ITS A FISH STORY, BIT DEFINITELY NOT about the one that got away. On July 17, Rep. Joseph Kennedy II, 40, and his very close aide, Anne Elizabeth "Beth" Kelly, 36, were in piscine pursuit off the coast of Florida. "Beth and I love to fish, so I hand-made a little ring and tied it to the end of a line that was overboard," recalls the oldest son of the late Robert F. Kennedy. "Beth reeled it in—and there it was." While she was still examining this unlikely catch of the day, he popped the question. Now, as the pair sit in his sunny Capitol Hill office, beaming adoringly at each other, his bride-to-be laughs. "I can't believe you're telling this story," she says. "It doesn't sound romantic," she adds, "but it was the sweetest, most romantic thing. I saved the ring."

The one Kelly wears, however, is real—a whopping round diamond flanked by diamond baguettes. It was specially designed by Kennedy with the help of an old school chum who is now a Baltimore jeweler. "I had a thought of what I wanted to do," he says, pleased with his effort. "We drew it on a little piece of paper. I wanted it to be nice." Offers Kelly: "It's beautiful. Exactly what I would have chosen."

No surprise, say friends. After all, Kennedy and Kelly have been an item for almost three years—and have worked side by side since 1982, when she was hired at Citizens Energy Corp., a Boston company Kennedy founded to provide low-cost fuel for the needy. In 1986 she worked on his first Massachusetts congressional campaign and soon afterward joined his Washington staff, where she is his scheduler and personal secretary, occupying a desk right outside his office. "She pretty much manages his professional life. They're always together," says one former aide. Despite such closeness, they deny that their relationship broke up his 11-year marriage to Philadelphia socialite Sheila Rauch. Business turned romantic, both insist, only after Kennedy's 1990 separation.

Friends call their relationship a love match between opposites. Kennedy, they say, is impetuous, disorganized and occasionally so inarticulate that colleagues on Capitol Hill have referred to him as the Wizard of Uhs. Kelly, from Burlington, N.J., the daughter of Leo Kelly, 71, a retired Navy jet pilot, and Claire, 69, a former Navy nurse, is said to be thoughtful, efficient, self-taught (she never attended college) and tactful. "Joe is energetic, verging on hyper," says an old friend, Congressman Bart Gordon (D-Tenn.). "Beth brings a calming influence." Where he by nature basks in the public eye, she, says her mom, "does not seek the limelight. She prefers to step back because she prefers her privacy."

What matters most to the couple is family. Both grew up in big Catholic broods (he grew up with 10 siblings, she with six), and they share most weekends with Matthew and Joseph, 12, Kennedy's twins by Rauch. "I never get to see them enough, but we spend every moment we can with them," he says of the boys, who live with their mother in Cambridge, Mass. "One of the great things is how well they get along with Beth."

She agrees. "We're really good friends," she says, "and we all like to do the same things." Adds Kennedy: "It's a pretty athletically oriented existence." During the boys' fierce hockey and soccer games, Kelly—who, according to her mom, was never an athlete as a kid—cheerleads. As a foursome they hike, sail and, of course, fish. Just one little problem, admits Kennedy, ever the competitor: "Beth catches more fish than I do, and it drives me crazy."

The couple have yet to set a wedding date, since they are waiting to hear whether the Catholic Church will grant Kennedy an annulment (this seems likely, since 41,121 were handed out in 1991 in the U.S. alone). In any case, Kelly plans to continue working for Kennedy. "I wouldn't know what to do without Beth," he says simply. "So I'm strongly in favor of continuing our working relationship as well as our personal one." Besides, says pal Gordon, "as hokey as it may-sound, Joe and Beth are very much in love. They want to spend as much time together as possible. Each makes the other happy."

MARJORIE ROSEN
SARAH SKOLNIK in Washington

  • Contributors:
  • Sarah Skolnik.