On an evening that promised to gush with romance, Kathy Billups seemed set up for disappointment.
Instead of dining in an upscale restaurant with her boyfriend, she found herself on a golf course in the dark, helping him search for a watch he lost earlier that day.
Half an hour into their hunt, Ms. Billups spotted a twinkle near the 11th green - and burst into tears.
There sat a candlelight dinner set for two. No sooner had she seen it than her boyfriend proposed.
Storybook engagements are the stuff of movies and dreams. But playing Cary Grant to one's true love can unnerve even the most confident suitor. The '90s solution: Turn to a consultant.
In an era where specialists serve up advice on everything from a pet's bad behavior to color coordination in the garage, experts are lining up to scribe the script of love for the romantically inarticulate.
Take Paul Alden. His wife was so taken with his winning proposal that she nudged him to share his talent with his fellow males. Forget hiding the ring in a scoop of ice cream, or shoving it into a chocolate eclair. Mr. Alden can show you the big time.
His company, "Will You Marry Me?" based in Hingham, Mass., takes all the worries out of the big moment. For a fee - from $350 to $650 - Mr. Alden will do whatever his client thinks it might take to get to "yes."
With the skill of Cyrano de Bergerac, this self-professed creative romantic will conjure up the perfect proposal. "We can even assist you in performing the art of proposing and presenting the ring," his business card reads.
Alden is proving to be Cupid's toughest competition. He boasts a 100 percent success rate in more than three-dozen tries. Once he arranged for a couple to get hitched in a hot-air balloon above Cape Cod in Massachusetts. He's proud of the time a guy in street clothes was called to the stage for a magic show's disappearing act, and reappeared sporting a tux and bearing flowers and the ring. Alden even masterminded the golf-course proposal, which he says is a favorite of his.
To Alden, it's simply a matter of seizing a market opportunity. "What woman wouldn't love a storybook proposal?" he asks. "Some men are content proposing over pizza - the ring burns a hole in their pocket. If they would just set aside time and give it some serious thought, any guy is capable of planning a special engagement."
Although Alden seems to have found his niche, not all men need help. New York lawyer Bill Gottlieb transfixed the tender-hearted everywhere when he talked The New York Times crossword-puzzle editor into letting him propose in the Jan. 7, 1998, puzzle.
"It really took some convincing," Mr. Gottlieb says. "But it was well worth it."
While at brunch, Gottlieb's girlfriend had no clue that the puzzle she conquers daily would gain her national fame.
But when she solved clues that spelled out her and Gottlieb's names, she started to get suspicious. When she penciled in the answer to 56 across ("1992 Paula Abdul Hit") with "Will You Marry Me," Gottlieb's efforts were rewarded: "Of course!"
"I wanted to do something that isn't done very often in the Times," he says. "But mainly, I wanted to do something special."
The complicated caper caught the fancy of many male copycats. But the paper's puzzle editors drew an unromantic line in the sand. After being swamped with requests for special messages, they said that this proposal was "enough for a long, long time."
The swell of interest presents a conundrum: Why do many men need help thinking beyond your basic rose and chocolate?
To Daphne Rose Kingma, relationship expert and self-help author of "The Future of Love," it's not surprising that men are calling out for help. "Many men feel separated from their emotions," she says. "They don't trust their own instincts to come up with a romantic proposal."
But she's encouraged: "If men are feeling inept, it's great to hear they're willing to seek help."
Ms. Kingma warns, however, that these same men may get off to a great start, but fail to keep the romance going throughout their marriage.
"The romance shouldn't just stop after a clever proposal that someone else helped with. Women want a man who has the capacity to be emotional and romantic throughout the entire marriage."
Kingma believes that deep down, most men really do have a passion for romance. "Prince Charming has not been supported by our culture," she says. "Society has dictated that men set aside plenty of time for work and success, but little time for romance. Yet under their insecure exteriors, men have a longing to enchant women."
How Romantic Are You?
For men who may be questioning their ability to orchestrate a memorable proposal, try this little test of your sentimentality quotient:
If you cried during the movie "Sleepless in Seattle" and have a spectacular romantic evening planned for Valentine's Day, you can probably craft a creative proposal on your own.
If you didn't cry in "Sleepless," but are at least prepared for Saturday, there's still hope. Consider a consultant, preferably not your football buddies.
If you think "Sleepless in Seattle" is a company that makes lumpy mattresses and you didn't know that Saturday is Valentine's Day, drop what your doing and start surfing the Web for a consultant.
And if you opted out of "Sleepless" ("a chick flick") to take your girlfriend to see "Terminator 2," and your idea of a romantic proposal involves bungee-jumping in Tijuana, get used to the bachelor life.