On Love: ‘It was like the record scratches, and everything stops’

Elizabeth Ambrose felt something the first time she met Steven Johnson.

“It was like a zing up your spine,” she remembers.

But Ambrose dismissed the feeling. She was with her boyfriend, after all. And Johnson’s girlfriend was right beside him.

That was New Year’s Eve 2002 and Ambrose was in New Orleans visiting a friend who went to law school with Johnson. A big group went to dinner and spent the night celebrating together. At the end of the weekend, Ambrose and Johnson hugged goodbye.

Ambrose never thought much about Johnson after returning to the District. But when he moved to Washington in 2006 to work at the Justice Department, they had enough mutual friends to land at the same happy hour once or twice a year.

“I noticed her every time,” Johnson says. “I remember thinking, ‘She’s still very attractive.’ ” But at every meeting, it quickly became apparent that one or the other was in a relationship.

In the summer of 2010, Johnson went through a breakup that left him reeling. Most nights, he recalls, “I was just going home to sit in the dark.” But when a friend’s birthday party rolled around in early August, he forced himself to get out of the house. He was dumbstruck when he saw Ambrose walk through the crowd.

“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” he says. “She was stunning. It was like the record scratches, and everything stops.”

They chatted happily for a while, catching up on life. Finally, Johnson mustered the courage to ask her out to brunch the next day.

“I can’t,” replied Ambrose. “I have a standing date.” Then she explained: “I have a bulldog, and Rosie and I go to the coffee shop and read the paper every Sunday.”

Ambrose had also gone through a breakup that year. And she had begun to accept that marriage might not be in the cards. But she loved her lobbying career and had bought a rowhouse on Capitol Hill several years earlier. “I was in a really good place by my lonesome,” says Ambrose, now 38. “I was kind of at peace just being me.”

Still, they decided to go out, and dinner at Sonoma stretched over six hours, although they barely touched the food. “It was very honest,” says Johnson, now 32. “For whatever reason, I felt very comfortable opening up to her in ways you would never do on a first date.”

Johnson wasn’t sure he was ready for a new relationship, so they took things slowly, especially in the first month of dating. Most of their time together was spent talking — “just explaining to each other where we were coming from and who we are,” says Johnson, a tax attorney.

Even as the amount of time they spent together increased that fall, Ambrose refused to let herself believe it might be leading to something permanent. In many ways, Johnson seemed too good to be true. He sent flowers and opened doors, and he was smart and cute and always attentive.

“I held back quite a bit,” Ambrose says. “I didn’t want to get invested in a relationship and think, ‘Maybe we’ll get married,’ and then have it not happen.”

After Christmas, when Johnson asked the classic define-the-relationship question — “What are we?” — Ambrose deferred. “We’re happy, and we’re having fun,” she said with a shrugged. “Why do we need to make it anything more?”

But as the months passed, Ambrose slowly let down her guard, and Johnson grew increasingly sure he wanted to spend the rest of his life with her. She was confident and independent, and close friends often told Johnson that he seemed like his best self around her.

“I knew at some point that I didn’t want anyone else to have her. And I might not have the chance again,” Johnson says. Plus, “Beth makes me laugh. I can be very serious and Beth, like no one else, can bring me back to loosening up and chasing the dog at night,” he adds.

“We’re very complementary in our opposites,” agrees Ambrose, who is unorganized and laid back while Johnson is exacting and can be high strung. “I’m better because of Steve for sure. He kind of fills in the holes.”

By early last year, Johnson was saving for a ring and a nest egg. In October, when his two sisters were in town for the Marine Corps Marathon, he arranged for Ambrose’s brother and sister to come to town as well. And early on a Friday morning, as they walked Rosie through a park, Johnson got down on one knee and proposed. Ambrose, in shock and still half asleep, said yes, put the ring box in her pocket and continued walking the dog. Soon she realized the enormity of what had just happened, and they spent the weekend celebrating.

They couple decided not to do any wedding planning for the first month of their engagement. But by the time they starting looking at dates in late November, they realized February was the only month that worked. Ambrose had always wanted a winter wedding, and one of Johnson’s sisters was pregnant and wouldn’t be able to travel much later.

So in three months they planned a wedding for 100 guests. On Feb. 1, the couple exchanged vows at St. Peter’s Catholic Church on Capitol Hill. Then their friends and relatives boarded buses to President Lincoln’s Cottage at the Soldiers’ Home. Guests sipped cocktails as they studied a signed copy of the Emancipation Proclamation and took pictures of a rocking chair “reserved for President Lincoln.”

“It’s always been said about me that I’ve got more luck than sense,” Johnson said before the wedding. “And it’s absolutely true here. I don’t know how I was fortunate enough to get her.”

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Ellen McCarthy is a feature writer for Style.
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