Rachael and John's friendship started in fall 2008, during their first year of nursing school at Thomas Jefferson University.
They often studied in the same group, and sometimes drank coffee or beers on their own after class. Rachael felt as comfortable around John as she did her girlfriends. She could tell him anything.
Both were unavailable then.
Their second year, John and Rachael were assigned to some of the same clinical groups - about 10 students assigned to work with professionals and patients in pediatrics, psychiatric and other nursing disciplines.
"There were small instances when we were in clinical together, that just seeing him and his passion for nursing and taking care of people gave me an inclination that I might have some feelings for him," Rachael said. But she was newly out of a relationship, and these tiny little twinges were easily ignored. "I was guilty of putting him in that 'friend zone,' " she said.
John, who was single before Rachael was, had already developed some more-than-friends feelings for Rachael by October 2009, when he invited her to a buddy's birthday celebration.
Rachael expected the usual crowd, but she knew only John. She liked the way he laughed with his friends. She liked the way he looked wearing something other than scrubs. And she was having a very good time.
At the end of the night at Moriarty's Pub, John walked Rachael to her car. As they crossed a street, he took her hand. "I was thinking that was pretty smooth," John said.
"I got butterflies," Rachael remembers. "I was all nervous, like when you're a teenager. I wanted him to kiss me."
John played it cool with a kiss on the cheek.
Now 26, John was raised mostly in Philadelphia's Oxford Circle neighborhood, but was living near Jefferson in Center City. Rachael, now 25, lived in Croydon, Bucks County - her hometown. This frequently meant catching the 5:30 a.m. inbound train.
Shortly after that kiss on the cheek, John, Rachael and their study group hit the books late into the evening for an important early-morning exam.
"Why don't you just sleep on my couch so you don't have to take the train home at night, and won't have to get up as early to get here in the morning?" John suggested.
Rachael accepted the invitation. "He was a perfect gentleman," she said. "So I kissed him."
Rachael's belongings began filling a drawer in John's house. Then he made space in the closet. Within six months, John asked Rachael to exchange her commute for a key.
After their graduation in June 2010, both got full-time nursing jobs at Hahnemann University Hospital, and also resumed full-time studies at Jefferson, where they earned their bachelor's degrees.
Near Valentine's Day 2011, the couple got life-changing news: They were having a baby.
"It was definitely a surprise for both of us," Rachael said. "But we had great jobs and a loving, happy relationship. We were excited."
"We don't know what it's like to not be busy," said John.
With parenthood approaching, the couple bought a house close to a set of grandparents-to-be. They moved into their Bensalem home in June 2011. Son Leighton was born that October.
How does forever sound?
Since nurses routinely work holidays and weekends, Rachael, who now works at St. Mary Medical Center's neurotrauma intensive care unit, was surprised by how unhappy John was that she was scheduled on Valentine's Day 2012.
John said he was taking off from his job at Hahnemann's cardiac intensive care unit the following Friday, and asked her to do the same, for a just-the-three of them family day at a nearby state park.
He said he would carve their initials in a tree.
At the park, John drove past the entrance. "I'm following GPS," he fibbed, turning down a gravel road.
They put Leighton in his stroller, and walked through a covered bridge.
"What do you think of that tree?" John asked, pointing to a tall, skinny one. "Eh," Rachael said.
"Never mind," John said. "Someone has already carved on it."
She looked closer and saw the words: Rachael, will you marry me?
"I wanted an area we could go back to, not just a moment, but a place we could go back to whenever we wanted," he said.
It was so them
The couple's wedding was styled around two of their favorite things: The city where they fell in love, and everything vintage.
The bride and her father were chauffeured to the outdoor aisle at Cairnwood Estate in a friend's 1915 Chalmers.
Rachael made her bouquet from handmade fabric flowers, old brooches, and lace. She used feathers and watch gears to craft boutonnieres.
Journeys of the Heart's Bob Pileggi had officiated Leighton's baby blessing at the couple's home, and John and Rachael were so pleased they asked him to tailor a wedding ceremony for the family's next step. "He really got to know us," Rachael said.
Since the couple already shared a house and had a son, Rachael wasn't expecting the wedding to change much. But as the car drove her to the aisle where John waited, she was overcome with the realization that they were taking a huge, important step. "I thought everything would be exactly the same, but it's even better," she said.
John can still see the moment Rachael stepped out of that car. "Up until then, it was pictures, and deciding how everyone was standing, and chaos," he said. "At that point, everything slowed down. That's when it was real."
A bargain: The lighting. The couple booked at the last minute, and spent $400 instead of $1,400.
The splurge: The photo booth. The company made an album of all the pictures, and also gave the couple digital copies and all the rights. "It was worth every penny," Rachael said.
Seven days in Riviera Maya-Cancun, Mexico.
Behind the Scenes
Bob Pileggi of Journeys of the Heart, Jenkintown
Cairnwood Estate, Bryn Athyn
Robert Fair Caterers, Exton
Music & Lighting
Synergetic Sound & Lighting, Bensalem
Michael's Photography, Bensalem
Designed by Justin Alexander, purchased at Sposabella Bridal, Feasterville
Fashionable Flower Boutique, Bensalem
DIY kit from Michael's
Photobooth Events, www.photoboothevents.net
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