“Sunlen has a lot of presence,” he says of the then-25-year-old TV reporter who was attending the event with a friend.
She had noticed Alexis, too: “I said to my friend, ‘Who’s that handsome man?’ . . . It was one of those things when you see someone and you know they might have an important moment in your life, and you don’t know why.”
They were introduced by their mutual friends and chatted briefly just as Sunlen was about to leave. The fleeting contact was enough to prompt Alexis to hunt down her number. He had heard that she was just getting out of a relationship, and he waited until January to call. Sunlen was intrigued by their fun, flirtatious conversation, and she agreed to meet for dinner at Firefly in Dupont.
They talked about their close families and career aspirations, and felt a connection growing between them. But the night ended without a kiss. They went on two or three more dates, including a Presidents’ Day trip to the Round Robin bar at the Willard, but still no kiss. Finally, on their fourth date, Alexis knew it was now or never. As they walked down Connecticut Avenue on their way to dinner, he stopped her suddenly and pulled her in close. “It was very sweet,” she recalls.
Although they were dating, it wasn’t quite a relationship. So when Sunlen got the opportunity to cover Barack Obama’s presidential campaign for ABC News, she packed up her stuff, sublet her apartment and hit the road for a year and a half. She and Alexis largely fell out of touch.
After the Obama victory, Sunlen returned to Washington to cover the White House. She was working out at the gym when she spotted Alexis. It had been about two years since their last date, but she felt that same spark, even as she was sweating on the Stairmaster. They chatted again, and traded and e-mail or two, but things seemed stalled. “There were a few opportunities for it to restart, but it just didn’t because of life and work,” she says.
Months went by. In February 2010, Sunlen found herself on a lackluster Valentine’s Day date. She returned home disappointed and found her thoughts drifting back to Alexis and how easy and natural their dates had been. The next day, she e-mailed him: “Would you like to take me out for a dirty martini?”
“It was pretty bold, out of the blue,” she says with a laugh now. But it worked. They met up on a rainy Monday night and sipped martinis on a cozy couch at Tabard Inn. It felt like a second first date — they were older and wiser, and full of stories about adventures from the past two years. And the romance they had experienced the first time around was still there, but it felt different, deeper.
“Before, we were so young. . . . This was seeing someone in new eyes, and with eyes for the future,” Sunlen says. “I thought, ‘Wow, this could be something really wonderful.’ ”
A relationship blossomed quickly. Sunlen was surprised by how warmly Alexis’s family embraced her at Easter dinner and impressed by how kind he was to her friends. And Alexis found that they shared the same sense of loyalty and adventure. “Sunlen is very charming. She can pretty much convince me to do anything,” Alexis says. “Everything she does is at 100 percent. I respect that a lot.”
They treasured each milestone — their first vacation, their first dinner party together, their first trip abroad. Alexis took her to Rose Park in August 2011 to ask her to move in with him. “It makes it beautiful to watch it grow slowly,” he says. “You’re not racing into anything, and you’re appreciating the moments that you know will be the ones that you talk about [later.]”
Nearly a year after that, the two planned to attend a party for press at the residence of Vice President Joe Biden before meeting up with friends at the Georgetown Waterfront. Alexis, however, was planning much more — a proposal. He found himself sweating when the engagement ring, tucked inconspicuously into his sock, set off a metal detector at the Biden party and prompted a Secret Service pat-down.
After the party and drinks with friends on the waterfront, Alexis suggested they go for a walk together to nearby Rose Park. The sun was just starting to set as they arrived. Sunlen turned away to point out the courtyard where they’d first met. “Oh, everything good happens in Rose Park,” she said, feeling sentimental. And when she turned around, she found Alexis down on one knee. After the proposal, they sat on a nearby bench and watched the sun set, enjoying a private moment before celebrating with champagne at Tabard Inn.
“There was something very symbolic about continuing it together from the spot where we first met,” Sunlen says.
On August 3, they returned to the same spot to exchange vows before a crowd of about 140 friends and family members. An ice cream vendor and lemonade stand helped cool guests in the park for the ceremony; later, twinkling bistro lights and a crepe maker brought the spirit of a park at night to their reception at nearby Anderson House.
“This big day is exciting, but the next part is what I’m excited about — the marriage,” said Sunlen, now 32, before the event. “I see that day as the celebration of the start of the rest of our lives together,” Alexis, now 33, added. “And I’m so excited for that.”