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Renee Oteri: Inside Her Surprise Love Story

03/27/2014 at 04:45 PM EDT

Renee Oteri: Inside Her Surprise Love Story
Renee Oteri and Bracy Maynard
Courtesy Renée Oteri
The Bachelor is known for devising over-the-top romance, but for Renee Oteri, 32, it was her experience after leaving the show that became one for the record books.

In a span of just five months, the real estate agent, who became a fan favorite on Juan Pablo Galavis's season, reunited with her longtime love Bracy Maynard, got engaged, moved to Seattle and tied the knot!

"I'm still walking on air," Oteri tells PEOPLE. "It's surreal. It may seem like it happened so fast, but for me, because I've known him my whole life, it's not."

In fact, Oteri met Maynard over twenty years ago, when the pair were middle school students in North Carolina. "He was my first crush, my first kiss, my first boyfriend," says Oteri. "When I was 12-years-old, I wrote in my diary that I was going to marry Bracy Maynard. It's insane!"



After Oteri moved away in high school, the pair kept up a friendship, writing letters for a time and then reconnecting over MySpace when both were in college. Then, in 2008, after Oteri's first marriage ended in divorce, the single mom to Ben, then 3, entered into a long distance relationship with Maynard.

"It was tough," Oteri admits. "I think I went broke trying to keep the relationship up! It ended after two years because it had to. We weren't mad at each other, it was just sad."

In 2013, following a different breakup, Oteri applied to go on The Bachelor. "I wanted to get married, have a family. I went there on a clean slate."



Reconnecting

After she was sent home in tears in late October, Maynard reached out. "He had this epiphany," Oteri says. "He said, 'I'm ready now, I want this to work.' I came to visit him and it was like we never broke up. It was better than it ever was."



A whirlwind romance quickly followed and when Maynard was offered a job in Seattle, he begged Oteri and Ben to come with him, proposing soon after on Feb. 24. Rather than work through logistics of flying family out for a summer wedding in Seattle, the pair decided on simple courthouse nuptials on March 20.

"It was romantic, and it was us," says Oteri. "We didn't want a big wedding or a big production. It was more important that Bracy, Ben and I were there. I called the courthouse on a Tuesday and we were married on Thursday!"

Clad in a vintage, '70s-era ivory lace dress she bought for $50, Oteri exchanged tearful vows with Maynard, as Ben and two witnesses – her cousin and The Bachelorette's Desiree Hartsock, a friend – looked on.

"It was the best day," says Oteri. "Looking back on the photos, I say, 'Wow, I've never seen a smile on my face like that before.' "

The newlyweds, who plan to add to their family one day, are focused now on relishing in their happily ever after.

"I love everything about Bracy," says Oteri. "This is everything I've ever wanted in my life, since I was a little girl. It's definitely my fairy tale ending."

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