Isn't It Romantic? Contest

 

February 15th, 2008:

Since 1998 we've run a contest for the most romantic personal story to coincide with Valentine's Day. It might be quietly sweet, bittersweet, funny, or as gooey as marshmallow fluff. Those who enter are never embarrassed about sharing their stories, or worry that their own isn't "good" enough - they always are.

Today we announce the winner in this year's In't It Romantic? Contest. The winning entry will receive a $30 gift certificate from Amazon. Each year it gets harder and harder to pick a winning entry from among all those submitted. Congratulations, Nicole Doran, on winning this year, and thank you for sharing your story with us! And to all of you who submitted entries, thank you as well; reading your entries left me hopeful and happy. Please consider resubmitting them again next year...there were several "almost wons" in the group.

This year's winning story | My own story | Earlier years' winning stories, beginning in 1998

Nicole Doran's winning story for 2008:

It was March of 2001. A good friend of mine, also single, was an active member of his local Knights of Columbus. Mike needed a date for an annual formal shindig, and given that he didn’t have a current girlfriend, I seemed to be the regular fill-in date for his frequent and numerous affairs. So, I got myself all decked out, and we headed off to the affair. Since Mike was one of the “Grand Poobahs”, as I called them, he was off to work the room and mingle. I sat at our assigned table, not knowing a soul, quietly sipping my Merlot and half listening to an older gentlemen seated next to me describe his latest bout with brain surgery. Could the night get any worse? I had always been a “champ”, when it came to Mike and these engagements, but this night was severely grating on my nerve endings. Then, I looked across my table to a guy perched up against the wall, sipping a beer, and chatting with other guys in a group. He was wearing a tuxedo, nicely cut to enhance his in-shape physic, laughing out loud at some comment made from the group, when he looked straight at me. He had the most incredible sky-blue eyes I’ve ever encountered. My heart did a little flip. I couldn’t help but stare back, for what seemed at the time an eternity, but in all reality was probably just a few seconds. I blinked and smiled back weakly. I quickly glanced away, fumbling for my wine glass and hoping my face wasn’t flaming red. I’m always embarrassed about how easily I blush. No amount of Max Factor foundation could hide the red blotch slowly creeping up my neck and face. I finally chanced another sideways glance his way, and sure enough, our eyes met again. When I looked up again, he had suddenly appeared at my table. He turned an empty chair backwards and sat down. I thought that was a bit of a casual way to sit, considering he was in a fancy tux.

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He introduced himself as Joe, and asked if I was enjoying my conversation with the elder gentleman next to me. Who, by the way, had just vacated the seat for his umpteenth trip to the men’s room, something he insisted on informing me. I chuckled at this and introduced myself as well. Up close, those blue eyes, slightly crinkled at the edges from a lifetime of smiling, were stunning. Then, he asked me to dance, something I love to do. We fit together well. He was just the right height for my 5 feet 2 inch petite frame. During the course of our conversation that evening he mentioned that he was divorced and had a daughter who was 19. I commented on how he must have been a young dad, to which he agreed. I’d never thought of being interested in someone with a child before. My recent dating experiences had been with single men in their 30’s, never-been- married, corporate-types. We exchanged telephone numbers as the night came to an end, when Mike finally appeared back at the table. Naturally, he and Joe were friends, but I don’t remember if Joe had asked me if I was dating Mike or not. I really didn’t care at that point, I was just glad we had met..and hoped that he would call. This was a Saturday night.

The next night, Sunday night, Joe called and asked if I was free the following Tuesday night to attend a hockey game. He had tickets to see my all time favorite team, the New York Rangers. We met after work, had a great dinner and caught the game. All during that day, I was a nervous wreck. Was I dressed too corporate, not casual enough? Should I have dyed my hair, or could I get away with a few grays? My secretary – smarty pants that she was – kidded me all day and insisted we walk out together so she could get a look at “the man”. I hadn’t been this nervous about a date since my high school prom. Our evening was wonderful.

Joe and I continued to date, on a casual level, although quite frequently. All those one-time dates with the corporate-types took a definite back seat in my world. We rollerbladed in the park, went to the movies, I met his daughter and family. Things were progressing nicely, although being through divorces; we were both a bit gun shy on taking another leap. The spring and summer made for lots of fun.

Then, Sept 11th 2001 happened.

Joe worked in the heart of the financial district in New York City. In fact, his building was badly damaged during the attacks. I too worked near the financial district of NYC, only directly across the river. My office faced the World Trade Center. A magnificent view I had basked in each day from my cubicle. Needless to say, that day was a terrifying and disastrous one. Joe made it out of Ground Zero, with the grace of God, and found his way to me in New Jersey. We had lost cell phone contact hours before, just after the attacks, and I literally feared the worst. It took us almost 24 hours to be able to get anywhere near an open bridge in order to return home safely.

I guess when you almost lose someone you are beginning to have a deep connection to, and to witness a catastrophe in your backyard, your priorities change. I know my outlook on the future went through a profound metamorphosis because of that fateful day.

I asked Joe to move in with me the following month. We packed up his stuff, the cats learned to accept another male in the house, and we progressed, quite happily. However, the devastation and aftermath of that 9/11 still lingered, every day. We commuted to work together. He was now set up in a makeshift office just down the street from my office building.

Our home life was wonderful. Joe turned out to be one of the most thoughtful men I’d ever met. He helped with the grocery shopping, chores and laundry; even hanging up my delicates instead of putting them in the dryer. This was a major big score for him for that effort. Coming home to see my $40 Victoria’s Secret panties and bra nicely hung up on a hanger…heaven. Unfortunately, my job lent itself to many nights of working late. Since I was a vegetarian at the time, Joe learned to cook and eat tofu (not sure if he liked it), and a slew of other vegetarian delights, he had ready for me when I got home.

The Holidays came and went. We cooked, we entertained, we laughed, and we picked out a tree together. The normal stuff couples do. I started to fall in love with him. That realization hit me hard. My heart and head were still a bit damaged from my ex. Was I ready to commit again? I did know, that if and when I was ready, I wanted it all, marriage, children; the whole shebang. Was Joe ready to have another family, to start over? He had raised his daughter, to be a wonderful, smart well- rounded woman. He liked his golfing trips and we enjoyed our time doing our own interests as well as being together. Sure, our life together as a DINK – double income no kids – couple was great. We came and went as we pleased, took trips, went to dinner. Was our relationship ready for the next level? Could I ask him to do it all over again?

It was now April of 2002 – and low and behold we were to attend the annual Knights of Columbus formal shindig. This year, Mike had to find his own date. As a matter of fact, the night was to honor Joe, and his previous service as a “Grand Poobah”. We got all decked out. He in that tux of his, the one that had done me in a year prior. All of his family was in attendance to honor his night. As he went up to the podium to recite his acceptance speech, he insisted that I stay up front too. At the time, I didn’t think much of his request, except to figure he wanted me to take some candid photos up close. As the first course of the meal went by, I began to get hungry. Hey, a full day of primping and buffing and hairdos had left me famished.

I was so proud of him that night. His sky-blue eyes shimmered with emotion, as he thanked everyone who had been instrumental in his success, both friends and family. Then I heard my name. He mentioned how we had met, at this very affair one year earlier, and how he had never been so happy. He also said how living through September 11th had profoundly changed him, and what he wanted out of life. I was slightly embarrassed at the mention, and sure enough, the dreaded blush started to creep onto my perfect makeup application.

Joe, in a clear voice coming through the microphone, sky-blue eyes directed right at me, started to recite this poem:

You made me realize what love really is.
You changed my life on a night such as this.
I’ve fallen in love with you.
You continue to make my dreams come true.
No matter where life might take me now.
I could never imagine a day without you in it somehow.
I want you to know, I’ve committed to be by your side day after day.
I’ll be there when you’re happy, or sad, every step of the way.
I look forward to the memories we will make and the destinies we shall take.

Then - he asked me to marry him!

Right there, in front to 150 guests at this lavish dinner, in this lavish catering hall. I could hear forks drop and gasped exclamations from the people eating dinner behind me. The, Joe went down on one knee, looked up at me with his clear wonderful sky-blue eyes, and waited for my answer.

Six years later, we are happily married. We are also the proud parents of an ever-active four-year old little boy, who is the spitting image of his father, piercing sky-blue eyes and all, and we are expecting another little boy at the end of May 2008. And, he still hangs up my delicates. <g>

Post about this year's winning entry on our Potpourri Forum

My own story: (LLB)

I originated this contest back in 1998 because I had a very special and romantic story I wanted to share with readers. Sure that many others had wonderful stories, I began the contest that year. To help inspire you to enter yourself, I've gathered all the winning entries and, following a repeat of my own special story, you can read them all here.

In May of 1991, we were desperate. I'd recently had a miscarriage; my latest promotion was one I now refer to as "the one that did me in." I was convinced that job was the reason behind my losing that first baby, and so, after having achieved my career goal of being a division manager by the age of 30 (I beat it by a year), I decided that I was going to quit my job. I'm sure watching Michael on Thirty Something going through similar career woes had something to do with it - was it a coincidence that the day after he quit his high-power job I gave my own notice?

In any case, we were going to devote ourselves to making a baby. I was doing the temperature, the mucus (don't ask!), the ovulation kits. So, when I woke up that Thursday morning, I turned into a chemistry professor yet again (the ovulation kits back in 1991 involved a lot of mixing and measuring) and did the morning pee thing. Today was the day! Problem was, my husband was not in the bed next to me. He had started traveling to Richmond, Virginia five days a week a couple of weeks earlier. That's where he was now - more than a thousand miles away.

I called him on the phone and said, "Today's the day - what are we going to do?" He said, "Get yourself out here - fly first class - let's do it up right." I called the airline and arranged a round trip - I had to be back the next day; it was my going-away party at work and it wouldn't do for me to miss my own party. The round trip would be tight - just a three hour, and this gives new meaning to the word "layover." I stuffed a negligee into my purse and headed for the airport.

My husband met me at the plane and told me there wouldn't be enough time to take us back to his hotel in town because by the time we got there, it would be time to go back to the airport. Then he told me there was a huge convention in town and rooms were next to impossible to find. He had managed to find a room, though - at a seedy hotel not too far from the airport. What the desk clerk thought when my husband returned the key and checked out two hours after checking in is anyone's guess!

My husband delivered me to the airport later that afternoon, and when I boarded the plane, I was greeted by the very same flight attendant that had flown me out to Richmond. She looked at me and asked, "Didn't you fly here just a few hours ago?" When I said I had, she asked, "Was there some sort of emergency? Is everything okay?" I'm sure I had a wicked grin on my face when I told her everything was fine.

I found out I was carrying Rachael two weeks later, and when my husband came home from Virginia that weekend, he had with him a nightshirt from the airport shop - it had a huge heart on the front and said Virginia is for Lovers - it's hanging in a special spot in my closet, never to be worn. A tiny match for that shirt hangs in our own daughter's closet.

Btw, I also had a "goal" for having a baby by the age of 30 - Rachael was born three months before I turned 31.

Our winning story for 1998, as told by Holly Garemore:

In December of 1969, the Vietnam War was raging on. I was 16, almost 17, a junior in high school. Our local paper printed the APO addresses of servicemen that were from our area, so that people could send Christmas cards to the poor guys spending Christmas in such a horrible place. I looked at the list of names, decided I liked the name Ralph, and sent a Christmas card to him. He wrote back - turned out he lived about 8 miles from me, was 20 years old, in the Sea Bees (construction branch of the Navy) and was spending the first Christmas away from his family.

His handwriting and spelling were terrible, so he asked if I'd like to exchange cassette tapes with him, instead of letters. All that winter and spring we sent tapes back and forth - often in his you could hear planes and missiles in the background. I would play the tapes for my family - since we hadn't met, they weren't terribly personal, and my mom, dad and brothers would add messages to Ralph. In late spring he got the news that he'd be home in early summer, and we exchanged pictures and made plans for him to call me when he got home.

The end of June, Ralph finally got home, and contacted me and made plans to come to my house. I'd just finished my junior year of high school. I was a nervous wreck about meeting him, even though we'd been taping for six months. He greeted me with a big grin and a hug, and sat talking in my mom's kitchen with us all afternoon, and invited me to the movies that night.

We never looked back after that, and we celebrated our 25th anniversary last May. We got married almost 2 years after he returned home from Vietnam.

Our winning story for 1999, as told by Darlene and Dave Krogol:

Darlene's side of the story: In December of 1981, I was a junior at a local college in Michigan. At 21, I was very shy and hadn't dated much. I was longing for a "relationship," but frankly didn't know how it was going to happen since I had never been spontaneously asked out - my few dates had originated as "fix-ups" by well-meaning friends.

One day, one of my classes had been cancelled at school and I had extra time to kill. I went to the local shopping center, which wasn't an unusual thing for me to do during free time. However, that was the only typical thing that happened that day!

At the mall, I went to the Little Professor Bookstore, something which I rarely did because it was tucked away in a distant corner. I stopped at the magazine rack up front which I had never done before. I picked up a Detroit Monthly magazine, something I never read. I flipped through it and started studying the classified ads at the back, something which to this day I rarely ever do. I saw this obscure little ad offering a complimentary issue of Find-A-Friend "personals" magazine if you called a toll-free number. I bought the Detroit Monthly magazine, intrigued by that little ad. For the rest of that day and all the next, the idea of that Find-A-Friend magazine haunted me. Finally, I pulled over to a telephone booth and requested that the free issue be sent to me, care of the part-time job where I worked.

The issue I received was the first where they had offered the inclusion of photos for an extra fee. This, I felt, was my answer. I could write up a little description of myself and my interests, and the photo would show prospective "boyfriends" in advance that I wasn't some tiny petite thing. I signed up for a 3-month subscription, January/February/March. I sent off my bio and picture with crossed fingers and a hopeful heart. Over the next few months, I surprisingly received several responses, and met a few of the men for lunch at a restaurant near my work. I did date a couple of the guys more than once, but overall I felt every encounter was more of a "fizzle" rather than "sparks." I called the whole thing a bust and decided to chalk it all up to experience.

Until that mid-April afternoon when another letter came straggling into my office. Exasperated, I ripped open the envelope and read this sweet letter and saw this sweet picture. But I was mad; darn it, I had put the whole thing behind me. Ticked off, I started to throw away the letter - but instead, shoved the letter deep into my desk drawer. Maybe as a reminder of my whole foolish experiment.

Life went on over the next few weeks, until that last frustrating Saturday date with that man I had met early on. The next day, Sunday, May 16, I dragged out that last letter (that I had somehow transferred from my desk drawer to my purse) and made a call that changed my life.

Dave's side of the story (as told to Darlene): Dave was 29 and his divorce had just been finalized a year ago. He had rented out his small house, and was living back at home with his dad to save money. A shy guy to begin with, his ex's unfaithfulness had weakened his self-confidence even more and he was uncertain as to how to start dating again.

In early April, he stopped at his favorite restaurant for breakfast and sat at the counter, which wasn't an unusual thing for him to do in the morning after working the midnight shift. However, that was the only typical thing that happened that day. . . .

He struck up a conversation with the man sitting next to him, something he was usually too reticent to do. The other customer, Don, started talking about women and dating with Dave, and told him about this "personals" magazine he received, Find-A-Friend. He offered to meet Dave that evening and bring some copies of it with him for Dave to see.

Don brought two issues with him that evening, March and April's. Out of all the ads and pictures, only one in the March magazine appealed to Dave. It took him a while to find the right words to say and a decent picture to send. He sent it off with fingers crossed and a hopeful heart. . . .

Over the next several weeks, he occasionally socialized with Don. His new friend said that he had talked with the owner of the magazine and had learned that the woman in that picture had received lots of letters, that maybe Dave shouldn't get his hopes up. As the days wore on, he realized that it was unlikely the woman in the ad was going to respond. Heck, it was spring and her ad had only run through the winter and she was probably involved with someone she had met early on.

On Sunday, May 16, the last day of his vacation, Dave decided he was going to write his own ad. He got out pen and paper, and then the phone rang. . . .

I never did call it love at first sight, but from the moment I saw him unfold his tall, lanky body out of the old beat-up Maverick in that Big Boy restaurant parking lot, I knew I was "in trouble!" We spent hours talking, something unusual for us two shy people to do. The money he was going to spend on his own ad took us on our date later that evening.

About a week later, he called it love; three weeks later I did, too. We've been together ever since that first sunny May afternoon.

He saw Don only once or twice more before he faded from sight. We call him our "Cupid."

Big Boy restaurant has continued to play a prominent role on important occasions in our life together. I was proposed to in a Big Boy restaurant & found out that I was pregnant with our first child from a Big Boy pay phone call to my doctor. Years later, I was trying to get my courage up one evening to tell my husband about my dream to open a bookstore; without knowing any of my inner turmoil of how to broach a subject he was unaware of, he suggested we go out to dinner. Where? You guessed it - Big Boy. From that moment, I knew the bookstore was going to happen! Fifteen years of marriage, 2 children, and a dream-come-true-bookstore later, I still know I'm "in trouble!"

Our winning story for 2000, as told by Larry Quave:

In July of 1975 I was a 28-year-old, recently discharged Marine captain and Vietnam veteran attending my senior year on the GI Bill at the University of West Florida in Pensacola, Florida. About to leave my father's house at the end of the July 4th weekend to return to my apartment in Fort Walton Beach, 60 miles away where I was living temporarily while I finished the last two months of a six-month long cooperative education assignment at Eglin Air Force Base, Dad asked me when I thought I might return. When I asked him "Why?" after telling him "Not soon," he said, "Well, I just thought if you were gonna be back in town on the 19th, you might want to attend Mary's daughter's wedding with your brother and I." (Mary was the divorcee my divorced father was going with at the time.) "Her sister's gonna be there too," he continued, "along with a young woman she thought you might like to meet. It's up to you."

And to that - still recovering from being dumped by yet another young woman a year earlier - I promptly replied, "Why didn't you say so! Of course I'll be back."

Two weeks later, as the wedding reception came to a close and I still had not found the young woman who, in all the hustle and bustle, I had not been introduced to and only knew of by her first name, after having no success with the bridesmaids and every other young woman who wasn't wearing a wedding ring, I ventured into the kitchen, found another pretty young woman cleaning punch bowls and cups and asked her if she was Kathy. Hearing the word "yes" and receiving a pretty smile as I tried unsuccessfully to come up with something cool to say, I volunteered to give her a hand, eventually got around to complementing her on her pretty dress, and asked her to go dancing with me at a not too distant motel lounge that had a respectable live band. Receiving another sweet smile and another affirmative answer, we finished our chore and continued on to the lounge.

At the end of our most pleasant date three hours later, wanting to see more of my shapely new friend, I asked her to go to the beach with me the next day. Having no intention of easily giving up when she told me she couldn't because she had to teach Sunday school, I asked her to attend, instead, the dinner party my father would be hosting for Mary, the new bride and groom, and other guests that - as it turned out - we both knew in common. My previously broken heart making great strides toward mending as we exchanged a polite but warm kiss after Kathy agreed to see me again, I returned to my father's house anticipating the next day as if it were Christmas.

When dinner was over on Sunday, with both of us wanting some privacy to get to know each other better, I asked Kathy to ride out to the beach with me - this time not to swim, but just to talk. At midnight, twelve hours into our second date, after having done little more than hold hands as we talked about everything under the sun, we melted into each other's arms to share our first passionate kiss. And that's when a slim hand raking through my mane of thick brown hair found its way beneath my hairpiece and brought our making-out to an immediate halt!

As if she had done something wrong, Kathy apologized profusely for my immense embarrassment, but I would not accept it. All I wanted to do was disappear out of the life of the young woman I was already beginning to fall in love with, but Kathy would not allow it and made me promise, after giving me her telephone number, to call her.

A week later, after taking her flying over Pensacola, and a week after that, after fixing a candlelight dinner for her in my apartment (Yes, I am very much a romantic!), I again asked her to go the beach with me. This time, she accepted.

Anxious as before to see the gorgeous body of the beautiful woman I liked so much only a few days before I was to fly my brother and I to Miami to visit our mother, I found myself bewildered when she made no effort to disrobe from her jeans but only sat on our blanket and bade me go swimming while she watched. "I can't, Larry," she began to explain. "It's my burns. The sun blisters my scars."

"What scars?" I asked, having no idea what she was talking about.

"My legs. They were burned below my knees when I was two years old - in a hot water heater explosion. If I stay out in the sun very long without something over my legs, they sunburn real bad - even if I use sunscreen."

"As we came to the realization that we both had imperfect bodies that, all along, we had been concerned about revealing to the special someone we each hoped one day might become our 'significant other', Kathy made a most profound proposal: "Larry, when you return from Miami, if you'll let me see you without your hairpiece, I'll let you see my legs."

Not sure I could accept Kathy's burned legs - never having seen such burn scars before - I did not immediately tell her that it didn't matter, but - instead - thought about her all week long as I visited with my mother. Finally coming to the conclusion that she was everything I ever wanted in a wife, I found myself impatient to get home and see her again.

At the beach the same afternoon I returned from my trip, we nervously revealed our imperfections to each other, immediately found they were no obstacle to our love, and rolled into each other's arms to celebrate my - our - homecoming.

Just before Thanksgiving dinner a few months later, with she having accepted my sunset proposal on the shore of Pensacola Beach (I told you I was a romantic!), and with our families brought together especially for the occasion, we announced our plans to marry as soon as possible after my graduation from college in June, the year following.

On August 7, 1976 - 29 years old - I married my 20-year-old bride and, in time, made her the mother of our now 19 and 15 year old sons, Andrew and Allen. We've been together ever since - more in love today than at any time before.

Our winning story for 2001, as told by Karen Broml:

The year was 1942.

My Mom was engaged to a man, and her marriage bans were already announced in church. While working at the local theatre, collecting tickets, she was approached by a young man who introduced himself as "the man you're going to marry." Hee didn't mention to her that he, too, was already engaged to another lady. My mom thought he was just crazy and told him in a nice way to "get lost." He kept trying to explain that he had fallen in love with her by looking at her picture in another sailor's wallet.

This man didn't give up - no way! He used every wile to get her to agree to marry him. He'd show up at her house and honk the horn enough times that she just had to go outdoors just to make it quiet in the neighborhood! He called her and kept asking her out, with no success. One night, after much horn-blowing, she came out in her slippers to get him to leave; she didn't know what it was about the handsome fellow, but she honestly felt "that something special" in her heart. Then he asked her to sit in the front seat of his car and pointed to the back seat to show her his suitcases. He told her he'd join the French Foreign Legion if she didn't agree to marry him - she didn't know the suitcases were empty. He also didn't tell her his best friend was knocked out on the back floor from excessive drinking. What a surprise when that fellow groaned and sat up! My mom opened the door and ran into her house saying "he's crazy, he's crazy"!

The next few weeks brought flower deliveries to her door, candy, and lots of phone calls pleading for her to go out with him. She finally agreed and at the end of their first date, she too knew he was her "destiny."

One evening a short time later, he proposed to her, taking off her ring from the other man and putting on the one he'd bought for her. He'd paid for the ring on his father's charge card! Even though the families on both sides tried talking them into staying engaged with their original choices, they broke it off with the others, went to see the priest, and made plans for their wedding. From that point on, they never set eyes on anyone other than each other.

They were happily married for over 40 years until my Dad's death 17 years ago!

P.S.: From the day my Dad first saw my Mom until the day they married, only six weeks had elapsed!

Sara Sproha's winning story for 2002:

My story brings us back to my college days. I had been seeing my, now husband, then boyfriend, since high school (we met when I was a senior and he was a freshman in college). It was my Junior year and I wanted to take a semester to go abroad and study. Jeff, my boyfriend of 3 years was not too happy with the idea, but knew it was important to me, so after much debate, off to Europe I went for 4 months.

The whole next part of the story took place unbeknownst to me. I was in Europe and talked to him about once a week, but had no idea whatsoever of what was happening at home. For weeks he hung out at the local bar with his friends until one night, missing me, he got an epiphany. A few nights later, Jeff (who likes my parents and spent a lot of time out our house while I was away) pulled my father aside and asked him his permission to marry me (yes this is 1992, not 1792). After my father picked his jaw up off of the floor, he told my hubby-to-be that that was fine with him, if it was fine with me, though he would prefer if we finished college before we got married. They then spent the next few weeks looking at rings and making plans.

I had arranged, before I left, that Jeff was going to meet up with me while I was in Vienna in April. I had a week off, and thought it would be great to spend with him. He, meanwhile, was plotting. He arranged to have us stay at a 5 star hotel and since I had been backpacking for the past 3 months, I thought that was a great idea. (Still clueless on the proposal thing.) I figured that Jeff was just trying to pamper me after 3 months of hard living in hostels, sharing bathrooms with 30 other people, rooms with 10 others, etc.

So, off flies this 21 year old to Vienna, and having never traveling abroad before, this was a little nerve wracking for him (traveling all alone). He meets me in Vienna and the first day he just tries to get over his jetlag. The second night, we had dinner at our hotel's 5 star restaurant (Now, you have to understand, this is not so very unusual for us. We went out for nice diners fairly regularly, so I am still clueless as to alternative motives). The dinner was wonderful, 5 courses, delicious Viennese deserts (we were in Vienna after all), champagne (my favorite drink), and time to catch up with each other. It was April, springtime, so after dinner we went for a walk outside in the newly blooming gardens. (Honestly, all I was missing was the strolling violins.) We sat on a park bench and he took my hand (also not unusual) and slipped a beautiful ring on my finger, proposing to me. I was floored to say the least. We had talked about getting married, but that was some nebulous time in the future. Never, in a million years, did I expect a proposal, in Vienna, in a garden, during my Junior semester. Of course I said yes, and we've been married almost 8 years now.

Roxanne Roxburry's winning story for 2003:

My fiancÚ and I have a favorite movie that we watch every time it's on HBO - Moulin Rouge. On the morning of the proposal it was like any other morning, where we sit by the fire, reading the paper and drinking coffee together.

About an hour into our morning I ran upstairs to get some laundry and I hear him yell up to me that Moulin Rouge was on. So, I ran downstairs sat in front of the TV and sang along to the musical as I always do. About a half-hour into the movie there is a part where Christian (Ewan McGregor) and Sateen (Nicole Kidman) are singing their love song called the "Elephant Love Song." But instead of seeing Ewan McGregor singing, I see my fiancÚ's face come up on screen - he is singing the song instead! He proposed to me from the movie Moulin Rouge! A beautiful song, a romantic speech and most of all an amazing proposal.

It seems that a week before he went to a television editor and had his face and voice edited into the movie. I was so surprised and shocked that I didn't say yes for 10 minutes. I find out later that he timed it just right, as I ran upstairs he popped in the videotape into the VCR, and all along I thought I was watching HBO. It was the most romantic, thoughtful thing he has ever done for me. The best part of this whole proposal, is I can watch this special moment for years and years to come.

Janet Sanders' winning story for 2004:

In the late 70’s my husband and I were high-school sweethearts. That was a step up from our prior status as junior-high sweethearts. We were entwined in a small-town courtship that began with him sitting in front of me in Spanish class and progressed to “going steady”. Going steady meant handholding, passing notes between classes, and also, (thank you, God) the rapture of my long-awaited first kiss.

The "official" beginning of our relationship was October 26th, 1976, and it surprises me to this day that I can remember the date. I was a twirler with the marching band. He was a football player and a wrestler on the school teams. As was common at the time, he had a friend negotiate the “going steady” question with me to save him from public humiliation in case I said no. Our dates consisted of pizza after the high school football games, hayrides, movies, and countless hours in front of the television in my family’s basement, enduring the dutiful chaperonage of my little sister.

As the new decade began, we became college sweethearts. He pledged a fraternity so I pledged its sister sorority. Having no firm career ambition, I was anxious to get on with my romantic idea of "real life": (meaning the June Cleaver image of blissful marriage, motherhood, etc.). After all, I'd been fantasizing about wearing an elegant, elaborate wedding gown since I was about six. The obvious next step in our progression was marriage, and I hinted shamelessly. Despite his reservations, he indulged me by giving me an engagement ring the Christmas of our sophomore year. Although both sets of parents thought we should wait until we'd finished college, they were indulgent as well.

Six months later we were married in a large traditional ceremony, complete with elegant, elaborate gown and hundreds of guests. At 21, I thought my dreams had all come true.I was a bride. At 22 we were new parents. At 23 we were parents again. The bills mounted up. The babies cried. The nearly impossible act of juggling college classes, part-time jobs, and a growing family wore heavily on my young husband. To our great relief, he finally finished his degree but by then the job market for his field had dried up. So he took a job that required 60+ hours of his time a week, mostly at night and we moved to a city two hours away from our family support structure. The strain of being at home 24/7 with little relief from an endless rotation of diapers, bottles, and a duet of crying babies who had to be kept quiet while my husband slept through our waking hours wore heavily on me. The dream had badly tarnished. Our relationship deteriorated to dust. We lived in separate worlds, two strangers sharing a house. By the end of the decade we separated and divorced.

Being still young and incredibly resilient, I quickly shut off the tears, picked myself up, dusted myself off, and set my course toward surviving as a single parent of two small daughters. I moved back to our college town, went back to school, finished my degree, and started a career. Every other weekend we would each drive an hour to meet halfway between our homes so that he could have the children for his weekend visitation. His "kid's weekends." We'd speak only about necessary things, about child-related things. There was no animosity between us. There was just a cool awkward void where a marriage used to be. While left alone, I began a fledgling social life, learning for the first time in my life what it was like to actually date someone you hadn't known since you were 12.

I soon developed a superficial relationship with a man who carried a lot of baggage. My ex-husband had developed a girlfriend who was younger and prettier than me. I silently wished him happiness and I didn't wish it maliciously. After a couple of years I married again to an older man who I believed to be the antithesis of my "ex." However, that marriage was even less of a success. Our blended family mixed like oil and water. It floundered early on and ended after a few years. I took back the surname I had had before this marriage. The name that matched my daughters. The name that belonged to my first husband. Still somewhat resilient and full of hard-earned self-reliance, I forged ahead. My daughters and I would be just fine alone. I would make it so. I learned to do the "man's work" around the house and believed firmly that I had no need for a man in my life.

Until one day at the dentist's office.

While waiting for my dental check-up, a pleasant older woman I'd never met started a conversation with me as if we'd known each other for years. She told me that she wished her son and his ex-wife would get back together. She talked about their young child. She said she thought the couple was truly meant to be together.or maybe, she said, she was just wishing they were meant to be together because she worried about her grandson. She looked at my daughters playing quietly nearby then asked if I was married. I said no and smiled almost apologetically. She asked if I'd ever thought about reconciling with the children's father. Again I said no, and smiled to myself, this time with rueful humor. As if I would even consider such a thing! My mind chortled at the very thought. Maybe, she said quite thoughtfully, I should consider it. They called her name and before she wished me goodbye she asked which dentist I was seeing. I gave her the name of the younger dentist in the office and she smiled and said I was in good hands. Then she beamed with pride, for my dentist was her son.

I left the office that day still grinning over her strange conversation and her outlandish suggestion. After all, I was well beyond once bitten and twice shy. She had no idea what a ridiculous notion she had suggested!

Did she?

Over the next few months I began a mental cross-examination the demise of my second marriage. I decided that, contrary to romantic belief, there was not a perfect man out there just waiting for me. Therefore, I was going to waste no more time looking for someone for whom I was "meant to be". But that strange conversation kept returning to me. It came back in odd ways. I would think of how I couldn't stand for my second husband to stroke my hair, an odd aversion I couldn't explain even to myself. Then, quite illogically, her words would pop into my head. I would think of how my head never fit quite right against his chest or how his kiss didn't taste quite "right" and there she would be again in my mind. Her and her ridiculous suggestion. I chuckled again. I scoffed.

Until finally I began to wonder.

When making "kid exchanges," I began to look at their father in a different way. A curious way. What would it be like to be a family again? Did he ever think about me? Did he ever wonder if we should try again? Did he have a woman in his life? He'd always been handsome and I couldn't imagine that there had been any shortage of women. By this time, I knew the young, pretty girlfriend was long, long gone. By this time ten years had passed since our divorce. A lifetime of years.

I was scheduled to drop off the children at his home on my way to a work-related seminar in his city and I'd also arranged to visit with an old friend who lived nearby. When the girls suddenly became sick, I left them at home at the last minute with my mother and traveled alone to my seminar. When I got near his city, I called and broke the news that they were not able to come for the weekend. He sounded so disappointed that I instantly felt sorry for him. Then there was that ridiculous suggestion again, suddenly whanging in my head. To quiet both it and my guilt over leaving him childless for the weekend, I boldly asked him to lunch, sandwiching him between the seminar and the visit to my childhood friend. Without kids present to drive the conversation, our lunch began in awkward silence. Slowly, shyly, we started to talk and after having been apart for ten years, I finally started to realize how badly I'd missed him. After lunch, when I was about to drive away and he was walking toward his door, I impulsively rolled down the window and called him back. "Do you ever think about what it might be like to be a family again?" I asked hesitantly. He knelt by the car, gently touched my arm, then looked into my eyes and said, "Every day of my life."

I cried all the way to my friend's house.

We met again for dinner. Dinner progressed to drinks and to other things. Other familiar things. Him stroking my hair. My head fitting perfectly against his chest. The taste of a perfect kiss. I knew then why all these things had felt so wrong with another man. They were his. No matter how independent my mind had become my body was still his.

Our "kids' weekends" changed. Instead of exchanging the kids, we shared the kids. And we shared ourselves. In 1999, nearly sixteen years after our first wedding, we remarried. No elegant, elaborate gown, no guests. Just us, together again.

Before we remarried, I happened to pick up his key ring one day and noticed an oddly small gold object threaded onto the ring with his keys. Although it was scratched and considerably dulled over time, I still recognized it. It was his wedding ring. I held up the key ring with a question to him and a quivering heart. Yes, he answered, it had been in his pocket every day for ten years. Now he wears two. One for a marriage that gave us our children. One for a marriage that gave us ourselves.

And some day I'm going to tell my dentist to thank his mother for me.

Michelle Scaplin's winning story for 2005:

How would someone pick the most romantic thing that ever happened to them? Would it be a day filled with flowers and champagne? Would a room lit with candles and a sexy lingerie be involved? Personally I think it should be something more, something deeper. And since this is the most romantic moment, and not the most passionate moment, I think it should also hold a certain innocence.

I knew Frank for almost a year before that "moment". We worked at McDonalds together, I was a senior in high school and he had just graduated. It was so easy to become friends with him, he was such a nice guy. And kind of cute too. He had dark hair, unusual but enticing green-gray eyes, and a nose just slightly too big for his face.

During that year, we worked hard but still had fun. We even competed for the Crew Member of The Month award. He won for Feburary, I won for March. The more I worked with him, the more I realized I how much I liked him. But he was older, and I was your usual insecure teenage girl. I never thought of myself as being pretty, and never had a real boyfriend before. But I got the courage to have my friend tell him that I liked him. I didn't even have the nerve for her to say my full name. She just told him that someone with the initials M S likes you. Later that day Frank asked me out.

I was so excited. We had been out before with friends, but this was an actual date. He picked me up at my house, met my parents, and took me to the movies. In all that time we've known each other I don't think we were ever alone together. And even though I had been kissed by boys before, I knew this night was different than your usual teenage party games like Spin the Bottle and Seven Minutes in Heaven.

After the movie, we were a block away from my house when the song Glory of Love by Peter Cetera came on the radio. I loved the song, and since it was the theme song from the movie we had just seen, I asked him to drive around the block one more time so I could hear the whole song. What I was actually doing was buying time so I can get up the courage to kiss him when we arrived in front of my house. In all the time we've known each other, he'd never tried to kiss me, and I'd be damned if I let this opportunity pass. Frank seemed to be shy at times, and I wasn't sure he would take the initiative.

But when the song was over, and we were parked in front of my house I couldn't do it. And I said as much. "I can't do it." I whispered and banged my head on the headrest in frustration. And in that moment, the softest, sweetest lips were pressed against mine. It was a kiss of innocence and tenderness. There was no groping hands or tongues thrust deep into my mouth, and it sent my teenage heart racing.

When the kiss ended probably a few minutes later, but felt like a sweet eternity, he asked. "Can't do what?"

Two years, two days, and thousands of kisses later, we kissed each other in front of a reverend after we said our wedding vows, and later danced our first dance to The Glory of Love at our wedding reception. I wasn't even twenty years old at the time. Now I am thirty five and still feel a sense of excitement each time we kiss.

Judye Nazareth's winning story for 2006:

Craig and I have been friends now for 12 years.  We married in April 2001.  We wanted to start a family right away and I found out that I was pregnant in February 2002.  We felt incredibly blessed and lucky. 

We wait eagerly until May when we could met our first child via ultrasound.  As it was our first child, we were not concerned by how long the ultrasound tech was taking and how many pictures were being captured.  She told us that we were having a little boy.  We were ecstatic.  As we were leaving, she asked if we wanted to wait to see the doctor.  I said no, as I had an appointment early that Monday morning.  This was Friday.

We told everyone that we knew.  That weekend, we were walking on air, thinking that we were the luckiest people on Earth.

Unfortunately that was to be proven wrong come Monday morning.  The doctor told me that our perfect son was not perfect.  He had a severe birth defect called Congenital Diaphragmatic Hernia which has less than a 50/50 success.  It was confirmed by a high risk specialist that Friday and we were given a decision after the amnio ruled out any chromosomal abnormalities.  We could continue with the pregnancy and all the risks for the both of us or terminate.

My dear sweet man told me that it was up to me.  That he would support me in any decision that I made.  If I chose to terminate the pregnancy, we would just tell everyone that the baby had died.  End of story and woe to those that pressed me on it.  Or we could face this together.

And so my husband of only a year and I decided to play the hand of cards that we had been dealt and continue this to the end.  That perhaps our little boy would beat the odds and things would be okay in the end.

Well, things went bad at 28 weeks.  I ended up on bed rest in the hospital for 2 1/2 weeks  Developed a potentially life threatening pulmonary edema (Thanks ER for giving me an idea of what could have happened).  That dear sweet man that I married spent every day with me.  Spent nights on the pull out couch next to me, holding my hand as I slept.  And waited on me hand and foot when they spent me home on strict bed rest.

My water broke at 32 weeks and Craig rushed me to the hospital.  After five hours of painful labor, our baby was in distress and I was rushed for an emergency C-section.  Alexander Joseph was born at 12:01 pm, September 1st.  He was rushed to the NICU.  My husband was brought up an hour later to see him, all hooked up to tubes and a vent.  With a card on his table that said "Baby N"  My husband told the doctors that our baby had a name and that he wanted it written on his card.

Five hours later, I was wheeled into a room after my surgery to be met by the neonatalogist to tell us that they could not stabilize our little man and that we needed to say goodbye.  A nurse ran up to me to ask if I wanted her to find a priest to baptize my son.  The priest met us in the NICU where the staff had cleared the doctors meeting room for us as I could not sit up yet.  We held our son as he left this world for another better place where babies don't feel pain.

One night while still in the hospital recovering from the surgery, my husband told me that he would rather have faced this with me, than anyone else.

My husband spent every night for the next two weeks sleeping holding my hand so I did not feel alone.  And when I healed, he pushed me out of the house to walk, to go shopping.  To avoid staying in the house hiding from the world.  I hated that at the time but as the depression lifted a bit, I understood his reasons.

As my husband said, I could not have imagined ever facing what we faced without each other.  He was my anchor in a whirlwind of pain and fear.

We have gone on to have two beautiful little girls, Tessa Rose and Amanda Grace.  We have faced the worse that a couple could ever face together and come out the stronger for it.  And love each more for it as well.

Jen Holland's winning story for 2007 (it's long, but it's worth it!):

I was a second-year veterinary student and 24 years old when I was first introduced to my husband, Greg. For a little background, it should be acknowledged that I was a bona fide hermit... that is to say, I lived alone, I was the quiet-type, and was well known to be at the top of the class. Oh, I was always friendly and had friends in vet school, but at the end of the day, I would rather go home to my 2 dogs and 3 cats, study, watch a movie, surf e-bay, read a romance. I very rarely socialized.

One of my classmates, Vince, was pretty much my polar opposite. A military man. President of several vet student organizations. He was a sharp guy, but also the loud, raucous, class comedian. Vince was married, and one day early in the fall semester, he announced, in his most commanding manner, that he wanted me to meet his neighbor. "His name is Greg. You're perfect for each other. You're going to love him!" Well, knowing Vince, at first I suspected this was some sort of practical joke. That Greg would be about 49 years old, have astonishing body odor and wear a toupee. I laughed it off. After all, Vince didn't know me that well; we were friends but by no means confidants. And he was a buffoon. Why would I take it seriously?

But surprisingly, Vince kept after me. "You have to meet Greg. He's a great guy. He's exactly like you." This interested me. What did Vince mean, exactly like me?? "Well," Vince explained, "He's a hermit, like you. Loves animals, like you. Nice person, like you." He rattled off a long list of Greg's qualifications. "Intellectual, like you. Really, really smart, like you." I asked Vince if this was a joke- since when did he play matchmaker?? Vince assured me emphatically that he never "normally" played matchmaker, but in this case... he lost his thread. Then admitted that his wife, Anne, was also strongly convinced that Greg and I would be perfect. Now, this surprised me even more, because I didn't know Anne well at all, other than in passing acquaintance. Apparently, Anne was working on convincing Greg that I was perfect for him, and Vince had to do his part by pestering me at school on a daily basis.

I admit, I was growing curious. Naturally, as any vet student worth her salt would agree, my first question was whether the neighbor guy had pets. "Yes, indeed. Has 3 cats." What did he do? "Graduate student in engineering. Owns a business." I pondered that for a day or two, and the next time Vince brought it up, I asked for a physical description. "Uh.. Tall, broad... taller than me." I'm sure Anne would have been ready with the important details, but with Vince, I had to probe for the particulars. "Well... dark hair, and... blue...no, make that... maybe green?... eyes." I decided all of this sounded remarkably tempting, regardless of whether the eyes were green or blue. I began to consider that I might be interested in an introduction, after all.

Meanwhile, Anne was endeavoring to tempt Greg into an introduction, and having some problems convincing him that Vince's idea had any merit whatsoever. He's reclusive in his own right, and was still rebounding from a previous girlfriend who Vince assured me was a "bitch on wheels." In all, it took roughly a month for Vince and Anne working in tandem to persuade us to agree to consider meeting one another. Although Greg maintains that his interest was sparked by their insistence that I was "super smart and loved animals", I think the real clincher may have been Anne's vehement assertions that I was "much more generously endowed" than she herself was. Anne later told me that his ear tips went pink every time she ran that one by him.

For me, it was the idea of a tall, dark and handsome with three spoiled felines. I had an image of Greg in my head... As an engineering graduate student, I thought of him as the conservative type. I imagined dark locks and sexy blue (or would it be green?) eyes. I imagined him stretched out in bed... with a cat curled up on a broad, muscular chest... Yes, I was definitely feeling interested. So after considerable nudging on Vince's part, when one of the vet student organizations had a get-together at a pool hall one Friday evening in October, I actually fixed myself up and attended.

Vince and Anne were already there. Greg was not. Vince said that they'd mentioned it to Greg, but hadn't dragged him along until they had an official sighting of yours truly, the elusive Jen. It was never a sure thing, my turning up at a social event. So Anne left quickly to run home and try to convince their neighbor to come out and play some pool. I was nervous and admittedly rather excited. It had been over a year since I'd had a boyfriend, and I was lonely for male companionship. Romance novels really only carry a person so far.

After about 45 minutes, (she'd apparently spent some time cajoling him), Anne returned. Behind her was a tall, broad individual with... a skinhead shaved skull and a long goatee???? In black boots, black leather jacket, wearing some sort of black crystal pendant??? Oh, crud!

He was so not my type.

The fact was, he looked frightening. Rather... subversive. Where was the studious, conservative chemical engineer? Had Anne been unable to find Greg, and just pulled someone in off the street??? This guy could be a Neo-Nazi... or maybe a drug dealer... Why had I put my faith in Vince of all people??? I should have known he couldn't be trusted! My best friend, Miwa, saw Greg too. "Oh no!!" she giggled. "You should never have listened to Vince!"

While Miwa chortled merrily, I tried to collect myself. I'm sure my face was comical. Trying to paste on a friendly, open smile... and not laugh, and not cry. Greg bought himself a beer and made his way over to the pool table where Anne had joined Vince. He looked me directly in the eye and smiled as he passed our table. I smiled back, and Miwa chided me for grimacing at the poor man. I thought about finishing up the game and sneaking home, not because I didn't want to meet him at all, but mainly because I knew what was coming. I'd have to make it clear that, well, that he just wasn't my type. I didn't want to embarrass Vince and Anne, and I certainly didn't want to hurt the guy's feelings- he did have a nice enough smile. I was ever the sort to empathize, and hated to reject a guy under any circumstances. Even a great big, muscle-bound skinhead. On the one hand, if Vince and Anne were correct, and Greg was an especially nice guy, he'd probably feel let down. On the other hand, if Greg was as scary as he looked, well, I wouldn't want to antagonize this individual either! Miwa and I finished the game. We looked at one another. Her eyes were twinkling in her otherwise solemn, Asian face. "It's time," she intoned.

As it turned out, once we joined Vince, Anne and Greg, I realized that he really wasn't mean at all. In fact, he seemed far more likely to be a big teddy bear. I certainly developed an immediate appreciation for his sense of humor. Greg is most assuredly a reclusive man, but when he happens to be in a group situation, he's actually quite sociable. And if there happens to be another humorous-type in the group, Greg can trade funny remarks and keep the laughter going with ease. The game may have been pool, but the jokes and good-natured insults bantered back and forth between Vince and Greg were more reminiscent of a world-championship ping-pong match. Greg cracked me up. He had a merry face and such a funny way with Vince that I could see why Vince insisted he was a great guy. I was starting to think so, too. Of course, great guy does not equal romantic interest. Not my type. But great guy might just equal new friend.

The conversation turned to obsessive behaviors and the topic of rocks came up. In addition to his post-graduate studies in chemical engineering, Greg owned an online business selling fine mineral specimens to rock collectors. As a dealer, he bought beautiful specimens for wholesale prices, and made enough profit selling the majority of them to finance his own obsessive collection. That really perked my interest. As a youngster, I was a rock collector. I spent countless hours at those tourist-type rock shops, mooning over large amethyst geodes and picking out pretty and colorful crystals of every description. I also gathered and toted home all manner of interesting rocks when I was playing outdoors. And recently, with a degree in Zoology and an abiding interest in critters, I had started surfing e-bay and compulsively bidding on fossils. (Six years later, we're still paying off some of the credit card balances from my early fossil forays on e-bay).

After several games of pool, Greg invited Vince, Anne, Miwa and me to his apartment to see the mineral collection. I was most impressed! The superior mineral specimens Greg kept displayed in a wall-high lighted curio case were like nothing I'd encountered as a rockhound kid. His enthusiasm as he brought out his garnets and smoky quartz and calcites and beryls and tourmalines and rhodochrosites and fluorites... well, suffice it to say that it was obvious that an obsession with fine minerals was the right word for the situation. I met his cats, too. When the big orange tabby, Jack, bumped his head up under my chin, I detected that the cat had received multiple kisses on his head pretty recently. So yeah, Greg was clearly a big teddy bear.

When we all left an hour or two later, Greg took both my hands in his and squeezed. He smiled. The man was so tall. My head came only as high as his shoulders. He gazed down with sincere intensity. I took note of his eye color- light, blue-green... and noticed his long, dark lashes. I couldn't help but appreciate those eyes. They were beautiful. And they conveyed clearly that he was interested. I dreaded the inevitable. I was going to hurt him.

The pestering intensified at school immediately. Vince was clearly astonished that I didn't reciprocate an interest in dating Greg. I explained that he wasn't my type, and Vince explained that I was being absurd. He joked that he hadn't seen me so sociable and talkative in the whole first year of vet school as I was in one evening with Greg. And Greg liked me, definitely wanted to see me again. I said I thought we might be friends, but that was all, and Vince said "Ouch, Jen." He thought I shouldn't jump to conclusions. But I had, and I retreated into my reclusive shell.

Greg turned up at several other vet student events over the next couple of months. The goatee was trimmed to one or two inches in length. Short dark hair appeared on his head. We did have quite a few mutual interests. The topic of collecting minerals and fossils was always a sure thing. Then there were all the funny pet stories. And comical Vince exploits. I spent a modest amount of time getting to know Greg at these gatherings, but inevitably excused myself and made my way over to other groups. I sincerely liked this person, but I didn't want to encourage romantic feelings from him. At each successive event, he became just a little less animated, and I felt increasingly uncomfortable and guilty when I saw fleeting, sad expressions on his face from across the room.

And so I slid into a routine of subtle evasion with Greg whenever he was at hand. The same routine applied to Vince when I was at school. I'm not a confrontational person, and one of my worst phobias is having to enlighten someone when I perceive it's something they don't want to hear. Yes, I'd told Vince that I didn't want to date Greg, and that was difficult enough. Vince was nothing if not persistent, and he seemed privately appalled at my behavior, which was awkward and aggravating for me. And so far, I couldn't bring myself to inform Greg directly. I wanted him to just... well, figure it out, I suppose. But at the end of the fall semester, despite my avoidance tactics, I received a bouquet of irises and daisies out of the blue, congratulating me on getting through finals. He didn't sign it "with love" or anything like that, but when a guy sends flowers... I knew I had to come clean with him. Knowing Vince, and his stubborn insistence that Greg and I were perfect for each other, he hadn't passed along the bad news to his neighbor. For all I knew, Vince was making excuses for me and telling creative lies to keep the poor man's hopes up.

So I called him. It was one of the hardest things I ever did. "Thank you for the flowers. But I need to tell you something. I just want to be... that is, I think we're better off... I'm afraid we're better off as just... friends." Oh, it was so clichéd.

Greg was silent for a moment, and then he said softly, "Right. I understand."

I tried to move the conversation along. I'd received the fossil I'd bid for on e-bay to give to my dad for Christmas- It was a beautiful specimen- Exquisite detail- The fish scales and every bone in the fins were perfectly preserved- I wished I could have engraved a personal message on the back of the matrix for my dad- But I was leaving tomorrow.

I suppose I was babbling. Greg cleared his throat, and offered to engrave it for me. He'd built a modified tattoo-pen to clean matrix rock and expose more crystal on his mineral specimens, he said. This gadget could be used to engrave whatever message I wanted. He'd be more than happy to do that for me. I was reluctant to take him up on his kind offer after I'd just essentially kicked him to the curb. But he reminded me we were friends and it was no trouble. Sweet, dear man. Feeling like a user, I packed up the fossil and headed to his apartment.

Well, it was trouble. It was painstaking work. While Greg was working on the engraving, he acknowledged what a beautiful specimen it was, and asked me how much I'd spent on it. When I answered, he stopped engraving and stared at me. "Yeah. Wow. I should be in the fossil business." He winked and went back to work. Later, he mentioned the annual rock and mineral show in Tuscon, Arizona. He'd be taking two weeks to purchase new material for his website business and if I was interested, he'd be happy to scout for fossils and I could get whatever I liked at wholesale prices. He could e-mail pics of whatever struck my fancy. I was immediately intrigued. I had never been to a big mineral show, and didn't know if they'd have anything I'd be interested in, but he assured me that all the e-bay sellers would be there, buying new specimens by the hundreds. It appeared that Greg was going to be a really good friend.

In some ways, the kick to the curb was probably healthy for our relationship. Once I'd finally confessed I had no romantic interest, the discomfort and guilt associated with seeing Greg seemed to melt away. As he worked on the engraving, his manner was easy and companionable. We chatted. He loved exotic beer and I loved fine wine. We touched on topics as diverse as the Christian faith and the mysteries of the deep sea. My long-time fascination for the so-called "soft intelligence" of octopus and squid. We found we could literally talk about anything. And I relaxed and fully enjoyed myself for the first time since the night of our introduction at the pool hall.

When I left his apartment, it seemed right to give him a hug. We wouldn't see each other for over a month; I was traveling for Christmas vacation, and by the time I'd return to start the spring semester, Greg would have left for the mineral show in Arizona. I gave him my e-mail address and thanked him profusely. I recall that the embrace was surprisingly comforting and seemed familiar to me, almost as if we had been good friends for all our lives. I had a momentary premonition, just as quickly dismissed, that I might have been somehow too... hasty... in deciding Greg wasn't right for me. And as I pulled away from the curb, feeling oddly empty, I had the impression that I might even miss him over the course of the next several weeks.

E-mails kicked off as soon as I returned for classes. Greg was right on the mark. The selection of fossils was fabulous, and I felt truly ridiculous when I realized that the e-bay sellers usually started their fossil auctions at outrageous prices, and all along, my exuberant bidding wars had resulted in simply exorbitant profits! We had quite an amusing dialogue about my naivety, and soon we were having lively discussions by telephone in addition to the multiple daily e-mails.

At the time, I was very interested in fossil crinoids, which have enormous aesthetic appeal. I wanted Greg to concentrate on finding pretty crinoids for my collection, and gave him a limit of $350 to spend for me. I would select from among pictures he sent of potential pieces, and he would try to go back and purchase them for me.

He also sent pics of a number of other interesting fossils and minerals, many of which were outside both our price ranges, but great fun to oooh and aahh over together. Among the specimens that Greg photographed for me was a large, absolutely flawlessly preserved and completely intact crinoid specimen centered on a gleaming slate matrix from Bundenbach, Germany. Bundenbach specimens are highly collectible, but this one in particular- a complete, flawless crinoid- was perfectly spectacular.

Greg was well aware of the raptures that Bundenbach crinoid had engendered. At first he'd just sent the pic to share the oooh and aahh with me. He hadn't attached a price tag, and I assumed it was well out of my range. However, after taking note of my delight in the piece, he went back and checked, and unbelievably, it was listed for [only] $350. I could scarcely believe it! The trouble was, there were so many wonderful crinoids to choose from, and I could have six or ten new specimens for my $350 limit. After wrestling with myself and missing sleep, I finally came to a decision while daydreaming through the Infectious Diseases II lecture. I sped home at lunch and launched an impulsive e-mail... just go ahead and buy the Bundenbach. I knew in my heart that I'd regret it any other way. Off I went to afternoon classes, at peace with my decision.

What a let-down, after such deliberations, to find out that Greg had returned to the Bundenbach booth that afternoon, only to find that the gorgeous crinoid was already sold. I was crestfallen. It had been there the night before... if only I'd made my decision before leaving for classes this morning! Ahh, well. I would learn from that mistake. I'd always remember "the one that got away". So I selected quite a few smaller crinoid specimens and Greg managed to purchase most of them. As the reports came in... "It's yours, babe"... I bounced back from my disappointment. I could barely wait to see my new fossils. And him! We'd become fast friends over the course of the Arizona show. And I'd missed him.

The afternoon of our reunion is somehow gilded in my memory. The time we had still brings a smile to my face. Greg greeted me with a long hug, and it seemed that we both just- inhaled- each other. He brought out my fossils and I was so completely jazzed I did an odd sort of backflip over the arm of his couch and fell laughing onto the cushions. This managed to crack him up, which pleased me greatly. Usually he's the one who has me laughing! And I loved watching his overjoyed cats throw a homecoming party, meowing and weaving and stretching and purring... face rubbing and head butting and making biscuits all over him. That afternoon marked the shift in my feelings for him, from an admittedly enthusiastic friendship, into the first stirrings of romantic interest.

He kept it casual, but as my attraction grew, I had the sense that he was every bit as interested in me as he'd been from the start. The first time he invited me to dinner was in February. I was to bring nothing, just come prepared to enjoy a home-cooked meal and a surprise for dessert. I brought a nice a bottle of Pinot Grigio anyway, after wheedling from him what the dinner was going to be (his wonderful spicy shrimp scampi). He'd cleaned his apartment and taken care with his appearance. The cats were on their best behavior. Dinner was delightful. A man who enjoyed cooking? Yes, I was definitely seeing the light. He kept me laughing all evening, even moments after we shared our first kiss. The kiss was the most sensual I'd ever experienced, and in my befuddled aftermath, I whispered that I'd never kissed a man with a beard before. Greg didn't miss a beat. With a heavy lidded half-smile, he murmured, "Neither have I".

The clincher for me, though, was the surprise dessert. Even now, I can't help but grin at the very idea. My husband does have strokes of creative genius, and this one takes the prize. He melted dark chocolate. He brought out huge, sumptuous chilled strawberries. Dipped each piece of fruit in the chocolate and arranged them, top-down, on a chilled platter. And then... he drizzled artistic chocolate "tentacles" around each strawberry base to create his own exclusive culinary specialty... the one-of-a-kind... chocoloctopus! He'd remembered my quirky love of squid and octopi. And he'd combined it with dark chocolate and strawberries. Nothing could have charmed me more thoroughly. Really, what more could a woman possibly want in a man??

My mom loves to relate the progression of our relationship from the perspective of her end of the telephone line. Over the course of two semesters in my second year of vet school, my offerings went from "I finally met that guy, but he's not my type at all" - to "I can tell he's actually really a sweet person, and I hate to hurt his feelings" - to "We're actually getting to be pretty good friends, so that's working out" - to "Mom, I really like this guy" - to "Mom, I might be falling in love with him" - to "Mom, I think I want to marry him". From such a shaky start, my tumble from wary friend in mid-December, to smitten fiancé in late-May, went ridiculously quickly. Greg secretly kept his answering machine tape, having saved every single message I'd ever left for him. That tape is hilarious. To hear my professional, vet-student persona gradually transition into casual familiarity and affection, and finally disintegrate into goofy, smoochy luv-talk... when I found out he'd played the tape for his parents, it was my turn to have pink ear tips!

The following December (2001), we were married at my hometown church. Vince was best man, of course, and he was absolutely as proud as a peacock. We must have heard "What did I tell you? What was that? That's right. You owe me. You both owe me!" a hundred times. Our respective parents were also delighted with us. Greg's mom loves to say that he finally followed her advice, to "Find someone as crazy about you as you are about her"... and she assured me many times that her son would follow his Daddy's example and treat me "Like a queen." (She was precisely right.)

My mom likes to boast that she and my stepdad "Prayed him in"- that is to say, they agreed in prayer many times that the Lord would bring a man into my life, a man who was loving, and kind, and intelligent, and humorous... a man who would tolerate my habit of bringing in stray animals, would share my interests, and would make a wonderful father. (My mom additionally admits that she also specified tall, dark and handsome for the Lord... and really, one can't fault the Lord if Greg chose to shave his hair off and cultivate that wretchedly long goatee, can one?!)

My Dad and stepmom also took to Greg, though they're more eccentric. Dad couldn't keep his name straight and asked after "Doug" several times even after having met my fiancé over the summer vacation! My darling handled it with his customary good humor and grace. "He's a nuclear physicist, love," he said. "His job isn't to remember names."

After our beautiful morning ceremony and lunch reception to follow in December, Greg and I took off for Tulsa, where we were to spend our wedding night, and fly out the following morning to the Oregon coast for our week-long, Christmas honeymoon. Difficult as it was, we had not anticipated our wedding vows. The atmosphere in the car was heavily charged, to say the least. Naturally, the afternoon that followed is idyllic in my memory. That evening, after we'd shared an elegant dinner in the privacy of our suite, he left me curled on the couch and began to rummage through his suitcase. "Are you ready to open my wedding gift to you?" he asked with an air of suppressed excitement.

With the stress of finishing another semester of vet school, rearranging my closets and moving his possessions to my place, and the whirlwind flurry of final preparations for our wedding, I hadn't really given that prospect any thought. Whatever he had, he was already becoming giddy. Unable to stifle himself, he blurted, "This has been a long time coming!" I took a moment to study him. He was all but quivering, an amused smile playing about his lips, and appeared almost... exhilarated... with himself.

I made short work of his carefully wrapped package, and I have to say, I was entirely caught unawares. Nestled in the box, matrix lustrous in its slate-dark sheen, feathery arms arched in a feminine, timeless curve, was my magnificent Bundenbach crinoid. I was stunned. "Where... how did you... who did you... what in the world did you have to do to find this, Greg??!"

He was beaming with pleasure. "Well," he began slowly, as if he were about to launch into a convoluted tale of the search for the person who'd purchased it, all those months ago... "I reached up... felt around... and pulled it down from on top of the display case." This took a while for me to compute. That meant... no, he was being coy.

"I mean it, Greg. Tell me how- how did you find this again?"

He grinned, and answered patiently. "It was no trouble, babe. I could remember exactly where I'd hidden it." I stared at him. For a while I was speechless as I scrambled to remember the details.

"Are you telling me you just- pretended that- you mean you lied to me about this being sold, and you had it all along?!?"

He was shaking his head. "You're half right. I have had it all along."

I was amazed. I felt utterly thrilled, and bewildered. And I was beginning to take delight in his smug demeanor. His self-satisfaction was starting to tickle my sense of humor. But although our amusement in the situation was mutual... I was feeling flustered. "But you said you'd returned to the booth and the fossil was sold," I insisted.

Greg nodded. "Yes I did, and yes it was."

Now I decided to just wait him out. We were smiling at each other, squaring off, each of us on the verge of laughter. I cocked my head and stared. He mimicked, tilting his head in the opposite direction. His eyes caressed me with love. Finally, he leaned forward and kissed my forehead. I snuggled into his arms as he spoke into my ear.

"I knew your dilemma, that you fell in love with the Bundenbach, but you wanted to have more than one crinoid, Jen." His deep voice, and the soft words spoken into my neck between little kisses, gave me shivers. "So I went first thing that morning. I just bought it. I wasn't really thinking clearly. I was going to surprise you with it, I guess." He nuzzled below my ear and then snorted with amusement. "Then you sent that email, telling me you wanted me to go ahead and spend the whole amount on it- but I wasn't thinking clearly and I didn't want to ruin the big surprise." He sighed in pleasure as he remembered his devious undertaking. "So I went back that afternoon and, what do you know, it was gone. Then I could say I'd been there and it had been sold already... I was so excited that I..."

I interrupted him. "What do you mean, you weren't thinking clearly?"

He pulled back and looked me in the eye. Considered his response.

"What about how I wasn't your type, love? Last thing I knew, I'd sent you flowers- and they weren't even roses- and you couldn't run away fast enough! What would you have done if the next thing I tried to give you was a $350 crinoid?" I blushed, knowing he was right.

"Like I said, I wasn't thinking clearly," he continued. "It wasn't until I got home that I realized I'd better hide it immediately," he chuckled.

I'd never suspected for a moment. It still awes me, when I think on it. He'd harbored the crinoid, and bided his time. He'd accepted my earlier rejection and without a qualm, agreed to be friends. All the while, never losing sight of his objective. Whenever I gaze upon my beautiful crinoid, I can't help but shake my head in wonder- how in the world could I ever have believed this man to be anything less than my soul mate? I remember thinking, on that magical wedding night, as we laughed about our rocky road, and studied the fossil with his magnifying loop (no, he wouldn't have left home without it)... that it would be impossible to love him any more than I did at that moment.

I was wrong. I love him more with every passing day. And I'm sure you already know the moral of the story.




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