August 30, 1999 12:00 PM

Second thoughts are as common as china patterns for most brides-to-be. But even when cold feet turn itchy, finding the nerve to back down is, for most, something out of a movie—It Happened One Night with Claudette Colbert, say, or The Philadelphia Story with Katharine Hepburn. Or this summer’s $100 million runaway hit Runaway Bride, in which Julia Roberts‘s small-town heartbreaker Maggie Carpenter strands no fewer than four wannabe husbands at the altar. If Roberts’s own nuptial near-misses are any guide, she must have empathized with her Runaway character: In 1991 she jilted Kiefer Sutherland just three days before their planned $500,000 ceremony.

In the movies, of course, the bolting bride usually is played for laughs. But for real women, what does it take, and how does it feel—not only at the moment of truth, but years later? To find out, PEOPLE tracked down six real-life runaways. As the women on the following pages can attest, happy endings aren’t confined to the silver screen.

Three engagements, one fling and a devoted fiancé

“I’ve always said that I’ve been good at saying yes,” declares Julie Pearlman, who lives in Dallas. The problem was her gift for saying no. Julie and her husband, Jamie, now both 29, first met the summer before college in 1988, when, each behind the wheel of a Corvette, they stopped at a red light on the Dallas Tollway. He leaned over and asked her to a party; she accepted. After dating for a year, Jamie surprised Julie with a $17,000 engagement ring charged on the American Express card his father, a local surgeon, had given him for emergencies. “Jamie wanted to buy me a ring,” recalls Julie, “and thought that was an emergency, since he didn’t have any money.” Not amused, his father—who thought the couple were too young to settle down—”dragged me back to Tiffany’s to return the ring,” says Jamie

Undaunted, the duo continued to date. Then on July 4, 1994—at the same traffic light where they had met—Jamie proposed again with another ring. This time all their parents were pleased, and the couple (Jamie was about to enter law school and Julie was a field representative for Foster Grant) began planning for a May 1995 wedding.

By April, the bridal gown, band, cake and caterer all had been paid for and an announcement published in The Dallas Morning News. But later that month, at a convention in Las Vegas, Julie met a man who, she says, “swept me off my feet.” She called Jamie and broke the news. “I never thought I’d tell someone I loved so much that the wedding’s off,” she says.

Within five months, Julie’s fling was history. “I asked myself, ‘What am I doing? I love Jamie,’ she says. “My mission was to win him back.” It wasn’t easy. He didn’t trust her, but he still loved her. On the sly they began dating again. At first his parents “were furious,” he says, but gradually they came around.

Their July 27, 1997, wedding was, she says, “the happiest day of my life.” Still, she’s not off the hook. Says Jamie, laughing: “I’m going to use this for the rest of my life.”

Rejecting him was a ‘religious’ experience

It was only a 15-minute walk from Jerlene Bolds’s parents’ house in Richmond, Calif., to the Baptist church where, less than 48 hours later, she was to marry Jerry, her fiancé of a year. But that quarter hour gave her plenty of time to think things over. “He was fussing at me about some pots I’d bought,” recalls Bolds, then 22. “Now everybody who gets married needs pots, don’t they? But when he said that I was wasting money, I thought, ‘I can’t believe you said that!’ Jerry, after all, was the guy who weeks before had gambled—and lost—all their honeymoon cash at a Reno casino. When she got to the church, where the soloist was rehearsing “Because,” Bolds had an epiphany. “He’s totally stupid,” she recalls thinking. “I’m not marrying him.”

After silencing the singer, Bolds, one of 10 children, broke the news to her family and friends. Except for the sobbing of her sister Jennell, Bolds’s best pal, Polly Goodbeer, recalls, “you could’ve heard a rat tinkling on cotton.” Understandably, Jerry was stunned. Not so Bolds’s parents. “Good!” said her mother, Aylene. “He never polished his shoes, anyway.” She then bade her family go home and call the 250 guests and tell them not to come. The florist, caterer, baker and bridal-shop owner returned Bolds’s deposits. And, she says, all the invitees insisted that she keep the gifts, saying, “You’ll get married at some point.”

Thirty-one years later, Bolds, 54 and a secretary at a Bay Area insurance company, remains single. She likes it that way. “I’m loving every aspect of single life,” she says. “I’ve dated—I still do—but I have not had any interest in getting married.”

Unless you count the time, a month after she dumped Jerry, that she nearly eloped with him to Reno. “He convinced me we’d just had a little disagreement,” she says. But before boarding the bus, Bolds says, “I came to my senses and ran until I got home.”

When they first met, in 1966 as members of the same bowling league, Bolds I says she was taken with the “tall, nicely t built” San Francisco shipyard worker. p Still, she recalls, “he didn’t have much of a sense of humor—which should -have told me something.”

As for those pots and pans, “they’ve lasted longer than a lot of marriages,” Bolds says, laughing. “Which tells me I must have made the right decision.”

Soured on sweet-talking beau, she gives him the boot

Working as a publicist in Washington, D.C., in April 1990, Patty Kosciuszko met John (not his real name), a State Department employee, at a restaurant near the White House. Soon after they began dating, John started showering Patty with gifts—balloons, books of poetry, flowers. “He would send six dozen roses to me at work,” she recalls. “I had a very small office, and I could barely get in it. It was overkill.” Still, the attention was flattering, and when he proposed four months later, she accepted.

The couple set a date—April 28, 1991. “I love your daughter and your family!” John told Patty’s dubious mother, June, a widow. “We’ll probably grow to love you too,” she replied. “She thought it was way too quick,” Patty recalls. “She also thought I’d get tired of his romantic side.”

Mother knew best. Within two months, Patty began to find her fiancé’s devotion less than endearing. Once, she says, she came home to find the walls of her apartment plastered with 100 love messages that were written on Post-it notes. “He seemed obsessed with me,” Patty says. “I would go to lunch with a girlfriend and find him at the bar or a table.” She continued planning the wedding—picking a church and a gown—but during premarital religious counseling, her doubts increased. “We had our first arguments after those sessions,” she says. “There were times when I looked at him and thought, ‘Who are you?’

Mr. Wrong, she finally decided, and broke off the engagement eight weeks before the wedding and returned the heirloom ring John had given her. But their seven-day honeymoon package to Mexico was nonrefundable. So she took her sister Jan. Says Patty: “We had a fabulous time!”

She still cherishes another gift John gave her. During a dinner with friends after their breakup, he introduced her to Royal Collette, now a manager of a computer company. “It was love at first sight,” says Patty, now 36 and owner of PattyCakes, a specialty baking company. When Patty and Royal wed on Sept. 16, 1995, she made their seven-tiered cake. The parents of two daughters, ages DA and 15 months, the Collettes live in Annandale, Va., where the gown Patty bought for the wedding that wasn’t hangs in a closet. “It’s a reminder of a good decision,” she says, “for both of us.”

Swept up by wedding plans but not the reality of marriage

In 1998, Heather Tarter was at her father’s second wedding when a guest observed that “people make such a big deal about weddings. They really need to celebrate their anniversaries.” With her own nuptials just weeks away, the remark struck a chord. “All I’d been thinking about was planning the wedding,” says Tarter, who had spent months nailing down menus, lining up florists and searching for the perfect gown. “I hadn’t stopped to think about the fact that Rob and I were getting married. I wanted to take the dog, pack a suitcase and run.”

She stayed put. But two months before the planned 350-guest, black-tie bash at a Mamaroneck, N.Y., yacht club, Tarter put away her $4,500 pearl-encrusted dress and informed Rob, her fiancé of two years, that she couldn’t be his bride. She returned the two-carat engagement ring. Rob offered to wait, but Tarter declined. “He is,” she says, “a hope junkie.”

The couple had met four years earlier at Boston’s Northeastern University. “He was very sweet, very attentive, very sincere,” she says. In 1996, just before she left for Washington D.C., and a summer internship on Capitol Hill, Tarter accepted Rob’s marriage proposal. They set the date for Sept. 6, 1998. Rob eventually moved into Tarter’s two-bedroom condo, but within weeks they were in counseling. “For a guy, he’s very in touch with his emotional side,” Tarter says. “It’s what women say they want, but it can be draining. I needed more elbowroom.” It didn’t help” that Tarter’s parents—Barbara, 51, and Fred, 55—were getting a divorce after 30 years of marriage. With so much pressure, she says, “you neglect a lot of issues, like ‘What are we doing?’ ‘Where do we want to be in 5, 10 years?’

Realizing their goals were at odds, the couple split. Tarter, 25, a real estate agent, got custody of “my baby,” their basset hound Barnaby, but she allows Rob, 28, a pharmaceuticals salesman, frequent visits. Her condo once again hers alone, she says, “My time is my own. I don’t have to account to anyone or for anyone.”

She canceled the wedding but not the wedding party

As far as Cristy Burk could tell, the 60 guests at her 1979 wedding reception seemed blissfully unbothered that the groom was missing. “Everybody was there except him,” she says. Then again, he hadn’t been invited. Three hours shy of the ceremony, Burk dumped her dyspeptic beau. Now, two decades later, she still marvels at her courage that day and at how “relieved and at peace” she felt afterward.

Cristy was just 16 and a high school sophomore in the tiny town of Cotulla, Texas, when she began dating Keith (not his real name), an oil-field worker then in his early 20s. “He not only had a terrible temper,” says her mother, Mary, “he’d cut Cristy down every chance he’d get.”

Over the next five years, there were frequent make-ups and breakups. Then, on the eve of their wedding, Cristy, then 21, told Keith that she had invited several of his relatives to the rehearsal dinner at her grandmother’s house. “He totally blew up, because there were some members of his family he didn’t like,” she recalls. The next morning, after he failed to show up for the rehearsal and the dinner, Cristy tracked him down and asked if they were still getting married. “I guess I’ll go through with it,” he mumbled. Furious, she threw her engagement ring on the bed, announced that “the wedding’s off,” and walked out. When told the news, Cristy’s mother says she was “thrilled to death.” Cristy and her father, William, then tacked a note on the church door telling guests to come to their house instead. “We’d already bought the food and punch,” says Cristy. “So we took the plastic bride and groom off the cake, brought the flowers from the church and had a nice party.”

Her ex gone for good, Cristy, a dental hygienist, moved to Dallas to start over. Deeply religious, she was at church one Sunday when she met Gary is Stephenson, then 22, an irrigation specialist. When he asked her to marry him on Valentine’s Day in 1980, she turned him down. (“I had just called off a wedding!”) But she quickly reconsidered. “Gary,” she says, “has a big heart and a lot of compassion.” Married April 1, 1980, in the same gown she bought for her first wedding, Cristy’s runaway-bride saga has become a favorite with the four children—three boys and a girl—she has had with Gary, especially her 15-year old daughter Sunni. “She was pretty brave to do that,” Sunni says. “Mom is very strong-willed.”

A publicist says nope to a prenup

It was late morning on March 16, 1990, and Deborah Hughes was watching florists and caterers bustle around the Southampton, N.Y., estate she shared with her fiancé, former Studio 54 co-owner Ian Schrager. Hughes knew she should begin dressing for m their 1 p.m. wedding, but she was still I steaming over what she calls “a telephone-book-sized” prenuptial agreement that the millionaire had sprung 3 on her the week before. “You’re expected to walk down the aisle and say ‘I do,’ she says, “when what you really feel like doing is hitting him over the head!”

Hughes didn’t wallop Schrager that day—or marry him either. Instead, a few minutes before the ceremony, she called the whole thing off. Her decision, says Hughes (then a publicist for designer Carolina Herrera, whose husband had introduced the couple), “had nothing to do with money. It had to do with control. It was like having a divorce before you got married.”

Schrager’s brother Bernard broke the news to the 80 guests, including Calvin Klein and billionaire Ron Perelman. But while Schrager secluded himself in his bedroom, Hughes—her Herrera gown still on its hanger—put on a little black dress and played hostess. “When the door opened and I walked through it,” she recalls, “you would have thought a ghost entered the room. There were gasps.”

Some pals gasped again when the couple resumed dating two weeks later. They never again discussed that day, says Hughes: “It was a very dangerous subject.” They broke up for good in 1992. These days, Hughes, 42, who is single and lives in a one-bedroom apartment in Manhattan, runs her own public relations firm. As for her scrapped nuptials, “It just wasn’t meant to be,” she says philosophically. “I don’t regret it, and I’m sure Ian doesn’t either.”

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