Joe started Valentine's Day 2009 with a young coworker's funeral.
The sadness of that loss made the holiday of hearts even worse than then-single Joe anticipated. But he and some close friends had a plan to get through it: a Boston pub-crawl.
"Everyone else was out on dinner dates and had love, and we were just going to go out and have a good time," he said.
His pal DJ arrived at Joe's apartment with two women he'd never met, but had heard about: DJ's "hot cousins from New Jersey."
That would be Jessica and her sister Jill, who then both lived at their parents' South Jersey home.
"I'm from Burlington," Jessica told Joe, who then waxed poetic on Stewart's Root Beer. "How do you know about that?" Jessica asked. "I was born and raised in Bensalem," Joe said - just across the Burlington-Bristol Bridge.
Jessica, now 30, was then working at Providence House Domestic Violence Services while earning her master's degree in social work from Rutgers. Joe, now 32, was a civilian doing endocrine system research for the U.S. Army.
They sat next to each other at dinner. "Pictures from that night . . . show me sitting a little too close," Jessica said, laughing.
Not too close for Joe. Her looks had drawn him in. Their conversation was awesome. And when he saw her making pictures on a piece of paper with ketchup, "I thought, she's down-to-earth, not snotty. Definitely a cool, cool chick."
Joe is both handsome and a good dresser, Jessica said. It was his open spirit that made her lean closer. "He was genuine, and his friends clearly loved him."
At about 3 a.m., some from the group went back to Joe's. After ordering in Chinese food, no one felt like driving anywhere. Joe offered Jessica a pair of his flannel pajamas, and a kiss or two.
"The next morning, we all had breakfast together. And then . . . I had to go back to New Jersey," she said.
"I hope to see you again at some point," Joe told her.
There had been talk of a group reunion for St. Patrick's Day and Jessica made it her mission to get there.
She and Joe held hands at the parade, then Jessica fell asleep on his shoulder while others watched Spaceballs.
Halfway to DJ's house, Jessica realized she'd lost an earing during her nap. She retrieved it, and kissed Joe goodbye.
They established Friday-night phone conversations. In mid-May, when Joe came to Pennsylvania for a family wedding, they went on their first official date, to Dave & Busters.
From then on, Joe and Jessica took trains, planes, cars, and Bolt buses to steal time together in one state or another.
That August, Joe moved to Greenville, N.C., to work on his Ph.D. in bioenergetics and exercise science at East Carolina University. A few days after arriving, he drove three hours to the Outer Banks to see Jessica and her family, who vacation there every summer.
They spent Columbus Day weekend at a cabin in Maine, and time with both families that Thanksgiving. "That took it up a notch," Jessica said.
In early September 2012, Joe and Jessica, who is now clinical team leader for the Children's Home of Mount Holly, met up again at the Outer Banks.
Researcher Joe made spreadsheets of sunrise and sunset times at different spots. One evening before he and Jessica drove to one of them, he stuck a small box in the pocket of his cargo shorts. The sky cooperated beautifully, but the sun show attracted many. Joe wanted a more private moment. The box stayed in his pocket.
"OK, now we saw the sunset," he told Jessica. "We have to see the sunrise."
He was nervous the next morning, as the couple walked along the beach. Joe managed to say: "The way I feel about you, I can see us spending the rest of our lives together." He got down on one knee, and asked her to marry him.
"It was perfect," Jessica said.
Jessica's family friend Pamela Moore, a minister at Corinth Baptist Church in Ewing, N.J., married the couple at Windows on the Water at Frogbridge. "A spiritual blessing from someone who watched me go through different things in life" was very meaningful, Jessica said.
The couple kept the vows they wrote a secret until the wedding. Each told the other the work it took to maintain their long-distance relationship solidified their love.
Their 140 guests sat at tables named for airports, train stations, or bus stations in Philadelphia, Boston, Trenton, Greenville, and elsewhere. "It was everything we used to get to each other while we were dating," Jessica said.
Their first dance was to Ray Charles' "Come Live With Me." After the wedding, Joe did, moving to Jessica's Easthampton, N.J., home. He travels to North Carolina as needed.
After the ceremony, the newlyweds took a 10-minute walk, alone. The stroll ended at a picnic table, where they enjoyed their peachy Tipsy Traveler signature cocktail, a plate of appetizers, and some privacy.
"We were just in disbelief. Did that just happen? Yes it did," Joe said. "The ability to let that sink in while we inspected each other's wedding bands was a really great moment."
"Just being able to hold him and kiss him" was amazing, Jessica said.
A bargain: Jessica - who is also a Zumba instructor - won about $500 worth of extra lighting, video screens and other DJ package fanciness in a bridal-show dance contest.
The splurge: Hiring a videographer so their future children can watch the wedding.
Two nights in the Poconos. A trip to the Caribbean will happen when life slows down. Jessica has put her house on the market, and Joe defends his dissertation in January. He's applied for jobs around Raleigh, Boston, and Philadelphia. Where they live isn't that important, Jessica said. "It's nice to finally see the person you love every day."