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Michael Bartley and Alexis Lukaitis always planned to get married.
They met as neighbors in Gloucester Township, N.J., just outside Philadelphia, and dated for more than a decade, though he was five years older.
The two were together long enough that Lukaitis' father, Joseph, considered Bartley part of the family.
"We've been together longer than most people," Bartley said Friday.
In 2005, the couple decided to get out of New Jersey and start a new life. They chose Bluffton because Bartley's parents, who declined to comment for this story, had moved there about a year earlier.
When Lukaitis became pregnant with twin boys in 2008, the couple abandoned immediate thoughts of wedding cake and bridal gowns for baby formula and diapers.
"Everything happened so fast," Bartley, 32, said. "We'd always planned it, but when can you take the time to get that stuff going?"
That's a question that will never be answered now.
Sometime between Sunday night and Monday morning, Bartley lost his fiancé.
And twins Evan and Scott lost their mom.
Alexis Lukaitis, 27 was found stabbed to death early Monday on a rural road in Charleston County.
Darold Lavar Drayton, 32, of Bluffton, a convicted sex offender and one-time friend of the family, has been charged with her murder.
Bartley said Lukaitis knew Drayton well.
He was a neighbor of theirs for about a year in the Lakes at Myrtle Park community.
Drayton, Lukaitis and another neighbor, Shannon Hooper, spent time together while Bartley watched the kids.
"It was a circle of friends," he said. "I would hear them talking and laughing, then she'd come home."
Bartley says his relationship with Drayton was more removed, limited mostly to small talk when they passed in the community. Bartley said he once bought Drayton a car battery.
But there was much neither Bartley or Lukaitis knew about their former neighbor, Bartley said.
They were unaware of his three armed robbery convictions.
They didn't know he had multiple drug convictions dating to 1997.
And they were unaware he was required to register as a sex offender because of a 2005 conviction for committing a lewd act upon a minor.
On the last evening of her life, Lukaitis said she was not feeling well, according to Bartley. She told him she wanted to get some rest.
Bartley headed to his parents' house with the boys.
Later that evening, Lukaitis called from the road to say she giving Drayton a ride to Charleston, where he planned to pick up prescription pills, Bartley said, adding he did not know what prescription the pills were for.
While Bartley said he was a little uneasy, giving friends a ride is what Lukaitis sometimes did.
She was one of the few people in the couple's circle of friends who had a car, and they often asked her for a lift.
"She was naive in a lot of things," Bartleysaid. "She had a problem saying 'no.' If she was down to her last $10, she'd give it to you if you asked."
As the night wore on and Lukaitis did not return, Bartley grew concerned.
He called Lukaitis repeatedly until nearly 2 a.m.
Lukaitis never answered.
Bartley said he was able to reach Drayton sometime after 9 a.m. Monday morning.
He said Drayton told him that he hadn't seen Lukaitis, that she never picked him up for the trip to Charleston.
Bartley didn't believe him.
"She wouldn't have gone alone," he said.
Charleston County investigators had already located Lukaitis' body by the time Bartley reported her missing Monday morning, though she was not immediately identified.
Police summoned him to Charleston on Tuesday to help identify the body.
"You can't believe it," he said. "I couldn't say anything, I was so emotional."
Bartley wonders whether Drayton's trip may have been a ploy to get Lukaitis alone to assault her.
But that seems incomprehensible, he said, considering how well Drayton knew Lukaitis and the boys and how much they all meant to one another.
"He knew she loved the boys, that this would destroy us," he said. "That's the only thing I don't understand."
Joseph Lukaitis is equally baffled.
"I'd like to know," he said. "The anger sets in."
Drayton has told Hooper and police he had nothing to do with Lukaitis' death.
<strong>FOCUSING ON THE CHILDREN</strong>
Bartley said he has received overwhelming support from friends, family and the community.
"I didn't expect anything," he said. "I didn't think people would be trying to do so much."
The daycare center where Bartley plans to enroll Evan and Scott said the boys' first month there comes without a charge.
Bartley's sister, Susan Hudgins, is starting a fund for the boys at First Federal Bank in Bluffton.
For the next few weeks, Bartley and the boys plan to stay at his parents' house in Bluffton.
Living in his old apartment, he said, would be too painful.
"I can't go back there," he said. "It's just eerie. The memories, the pictures on the wall. ... I couldn't bring my kids in there. They'd just keep waiting for (Lukaitis) to come in."
Because they are so young -- the twins turn 2 next month -- and just beginning to talk, he hasn't told the boys anything.
Perhaps he doesn't have to.
It's been almost a week since they've seen their mother, and they can tell something is wrong, Bartley said.
Bartley said he usually visits his parents on the weekends, so their lengthy, unplanned stay has raised the boys' radar.
They are now their father's focus.
"I'm just going to jump into the kids, whatever they need," he said. "Keep them smiling, keep them moving."
The story of what happened to their mother can wait.