you like the candles?” He gestured at them.
She must have frowned because he dropped his outstretched arm to his side. His mouth pulled downward.
Don’t ruin the evening, she told herself. “You did a great job with the candlelight.” She forced a smile and snuck a peek at the undergrowth. Had the snake hiding in the thick foliage left or would it pop out at her?
“We’ve a little way more.” He started off again, detouring onto a narrow path.
“Are you sure we’re not wandering?” Goosebumps prickled her skin. This route looked more for four-legged creatures.
“Don’t worry. I’m not lost.”
She ran a finger under her seashell necklace to ease the sudden tightness around her throat and glanced over her shoulder. Nothing behind them. Please let this be worth it. “Why are we out here again?”
She plodded along. If only he’d speed it up. Then they could go back to civilization.
“I chose a place special to us. Don’t you remember the night we first got together?”
She thought back to that time. They’d met about three months ago at a coffee shop and shared a table. They’d struck up a conversation about their current partners, who were more interested in being without them than being with them. He’d offered her a ride home. She could have walked. Instead, they’d done it in his car in the lot by this trail.
“We parked near here, but we didn’t roam around in the wilderness.” She raised her light and spotted a curve ahead. Would this hike ever end?
“Have faith.” He rounded the turn and stopped in a small, circular dirt clearing. In the center, two lanterns threw off dim rays that disappeared a few feet away into the shadows.
He stood still, watching her face as she paused a foot from him. This must be where it would happen. His gaze jumped around the space before landing back on her. He was anxious. She could see it in his eyes, but the evening would move forward now. He’d propose. She’d snap the pictures, and they’d leave, fast. She couldn’t wait. Her wedding would be better than Prince Harry’s.
She cleared her throat and nodded at the metal lamps. “I’m hoping we’ll do more than admire camping gear.”
“Maybe I got a job at L.L. Bean and wanted to show off our line.”
“Hilarious.” She crossed and uncrossed her arms, wishing he’d get to the point. Yeah, don’t rush it. Everything had to go well now. He seemed more relaxed. She could feel it in his teasing. They’d pick a date once they were in his auto. If the diamond was big, she’d thank him by doing it for ole time’s sake in the parking area.
He kissed her cheek and leaned in to whisper, “I’ve been planning tonight ever since that awful day you broke up with me.”
The tightness in her shoulders eased before she recognized the faint scent of whiskey on his breath. He’d been drinking, but he was nervous, wasn’t he? She couldn’t blame him. Their future depended on her answer.
His tongue flicked out wetting his lips.
Yes, nerves. “That was quite the walk.” She chewed on a fingernail until she caught herself. “I was afraid a panther or wild boar might get us.”
“I’d protect you.” He stepped back. “I promised you a special time.”
The proposal was going to happen. Good thing she’d gotten a manicure today. A diamond would look great with the teal color on her nails.
She’d act surprised when he popped the question. She’d place her hand over her heart and gasp, “Why, this is too quick. We’ve only been together a short time.”
They’d keep their engagement and pictures a secret until she broke the news to her family, and he worked out a few minor details. Excitement rushed through her. Her dream was happening.
He took her elbow and guided her to the center of the clearing. Then, he removed the forest-colored backpack he carried over his long-sleeved ashen shirt. Rummaging inside, he fished out two champagne flutes. He walked into the shadows, and for the first time, she noticed a graying concrete bench on the edge of the darkness. A bottle sat on it.
Champagne! He had planned everything, she thought as he filled the glasses. “You’ve made a decision … about us?”
“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” he asked, his voice smooth and low.
Her ring must be in the pocket of those plain black pants or his backpack. She swallowed her doubts and crossed the ground of twigs and crawling creepers. It was now or never.
“You wore my favorite black dress.” He ran his finger over her bare skin edged by the low-cut neckline.
She smiled as shivers of delight darted through her. “You requested it. I chose my favorite jewelry. The shells bring me good luck.” How soon could she snap a selfie? She needed the perfect moment. Maybe she should stand by the lights. Of course, she’d take a photo of him on one knee.
He was pressing a drink into her hand. She wrapped her fingers around the glass stem.
“To us.” He raised his crystal.
She lifted her goblet and sipped the tart warm liquid. Not her favorite, but she wouldn’t let that ruin what was about to happen.
A loud shriek broke the moment. She shuddered. “What was that?”
He shrugged. “Drink up, and we’ll celebrate with my surprise.” He shifted, and his eyes seemed to spark with an odd glint in the lanterns’ glow.
“Leave,” whispered her inner voice. Calm down, she told herself. She gulped her champagne.
He sidestepped out of the lantern’s flame, and his stare returned to normal. He dug out his phone and fiddled with it. Music poured out of it. “May I have this dance?”
“Are you for real? You hate dancing.”
“Tonight is about you.” He held up his hands. “Just don’t yell loudly if I step on your toes.”
Hesitantly, she slipped into his arms. Her nerves were getting the better of her. The tune played on and on. “Won’t someone hear us?” she said as another song started. When would she get her proposal?
“Who would be out here?”
That’s what she wanted to know. When the third tune ended, she’d had enough. “I’m done having fun.” She pulled away from him.
“It’s your night.” His smile widened as he reached into his pocket.
She held her breath. A cloud rolled in front of the moon. Darkness fell around them. Dizziness buzzed in her head. What was wrong with her? Anticipation, that was all.
“I have ….”
His last words blended together, making no sense. Can’t miss the proposal. She edged closer. On and on he talked. Why didn’t he ask the question she’d recognize in any language? She inched toward him until a whisper separated him. She concentrated on reading his lips.
“Special … just for you.” He withdrew a— black cord? She blinked. Was the ring hanging on it? What was he doing?
His glassy eyes gleaming brighter than the lanterns sent an icy nip over her arms. She should leave … but he must have something else. This wasn’t right. He’d failed her again. Nausea spread in the pit of her stomach. “Where’s the ring?”
“Ha! Are you crazy?” he spat out. “Why would I give a bitch like you jewelry?”
Her heart stopped beating as she understood the fury in his expression.
“Don’t come near me. I want to go home.” She backed up and stumbled.
He grabbed for her. His fingers closed over her necklace. She jerked away. The string of shells fell off. With a sob, she darted across the clearing. He pounced and caught her a few feet from him. His arm came down over her throat firm and strong. He pinned her against his chest.
What was he doing? Panicked, she struggled. The pressure increased on her windpipe, cutting off her air. She had to getaway. She reached upward to scratch out his eyes, but he wound his thin black lasso around her neck, tugging tighter and tighter.
Oh-my-God. No. Stop. She gasped, but only gagging noises leaked from her lips.
This couldn’t be happening. Not to her. Desperate, she dug her nails into his hands and clawed at the noose. Please … air.
The cord cut deeper into her skin. She couldn’t breathe. Hel—p. Hel—