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The bride wore white. And there were flowers everywhere. But the fact that they were flowing out of old barnwood troughs—and that the bride wore cowboy boots under her silk tulle Angel Sanchez dress—was a clue that the wedding of Sandra Bullock and Jesse James was not going to be a traditional affair. For starters—until a half an hour before the evening ceremony at a ranch in Solvang, Calif., on July 16—almost none of the guests were sure they'd been invited to a wedding. They RSVP'd instead to a barbeque "in honor of Sandy B. given with love by Jesse J.," as the invite read, to celebrate Bullock's 41st birthday on July 26. In the requested "evening cocktail attire" on Bullock's side were old pals from elementary school in Arlington, Va., relatives from Germany (where her mother was born) and a handful of celeb buddies including Hugh Grant, Keanu Reeves, William Shatner and Regina King. On the side of the groom—who owns West Coast Choppers custom bike shop in Long Beach, Calif.—were family members and a few Hell's Angels buddies in suits and tattoos.

How did everyone find out their hosts were cooking up more than ribs? From a 10-minute video they watched over cocktails featuring the couple talking cute about each other and ending with James—a lover of pit bulls and pet sharks and the guns he occasionally uses to shoot at cars on his show Monster Garage—sharing their joyous news. As he put it, "We've been engaged since October, suckers!"

And so as the sun set and lanterns sparkled from the branches of a huge old tree overhead, 270 delighted suckers plopped down on horse blankets and hay bales in a grove on a private estate 38 miles from Santa Barbara and watched as Sandy and Jesse wed. "She was gorgeous. He was beautiful. They were very happy," says Bullock's sister Gesine Bullock-Prado. "It was nice for it all to finally happen."

The key word in that sentence: Finally. Never one to nurse childhood fantasies about cascading flowers and a puffy white gown, Bullock until recently found the very idea of marriage off-putting. As she told PEOPLE in March, "When people talk about marriage, inevitably it's about the dress, the cake, the shoes, the honeymoon, the people who are going to be there... It just wasn't for me." Her sense of caution, and privacy, was evident even after her unlikely romance with tough-guy James, 36—whom she met in 2003 while taking her nephew on a tour of the Long Beach set of Garage, his hit vehicle-makeover show on the Discovery Channel—became serious. Several months ago, she began wearing the vintage engagement ring—a 1910 Tiffany and Co. piece from jeweler Neil Lane's private collection—that James gave her on her left index finger. And the invitations she sent out about two months ago for the day's bash did not mention the M-word. As she said about the whole "Hallmark thing" in March, "People were trying to put me on their schedule. I've got my own schedule."

One she kept closely guarded until men in kilts playing bagpipes lured guests from a tent to the wooded grove around 8 p.m. The invitations they had received asked them to board shuttle buses in Santa Barbara to an unspecified location at about 5 p.m. Though most had heard rumors a wedding might take place, only a few there knew for sure. Among them: Bullock's father, John, 70, a vocal coach from Arlington, and Gesine, 35, who runs a bakery out of Montpelier, Vt., and made the four-tier wedding cake topped with a bride and groom on a bicycle. Almost everyone else spent the first two hours sitting at burlap-and lace-covered tables under the tent or poolside by a Colonial-style manor, nibbling on hors d'oeuvres and scratching their heads. Says one guest: "To the last minute everyone was like, 'Is she getting married? Is she not getting married? Is she getting married? Is she not getting married?'' "

Not that the suspense was the evening's only excitement. As guests were boarding buses in Santa Barbara, James was already making his grand entrance at the ranch; he drove up in a red double-cab truck, tires squealing and engine revving. On the narrow roadway outside the ranch, he hit a speed bump that sent his truck flying briefly into the air. And moments later, inside the property, he turned a sharp corner so hard that he skidded out in the dirt road. But by around 8 p.m. he was back on track, waiting for his bride at the end of a path strewn with rose petals. First came Bullock's mixed-breed dogs, Kernie and Bob, dressed up in collars woven with natural grasses. "They were just so excited to be there, like everybody else was," says a guest. Then came Gesine, Bullock's maid of honor. Without any formal roles or standing order, says Gesine, the family just "all glommed together" near James.

As Bullock walked down the aisle on the arm of her father, the recorded sounds of an aria from Bellini's Norma, sung" by her mother, Helga, a German-born opera singer who died of cancer in 2000, filled the air. "Nobody said it was her, so you kind of had to know," says a guest. "It was really touching, [like] her mom was there." Moments later the aria ended and Bullock joined James beneath an old tree hung with a cameo that had belonged to her mother. The grove was so silent, says her sister, "we could hear the birds."

The quiet didn't last long. At first there was the sound of guests crying, both from the emotion of her mother's aria and from the sight of Sandy as a bride. Says one guest: "She never thought she was going to get married. She's waited a long time." Next came laughter: In addition to the traditional vows, Bullock and James exchanged personal remarks. "They were kind of humorous," says the guest. "He wanted her to promise that he could bring home dogs that he found. And she wanted him to promise not to bring home any dogs until she okayed it." As the audience cracked up, Bullock looked at her groom and, says a guest, "looked absolutely gorgeous. [The exchange of vows] was very much their own. It was very beautiful and very sweet." Says pal and florist Cecelia Heffernan: "She was totally relaxed and just so excited to marry him. There was no second-guessing about anything. Those two just wanted to be together."

During the 20-minute ceremony, the bride and groom exchanged bands. Hers was custom-made from platinum by Neil Lane according to James's design, with intricate beadwork to match her engagement ring; his was hand-tooled out of stainless steel by Bullock herself. After they officially became husband and wife, everyone applauded. Then, says Gesine, "we moved on to the fun stuff."

First the newlyweds danced to a remix of the Motown classic "Best Thing That Ever Happened to Me." (Bullock's song to James, says a source: his to her is Ray Charles's "Hallelujah, I Love Her So.") Inside a large tent, lights covered with amber shading, chandeliers hanging from the top, and sheer fabric draped from the poles gave the feel of an old saloon—one filled with the bluegrass punk-rock sounds of the Los Angeles-based band the Cousin Lovers. In keeping with the western hoedown theme, guests made their way around hay bales to a buffet that included fried chicken, shrimp gumbo and mac and cheese. "The whole tent was very fun, very lively. People could actually sit on the hay bales and watch people dance," says Heffernan. And dance they did. After dinner, revelers grooved to dance music from deejay Tony Okungbowa, who is best-known for spinning on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. "It was a lot of fun," says a guest. "It was a really fun, eclectic crowd. It really brought together his world and hers."

From now on, those worlds will be joined: the bubble baths and chocolate peanut butter ice cream she loves, the choppers and drag races he loves, the Starbucks runs and strolls with the dogs that suit them both. As the last guests reboarded shuttles near dawn, Bullock and. James were looking forward to their future: for starters, a trip to Las Vegas (see box) and after that, a shared life they manage despite their differences. "They just let each other be themselves. One's not trying to conform to the other's lifestyle," says Regina King, Bullock's pal and costar in Miss Congeniality 2: Armed and Fabulous. The wedding, she adds, reflected the couple: "Nice and relaxed—they just kind of made this perfect union."

By Karen S. Schneider. Tom Cunneff, Brenda Rodriguez, Lycia Naff and Dylan Steele in Solvang, Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna and Harisa Laudadio in Los Angeles. Jarret Keene in Las Vegas and Mary Green in Manhattan

  • Contributors:
  • Tom Cunneff,
  • Brenda Rodriguez,
  • Lycia Naff,
  • Dylan Steele,
  • Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna,
  • Marisa Laudadio,
  • Jarret Keene,
  • Mary Green.