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On Sept. 16, the day after the sudden end of her four-month marriage to Kenny Chesney became public, Renée Zellweger was in New York, where she turned up at a steakhouse in the Hamptons. She requested a table for one, kicked off her sandals and quietly dined on salmon and steamed spinach before leaving a $100 tip. "She didn't act sad or upset," says an observer. "She was so sweet." Two days later, at the Farm Aid concert in Tinley Park, I11., her soon-to-be ex-wearing his signature second-skin Levi's, a Stetson pulled low over his eyes—also put his best boot forward, gamely singing, dancing and air-fiddling his way through his hits. "He's a professional," says Faith Hill; she and her husband, Tim McGraw, are longtime friends of Chesney's. "You just have to go on," she says, adding, "It's gonna be a rough couple of weeks. But I think everyone's gonna be okay."

Four months of dating, 128 days of marriage and one picture-perfect, barefoot-on-the-beach wedding—all of it leading up to the painfully public finality of Zellweger's Sept. 14 petition for annulment. "It's just a bad, heart-breaking situation," says singer Shannon Brown, who attended the couple's May nuptials at Chesney's cliffside estate in the U.S. Virgin Islands. "It seems very surreal to be up on the hill watching them get married, shedding tears of joy, and having it come to this."

How did it come to this? The fiercely private pair offered few hints, except to say in a Sept. 17 statement that "Renée and Kenny... are saddened that their different objectives prevent the success of this marriage." But clearly the couple's high-speed courtship, grinding work schedules and frequent long-distance separations did little to cultivate a built-to-last marriage. "I think they jumped in head-first and then realized that they, you know, maybe should have gotten to know each other a little bit more first," says singer Gretchen Wilson, who toured with Chesney throughout the summer and got to know Zellweger on the road, where they gabbed while doing their laundry together. Adds McGraw: "It just wasn't right for either one of them. They both realized that."

Still, the end arrived suddenly—Zellweger was wearing her wedding ring as recently as Sept. 5 at the Venice Film Festival. "Kenny had no idea this was coming," says one friend. "He knew they weren't as happy as they should have been, but he didn't know she was about to drop a bomb on him." Zellweger's wording on the L.A. court petition, in which she cited "fraud" as the grounds for the annulment, only stirred more speculation, leading her to issue a statement clarifying that "the term 'fraud'... is simply legal language and not a reflection of Kenny's character." Adds another friend: "I think it happened much quicker than he anticipated."

The same could be said about the relationship itself, which began when Zellweger, 36, and Chesney, 37, met at a Jan. 15 tsunami relief telethon. The country hunk had long nursed a crush on Zellweger, the inspiration for his 1999 hit "You Had Me from Hello" (from her line in '96's Jerry Maguire). With their similar small-town backgrounds (he's from Luttrell, Tenn.; she's from Katy, Texas) and low-key sensibilities, the two seemed "perfect" together, says a friend. "I thought, 'Wow, there is somebody else in this world just like him.' "

After a brief getting-to-know-you period-largely conducted via e-mail-the couple quickly and stealthily moved to the next level, with Zellweger secretly accompanying Chesney on the road, where she often "stood alongside the stage like a little teenager, clapping for her man," says Wilson. Chesney was equally smitten. "In all honesty, Kenny struck me as a schoolboy about it," says songwriter Rodney Crowell, a Chesney friend. "He said that he felt he had a chance to put something really good together with her." Another Chesney pal notes that the singer-who had been previously engaged in 1999-was eager to settle down. "Kenny is in love with being in love," says the friend. "He was ready to get married."

Zellweger, whose romance with rocker Jack White had ended the previous fall, was ready as well, initially playing the role of supportive new wife on the road. Though they rarely appeared in public together, those who know the pair say they spent more time with each other than people realized-at least in the beginning-and one friend estimates that she was present on his tour "about 40 to 50 percent" of the time. Still, "they got married and spent a couple weeks together," says Wilson. "Then she was off [to promote Cinderella Man] and he was touring." The schedule was hardly ideal for establishing a firm foundation for marriage or family. Notes a Chesney pal: "This isn't a lifestyle conducive to a relationship until you are willing to put your career in the backseat."

Friends also say that Chesney was uncomfortable with the level of scrutiny involved with being married to an Oscar-winning movie star; one pal recalls a frustrated Chesney complaining that paparazzi were disturbing the waters off his St. John retreat and scaring off the fish. At the same time Chesney's more relaxed, Nashville-style approach to media relations may have caused some friction between the two.

By July, Chesney had begun to confide marital woes to his inner circle. "We had conversations that led me to believe that he was having a hard time, that marriage was a lot more than he thought it was going to be," says Brown. As his smash Somewhere Under the Sun tour wore on, Chesney continued his on-the-road routine of late-night video games and hanging with his close group of buddies. "You go from living alone to having to share your life with somebody," says Brown. "Until you actually start living that way, you don't really know what it is going to be like." After the split was announced, Zellweger remained in the Hamptons, where she was spotted window-shopping; Chesney, meanwhile, lay low in Tennessee following his Farm Aid performance. Friends of them both expressed sadness that a match that started off so promisingly came to such an abrupt end. "In a lot of ways, it really did make sense to see them together," says Brown. "When it comes down to it, they are just two people who fell in love and it didn't work. That happens to a lot of people."

Michelle Tauber and Samantha Miller. Kelly Williams in Chicago, Beverly Keel and Michael McCall in Nashville, Courtney Hazlett and Bethany Lye in New York, Andrea Billups and Jon Warech in Miami, Alicia Dennis in Austin, Paysha Stockton in Boston, Laura Hahn in London and Pamela Warrick and Julie Jordan in Los Angeles

  • Contributors:
  • Kelly Williams,
  • Beverly Keel,
  • Michael McCall,
  • Courtney Hazlett,
  • Bethany Lye,
  • Andrea Billups,
  • Jon Warech,
  • Alicia Dennis,
  • Paysha Stockton,
  • Laura Hahn,
  • Pamela Warrick,
  • Julie Jordan.