For a bride and groom a little more than a week away from pulling off a top-secret wedding, Kelly Clarkson and Brandon Blackstock were calm, collected and cold-feet-free. Hosting a party for around 40 close friends and family on Oct. 12 – eight days before their surprise nuptials on a farm in eastern Tennessee – the pair “had no wedding jitters at all,” says their friend, Beverly Hills jewelry designer Johnathon Arndt, who attended the “pre-celebration” at the couple’s Nashville home. “They were walking around hand-in-hand. It was just what you’d expect from two people in love.” The evening “was Kelly and Brandon opening their home to say, ‘Thank you for being a part of our lives,’ ” says Arndt. “They wanted to keep [the rest] sacred and hush-hush.”
They got their wish. On Oct. 20 the “Miss Independent” singer became “officially Mrs. Blackstock” – as Clarkson, 31, proudly tweeted the next day – exchanging vows with her groom, 36, in a romantic and serene ceremony that showcased the singer’s down-to-earth charm. Nestled on 4,200 acres in the Great Smoky Mountains, the private Blackberry Farm provided a bucolic backdrop for the couple’s nuptials, with Clarkson donning a lace Temperley Bridal gown and a crystal headpiece. Among the handful of guests in attendance: Blackstock’s children (with ex-wife Melissa) Savannah, 12, and Seth, 6. “I love Kelly,” Melissa, 39, tells PEOPLE. “I’ve known her for years, and I couldn’t ask for a better stepmother for my children. My kids love her.” Even Clarkson’s glam squad was minimal: Childhood friend Ashley Donovan did her makeup, and longtime pal Robert Ramos styled her hair.
So secretive was the not-so-big day that even some loved ones didn’t learn about the wedding until after the fact. “It’s news to me,” her brother Jason, 40, told PEOPLE. “It’s awesome. They both live their lives in the spotlight, so more power to them.” In the days leading up to the wedding, Clarkson betrayed no hint of bride-to-be nerves. On Oct. 15 she and Blackstock picked up their marriage license at the Sumner County Clerk’s office, “like everyday people out doing errands,” says a staffer. And three days later, Clarkson logged a photo shoot to promote her new Christmas album, Wrapped in Red. “She was walking on sunshine,” says her stylist, Steph Ashmore. “She has been glowing ever since she started dating Brandon. It’s just the sweetest love story.”
Initially Clarkson had envisioned a far more elaborate affair. After Blackstock proposed last December with a yellow diamond ring designed by Arndt, the pair planned to tie the knot before 200 guests at their home. But by August they had scrapped those plans. “We were so overwhelmed by it – by all the decisions,” Clarkson told PEOPLE. Settling on the right gown was among the biggest challenges. “When she tried them on, it felt like she liked every single dress,” says Ashmore. The one she ultimately chose showcases her “Jane Austen-meets-country-relaxed feel,” says Ashmore. Says Jim Verraros, a friend and fellow contestant on American Idol, who helped design the bridal headpiece: “She couldn’t have looked more like the epitome of grace and style.”
For a long time, Clarkson didn’t see “I do” in her future, telling PEOPLE in March that before Blackstock she couldn’t even bring herself to sing about happily-ever-after love: “I would have been, like, ‘It doesn’t exist.’ ” But Blackstock, a manager for country star Blake Shelton who is also Reba McEntire’s stepson, changed her mind. “He is everything I ever wanted in a guy,” she said. Now on her honeymoon, the busy star—she’s due to perform in Las Vegas on Oct. 30 – already has her eye on her next big project: a baby. “We want to have more children,” she told PEOPLE last month. “We’re just excited.” Those closest to her share her newlywed joy. “Kelly truly deserves this,” says Arndt. “She has waited so long to have this special person come to her.”