A week after Stephanie arrived in Prague for a study-abroad program, her Italian roommate Valeria suggested they host a dinner party. Using two hot plates, Valeria and another Italian student created a feast that brought a dozen students to their dorm room. One of them was Nicholas.
"It was friendship at first sight," said Stephanie, who grew up in Lindenwold and was studying professional sales at William Patterson University. She and Nicholas, a Louisville, Ky., native and economics and international-studies major at Bradley University, talked much of the night about food and travel. They soon were eating and traveling together. They visited Stephanie's best friend, Megan, who was studying in Seville. "We bopped all around the Czech Republic," said Nicholas, "and we became best friends."
The semester ended, and Nicholas returned to his parents' home in the Chicago suburbs. The same spring day Stephanie visited him there, he received his Peace Corps assignment and soon left for rural Zambia.
Stephanie took a job in advertising sales with Wayne Scott Media, and she and Megan got an apartment in West Orange, N.J. Nicholas didn't always have access to power or the Internet, but when he did, he sent email updates to Stephanie and other friends. "We were pen pals," she said.
Nicholas helped farmers set up co-ops and receive organic certification, and he learned Cicewa. But a year into his work, an illness required Nicholas to return home. "I came home sulking, and not particularly healthy," he said. "Steph was the first person who called me." They spoke for two hours.
In April 2010, about nine months later, Nicholas visited Stephanie in West Orange for her birthday. They talked even more regularly after that.
In February 2011, he invited her to share in his birthday present from his dad: tickets to a Louisville Cardinals basketball game. A limo took them to the arena. They had fabulous seats. And somewhere between Nicholas' quoting of game stats and wild cheering, Stephanie realized he was a super-fan. Why, she wondered, did he invite a woman who knew so little about basketball?
"After her birthday, something definitely changed on my end," Nicholas said. "I didn't know if it was reciprocated."
In April 2012, he again paid Stephanie a birthday visit. By then, he was living in Dayton, Ohio, earning a graduate degree in public health and social work from Rice State.
Stephanie was thrilled he was coming. She talked about it a lot. "Oh my God!" said her friend Jacquelyn. "Are you in love with Nicholas?"
"No!" Stephanie said. "He's one of my favorite people in the world, and I love seeing him and talking to him."
"Stephanie," Jac said, "I think you love him."
"I DO NOT LOVE HIM!" Stephanie insisted.
But later that day, she had a realization: "I totally do. I totally love him. And now I have to tell him."
At the end of their weekend, Stephanie told Nicholas: "I really don't want you to leave right now."
"I do have to go back to work," he said, but he understood exactly what she meant, and he didn't want to leave, either. During later phone calls, they discussed the logistics of their feelings. Since his ties to Ohio were soon ending, Nicholas said he'd move to New Jersey.
In the meantime, they saw each other as much as possible. In September, both were guests at a Chicago wedding, and "I love yous" were exchanged.
A few weeks later, Nicholas moved to West Orange. A job search led Nicholas to the Philadelphia Corporation for Aging, where he's a service coordinator, and Stephanie to Contemporary Staffing Solutions, where she's a business- development manager. The couple moved in September 2013 to Queen Village.
How does forever sound?
In July 2014, Nicholas, now 31, suggested they take Bella, their Yorkie/Jack Russell mix, for a walk to one of their favorite spots in the city, Race Street Pier. When Stephanie, now 28, went to change into walking attire, Nicholas put the ring box in his pocket.
"You know what?" Stephanie said when she returned. "I don't really want to go for a walk. Why don't we just take her on a really quick walk, then get some beer and hang out here and listen to Hootie."
Nicholas tried to persuade her. Then, as there was no way that ring could stay in his pocket, he adjusted his plan.
They cooked a frozen pizza, put on the Blowfish, cracked open Golden Monkeys, and settled into a conversation about Stephanie's sister's coming wedding.
"What would you want in a wedding?" Nicholas asked.
"Let's just make it easy," Stephanie said. "In fact, I don't want you to worry about the cost of the ring. You don't have to save up for one."
"So, I don't have to spend any more money on the ring than I have already saved up?" Nicholas asked.
"You know, I don't know that I even need a ring," she said.
"Well," Nicholas said, "if I don't have to save up anymore, and I don't need to go out and buy a ring, why don't we just do this?" he said. Reaching into his pocket, he showed her the ring. "Do you want to marry me?"
It was so them
The couple hoped to wed on Race Street Pier, but Hurricane Joaquin prevented it. The ceremony was instead held at their reception site just across Delaware Avenue in the FringeArts building. The couple used a self-uniting wedding certificate to marry, but their friend Megan led them through the ceremony, held on stage.
Stephanie promised Nicholas she'd always challenge him. Nicholas promised her he'd wake up every day thrilled to be on the journey with her, whether they were hiking Machu Picchu or walking Bella.
During the "repeat after me" part of their vows, Stephanie said, "I do," a verse too early. "I love him so much. I could not have been more excited," she said, "and I could not wait."
The rings they exchanged were made with ethically sourced metals and stones, including some that were part of a family-heirloom pendant Nicholas' mom gave the couple.
Their reception at La Peg - the FringeArts' on-site restaurant - featured a live band and many, many hors d'oeurves, served cocktail-style. "People would have two or three bites of food," Stephanie said, "and then go back to dancing."
During the reception, Nicholas whisked Stephanie to the second floor, where they looked out over all of their guests enjoying themselves. "I just want to thank you for everything, how well you put everything together. You did such a good job," he told her. She was so happy to know he appreciated her work and the results. Nicholas enjoyed being alone with his new wife for a few minutes, taking it all in.
A bargain: The Bachelor Boys Band was terrific and cost about half of what the couple expected, based on their research.
The splurge: They originally budgeted $500 for a college student to take the photos. Then they saw the work of Tessa Marie Images. "It was still a steal," Stephanie said, "but quite a bit more than the college kid."
The getaway: Three weeks in Peru.
Love: BEHIND THE SCENES
Officiant: Megan Haran, best friend of the bride.
Venue: La Peg, Philadelphia.
Catering: La Peg brasserie.
Photo: Tessa Marie Images, Philadelphia.
Flowers: Sunrise Florist, Blackwood.
Dress: David's Bridal, Maple Shade.
Music: Bachelor Boys Band, New York.
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