Vanessa had a whopping great diamond ring, a gorgeous designer dress and even matching pink parasols for the bridesmaids to shade them from the tropical island sun.
The cake was made, and the hairstylist, make-up artist and guests had flown in from New Zealand and the US.
But what Vanessa didn’t have was the man she was supposed to be marrying after he’d stormed out of their Rarotongan hotel room the day before their nuptials. “It was horrific,” tells the 40-year-old mum-of-three. “I was inconsolable.”
Vanessa, whose surname has been withheld for legal reasons, had been living in Tauranga with her youngest daughter when she met Christchurch salesman Brent (not his real name) online through dating website Elite Singles two years ago.
Within weeks, she was flying south to spend weekends with him and in December 2015, she made the move to Christchurch. “It was a whirlwind romance, really.”
That same month, Brent proposed, presenting Vanessa with a $38,000 engagement ring, and the pair immediately started planning a tropical wedding in the Cook Islands for October 2016.
The bride-to-be opted for a stunning white Jane Yeh dress and the couple couldn’t wait to exchange vows under the palms on the white sand at the Crown Beach Resort in front of a small group of family and friends. They would spend close to $40,000.
But first, they had 10 days at a luxury hotel in Hawaii for an early honeymoon. “We had it before the wedding because of my work,” explains nurse Vanessa. “I hadn’t had the job for very long, so I had to try to fit things in with that. It was amazing. That’s the sort of crazy things we did – we went to New York, we stayed at amazing lodges ...”
But Vanessa never got to wear her gorgeous $6000 lace-and-tulle wedding dress. On October 21, just 24 hours before the big day, Brent stormed out of their beachside hotel room, saying the relationship was over. The distraught bride still hoped the ceremony might go ahead. It didn’t.
“His best friend was the one who told me. It was the day of the wedding. He just said, ‘Vanessa, he’s not coming back.’ It broke my heart. I mean, we’d been practising our vows just the day before. Now here I was with 49 guests – some had even taken loans to be there – and there wasn’t going to be a wedding.”
Embarrassed and humiliated, Vanessa says the hurt was immeasurable. “To be honest, the events are still a bit of a blur, but I was inconsolable.”
She remembers, however, the wonderful kindness of the hotel’s wedding planner Victor Edwards who, along with Vanessa’s close friends, rallied around her.
“Victor was amazing. He talked me through everything, phoned all the suppliers to say the wedding had been cancelled and even tried to get a refund on rooms that
had been paid for at a resort in Aitutaki that we were supposed to be staying in after we were married.”
Victor suggested Vanessa share the food the hotel had been preparing for two days with her guests, rather than letting it go to waste.
“We’d bought 15 bottles of Moët as well, so we drank that too. On the night of what was supposed to be my wedding, we all sat down and had a meal,” a tearful Vanessa says.
They also held a pretend wedding for Vanessa’s friend’s four-year-old daughter Bia, who was meant to have been the flower girl and couldn’t understand why her services were no longer needed. And the musicians who had been hired to play felt so sorry for the heartbroken bride that they held a spontaneous get- together for the group the night before they were due to fly out.
“There are pictures of me smiling,” she recalls. “I wanted everyone to be happy because I carried this terrible guilt that everyone had come to see us get married. You can see in some of the photos people just looked terrible, even though we were trying to be happy for each other in this really ghastly, awkward situation.”
But it wasn’t the end of her ordeal. Two days after, Brent, who declined to talk to Woman’s Day, returned to NZ, he emailed Vanessa, telling her how ashamed and sorry he was for the pain he had caused, and that he had made the biggest mistake of his life.
She came home, moving back into the Christchurch house the couple shared. “I was suicidal for a while,” she tells. “I was a mess – I’m still a mess ... but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. I thought maybe he’d just got cold feet and made a mistake.”
They agreed to attend a counselling session, but the relationship was past saving. Vanessa has since moved out and is trying to start over.
“When I look back at it all, it’s like a movie,” she says. “But I loved him because he opened doors for me, was kind to animals and we laughed. It was the classic ‘Oh, my God, I’m in love’ situation. Now I’ve lost everything.”