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(Illustration by Violet Lemay)

Michael Pesi may have met the woman of his dreams in the modest surroundings of a Merchant's Tire waiting room, but when it came time to propose marriage, he thought big.

He considered whisking girlfriend Aletta Muzila off to New York and popping the question over dinner at their favorite celebrity chef's restaurant but nixed the idea.

"It was trite," Pesi concluded. "It's been done before."

So the Parkville entrepreneur and investor came up with a more unusual scheme. He took Muzila, a psychotherapist, to his childhood home in West Virginia last Thanksgiving and tricked her into going out to the mall with relatives. She returned to find the house lit only by candles, the floor strewn with rose petals and Pesi's two musician-brothers serenading her. One by one, his mother, his sister and a young nephew came forward with bouquets of flowers.

Then Pesi appeared, got on one knee and pulled out a ring — a whopper from Tiffany, incidentally, lest anyone think the homespun proposal was the groom-to-be's way of taking the cheap way out.

"My family's very, very important to me," said Pesi, who had Muzila's sister travel from Washington to be there and displayed photos of the rest of her family, all back in her native Botswana, around the room to make them part of the moment. "I really wanted everyone in the family to say, 'Hey, welcome.' "

It may be the rare groom-to-be who goes that far, but more and more men are finding unusual, sometimes elaborate ways to propose marriage, according to bridal-industry experts, area jewelers and travel agents.

The trend seems to be the outgrowth of two seemingly contradictory desires: A growing number of women (67 percent) want to pick out their engagement rings (Pesi knew Muzila wanted the Tiffany Legacy), while nearly 70 percent of women feel "the 'surprise' factor was essential to the perfect proposal," according to a joint survey conducted by TheKnot.com and Men's Health magazine.

"A lot of couples will go ring shopping, and then it's time for him to plan the event of proposing," said TheKnot editor Anja Winikka.

And she does mean event.

What used to be a mostly quiet moment between lovers has become, in some cases, a celebration on par with a wedding reception.

Rachel Karceski, a Baltimore County prosecutor, got engaged last summer by way of a scavenger hunt that started at her Federal Hill condo and ended — after a plane ride and a side trip to a boutique for a new dress — in a suite at New York's Waldorf-Astoria Hotel. There, on a balcony with a sweeping view of the city, boyfriend Mark Ravalico got down on bended knee.

Minutes later, the knock on the hotel room door that Karceski thought was room service champagne turned out to be her parents, who had traveled from Howard County at Ravalico's invitation to be part of the evening. When the couple returned to Baltimore, they stopped for a drink at the Federal Hill bar where they'd met, where the groom-to-be had arranged for 20 relatives and friends to celebrate with them.

"I think there's some pride in doing something really elaborate for the guy in some way," said Karceski, 34. "It's always all about the girl. Maybe now we get to tell the story, and the guy gets some kudos for being creative."

Creative doesn't have to mean expensive.

Byron Abaidoo, 39, of Ashburton cooked up a plan to have an engagement ring incorporated into a jewelry exhibit at the Walters Art Museum, where his art-loving girlfriend admired it in a display case before reading the object label: "American. 21st century. Engagement ring for Kendra from Byron."

"I didn't want the kind of engagement-ring-over-dinner [proposal]," said Abaidoo. "Amongst my friends, I was the last to get engaged or get married. About five other people around me, either they went to dinner or tried to surprise somebody on a date. It was just handing her the ring. I wanted to do something different and special."

Kendra Abaidoo, 36, said the proposal bowled her over.

"I was really surprised," she said. "I knew our relationship was definitely progressing in that direction. … I didn't think he'd dig that deep and be that creative."