Michael Ray went over the top with a Mexican sunset, a beachfront deck, mariachis, flowers and champagne to make a romantic moment he and Carly Pearce would never forget

By Nancy Kruh
February 14, 2019 08:10 PM
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When Michael Ray began planning his marriage proposal to fellow artist Carly Pearce, he knew it had to be over the top. Or as he puts it: “I wanted this to make The Bachelor look like a date night at Applebee’s.”

Pushing his level of difficulty even higher, Ray also wanted it to be a complete surprise.

“And it’s very hard to surprise her,” says the “One That Got Away” singer. “She’s always aware of everything.”

So could he pull it off?

What eventually happened at the appointed time and place — at sunset on Dec. 19 in Tulum, Mexico — was so filled with laughter, tears and heart-soaring romance that the newly engaged couple has banked memories to last a lifetime. In separate interviews, Ray, 30, and Pearce, 28, sat down with PEOPLE exclusively to tell their story.

Carly Pearce and Michael Ray
Hernan Santiago

By the time they had reached the beach resort town of Tulum on Dec. 18, Ray had been working for weeks to set the stage for the next day. Over Thanksgiving, the self-described “traditionalist” had asked Pearce’s parents for their daughter’s hand and received their blessing. It was both courtesy and formality: The couple had been seriously dating for about six months, and her parents were already happy that their marriage was a question of “when,” not “if.”

“Have you thought about where you want to propose?” Pearce’s mom, Jackie, asked her future son-in-law.

Ray said he’d set his sights on the Tulum trip that they’d already scheduled with Pearce’s parents, and he was glad when Jackie, who is especially close to her only child, volunteered to help with the proposal planning. Together, the two kept their secret from Pearce as they conspired long distance with the resort’s concierge. Ray also picked up the engagement ring: a stunning four-carat round diamond at its center with more diamonds, totaling a carat, hugging its shoulders.

“When I was designing it, I said, ‘I just want something timeless,’” Ray recalls. “That’s the word that comes to mind when I think of her.”

Carly Pearce’s engagement ring
Hernan Santiago

After the two couples’ arrival in Tulum, Pearce and Ray settled in at their resort, and Ray handed off the ring to Pearce’s mom before her parents headed to their rental property down the road. He still had to meet with the concierge and scout the proposal location, a rooftop deck that their third-floor room overlooked, all the while concealing his stealth mission — and anticipation — from Pearce.

But by that night, Pearce began wondering aloud if something was amiss. “Michael is the sweetest person in the whole world,” says the “Closer to You” singer, “but he was just so quiet, and that’s just not him.”

When Pearce asked, “Is everything okay?” all Ray could think was, “I’ll be damned,” he admits. Friends who’d popped the question had warned him this moment would come.

“In my mind I’m going, just give me 15 hours and all of this is going to make sense,” he tells PEOPLE. “So I’m like, ‘Yeah, I’m fine.’ I made up something about the stress of touring and closing out the year.”

Pearce dropped it, she says, because “I just believe him when he tells me something. Little did I know he had a lot of stress going on.”

The next day, the four vacationers relaxed and shopped, and Pearce’s mother distracted her daughter so Ray could tend to final details. In late afternoon, her parents headed back to their quarters, and Ray and Pearce retreated to their room. Pearce hopped in the shower, thinking she was getting ready for a party-of-four dinner with no clue that Ray’s plan was just being set into motion.

Ray shouted to Pearce that he was headed to the lobby to get bottled water. Instead, he went off to get the ring from Pearce’s parents, who had returned to the resort. Back in the room, Ray found Pearce gazing out their floor-to-ceiling window at the rooftop deck, where the proposal was about to take place.

“Michael, look at this!” she said. “Someone must be getting married up there tonight.”

“Oh, yeah,” he replied, attempting nonchalance. “Looks like it.”

Workers were bringing up massive white floral arrangements, lighting tiki torches and candles, raising a white canopy, stringing decorative ropes, and setting an elegant table for two.

Ray’s emotions overtook him as he watched Pearce enjoy the romantic preparations, and he finally had to flee to the bathroom. “She has no clue this is happening for her,” he says. “There’s no reason for me to be crying, so I’m having to hide in there.”

As the time draws near, Pearce’s parents phone their daughter with a story that they’ll be late, and they tell the couple to go on ahead. Once dressed for the evening, Ray and Pearce open their door, and they’re greeted with a trail of white rose petals leading down the hallway.

“Oh, the wind must have blown these flowers up here,” Pearce exclaims, still clueless.

“I honestly thought that they got blown up in a perfect line — miraculously,” she says now. “Looking back, I think I just didn’t want to allow myself to think it was anything else.”

But when Pearce gets to the petal-strewn staircase leading up to the deck, it hits her: This is for me.

Michael Ray and Carly Pearce
Hernan Santiago

Speechless, she glances back at Ray as they head up the stairs.

“Let’s just go check out the deck,” he says.

Once on top, they survey the decorations — and spot a waiting photographer.

Pearce is incredulous. “What are you doing?

“Well,” Ray responds, “you said you wanted photos in Tulum, so I hired a photographer.”

“You’re kidding.” It’s all she can say.

And yet there’s more. “I thought since we’re in Mexico,” Ray announces, “you also need a mariachi band.”

He motions and instantly, four musicians ascend the stairs, filling the air with a love song.

Carly Pearce and Michael Ray

Pearce’s mind is now racing. “I said to myself, ‘Michael, if you are not proposing to me, you’re going to have to take me to the moon to propose to top this.’ Like, please do not do all of this and not be proposing to me.”

Now the sun is setting, and the photographer is capturing the moment, and Ray is drawing Pearce into his arms, and he begins to tell her: “I’ve loved you since the first day we hung out. And I knew that I would have married you that day, but I want to make this day one we’ll never forget. So I’ve got one more question to ask …”

Or it went something like that, Ray now says. He admits he “kind of blacked out.”

He does remember dropping to one knee and pulling out the ring. He also remembers not even getting out the pivotal question before Pearce shouts: “Of course I’ll marry you!”

“My bad,” Pearce says now, laughing at the memory. “This is what I do! I’m always the one initiating.”

Michael Ray and Carly Pearce

Ray does eventually get to ask, officially, and Pearce accepts, again. He slips the ring on her hand, and for the next few minutes, they hug, kiss, laugh and cry.

And then it dawns on Pearce to take a better look at the ring. “And it was just like, oh … my … God,” she says now. “It just exceeded anything that I ever thought I could want.”

“Oh yeah, she’s freaking out over the ring,” Ray recalls, grinning.

As for the rest of the evening: Pearce phoned her parents to join them for toasts and photos. Then the newly engaged couple took their seats for an intimate dinner, and as the mariachis played and the wine was poured, Pearce did what any modern bride-to-be would do: she called, texted and FaceTimed friends with the news.

Ray just sat back and watched, delighted that everything had gone exactly as he’d planned. “Yeah, I was just happy,” he says. “It was perfect. It went over bigger and better than I even had in mind, and I had high expectations in my mind.”

Michael Ray and Carly Pearce

Pearce says she was surprised by every aspect of the proposal except one: the fact that Ray would go to so much effort to create the moment. “There are so many different levels of how he shows me that he loves me,” she says. “So it wasn’t shocking that he would do this. But I don’t know how much more special you can feel after this.”

Pearce and Ray are now looking toward the future — to a wedding and a marriage and maybe even a celebrity nickname (“Carmichael,” anyone?) — but they’re also still basking in the joy they created in Tulum.

“It’s real,” Pearce says of their engagement. “He asked me to marry him. He gave me this,” she says, flashing her ring. “And yes, it’s beautiful — and it’s huge,” she says with a giddy giggle, “but for me, I feel like I’m wearing his heart on my hand.”

For more from Carly Pearce and Michael Ray on their exciting engagement, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.