March 03, 2003 12:00 PM

Melody Mastromano

Swooned for: A grubby gardener

His secret: He had plenty of green

Melody Mastromano’s parents met on a grocery-store checkout line. So maybe it was genetics that prompted her to take a chance on the rumpled guy shopping next to her at a Sarasota, Fla., Home Depot in November 2001. “I was sweaty, buying plants—it was the last place I would look for a woman,” admits Jürgen Otto, 33. The two stole glances at each other—but neither made a move until Mastromano, then 39, waved at Otto as she drove away.

That night both Mastromano, a photographer, and Otto, a real estate agent and flight instructor, rued letting the moment slip away. Each decided to return to Home Depot the next day on the chance the other would be there. Otto had filled three carts with yet more foliage by the time Mastromano walked in. “I grabbed a cart and put some plants in it and said hello,” she recalls. He asked her for a date, and the two became inseparable.

But Otto had a few secrets. For days Mastromano had no idea the German immigrant had a tidy bankroll, a six-bedroom Sarasota home with a private landing strip and eight cars, among them a vintage Mercedes and an Austin Healey convertible. “I’m not rich, but I have a lot of nice stuff,” Otto says. The bachelor also fudged his age. When Mastromano—divorced since 1996 after a 14-year first marriage—told him she usually dated men in their 40s, Otto, then 32, gave his age as 36. “I had to wait until I knew she was hooked before I confessed,” he says.

There was one more deception to go. Last summer Otto protested to Mastromano that the 2-carat engagement ring she had picked out was too pricey. But he secretly bought it—and on Aug. 28 slipped it on her finger. They wed Dec. 28. To Mastromano, Otto’s fibs were nothing compared to the tug of fate. “If something’s meant to be,” she says with a grin, “it will be.”

Ana Margarita Martinez

Fell for: A dashing Cuban defector

Found out: She had married a spy

The man Coral Gables, Fla., bank secretary Ana Margarita Martinez connected with in Bible class in 1992 seemed like a vast improvement on her first two husbands. A handsome former Cuban Air Force pilot who had just defected to the United States, Juan Pablo Roque wrote her love poems, doted on her kids Sasha, now 19, and Omar, 18, and spoke movingly about “how happy he was to be in the land of the free,” she recalls. Says Martinez, 42, who wed Roque in 1995: “He gave me a sense of stability I had never known before.”

Until Feb. 23, 1996. That morning, Roque—who had been working as an airport ground crewman while volunteering with Brothers to the Rescue, an anti-Castro group that flies small planes over the Straits of Florida looking to aid rafters fleeing Cuba—left their Kendall, Fla., house, claiming he was spending the weekend with a friend in Key West. The next time Martinez saw him was Feb. 26—on the news speaking from Havana. Two days earlier the Cuban Air Force had shot down two Brothers planes, killing four crewmen; U.S. authorities accused Roque, 47, of spying for the Cuban government and conspiring in the deaths. The only thing he missed about the U.S., Roque told CNN, was his SUV.

Back in Florida, “I longed for the earth to swallow me,” says Martinez, who moved to the U.S. from Cuba when she was 6. Psychotherapy helped her decide to take action. She filed a lawsuit accusing the Cuban government of sexual battery. “I was raped,” she says. “He and his government used me.” In 2001 a Miami judge awarded her almost $27.2 million in damages, to be collected from frozen Cuban assets in the U.S.

Martinez is unlikely ever to see that money. But “I feel vindicated,” she says. As for Roque, “I know he’s in God’s hands,” says Martinez, who had her marriage annulled. “I just hope he repents for what he has done.”

Kathi Spiars

He said: He inherited a fortune

She learned: He may have killed for it

Steve Marcum was mysterious about his past—but to Denver waitress Spiars, he was pure magic. He wooed her with the keys to a Porsche 944. When she shivered one snowy day, he whisked her to Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, within hours. “We had the perfect life,” says Spiars, 54.

And he wasn’t paying for it on his busboy wages. After Marcum moved in with the divorcee and her daughter Shawna, then 10, in 1980, Spiars found gold ingots in the toilet tank. Marcum told her that he had inherited a fortune from his father and that he had been an assassin for the CIA. “He said, ‘You know I can’t talk about it,’ ” says Spiars. “I trusted the man.”

She went on trusting him—until their 12-year marriage fell apart in 1993. Marcum turned “hostile,” says Spiars, who found out he had forged her signature to buy a minivan. Two days later he served her with divorce papers. Bewildered, Spiars delved into his past, combing public records and quizzing police: “I went through every piece like an onion and got to the middle.”

The truth horrified her. Marcum was in fact Eric Wright Jr., 54, a former California sheriff’s lieutenant who had vanished in 1980, attempting to make his disappearance look like a murder. He was married to another woman when he wed Spiars. That wasn’t all. Wright’s name had appeared in papers belonging to Lester Marks, a San Francisco gold dealer found murdered in 1980. Seven gold bars were missing from his home. After Spiars shared details of her husband’s ingots, authorities reopened the unsolved case and charged Wright, who was extradited from Mexico last year, with murder. He faces trial June 3. Spiars looks forward to testifying. “Many, many people were fooled,” she says. “He was very convincing.”

Marc Coumeri

Sparks flew at: A Manhattan nightclub

She didn’t mention: She’s a princess

It was 3 a.m.—well past Cinderella’s bedtime—but the dance floor was still packed at New York City’s Twilo when Pekina Norodom met Marc Coumeri under the disco ball. “I thought she was beautiful,” says Coumeri, 27, a credit-risk analyst who soon found a quiet spot to chat with Norodom, 32, a product manager for Timex. After sunrise they brunched with pals and held hands under the table. “I kinda felt like I knew her,” says Coumeri.

Not quite. Three weeks and several dates later, in December 2000, “I asked him if he recognized my last name,” says Norodom. “Should I?” replied Coumeri. She explained that back in her family’s native Cambodia just about everybody does—her grandfather, Norodom Sihanouk, is the country’s king. (Sihanouk, 81, returned to the Cambodian throne in 1993, 23 years after the coup that opened the door to the Khmer Rouge.) “I was totally shocked,” Coumeri recalls. “She said, ‘Yeah, I’m a princess.’ ”

The revelation didn’t slow their romance. “I joked around with her and said, ‘Hello, your highness,’ ” remembers Coumeri. Last May the couple wed in an elaborate Buddhist ceremony at the royal palace in Phnom Penh, followed a few months later by a Jewish ceremony in New Jersey, where Coumeri’s parents, John, 65, and Linda, 58, live. “I felt more of a princess in that white dress [than the traditional golden wrap she wore in Phnom Penh] because I got to wear a tiara,” says Norodom. “That’s what Princess Di wore.”

Among the wedding guests was Pekina’s brother Chiravouth, 37, a graphic designer who met his wife, Elsie, 31, a Malaysian-born New Yorker, through an Internet personals ad—and also kept his royal lineage hidden at first. “When he said, ‘I have a secret to tell you,’ ” Elsie recalls, “the first thing that came to mind was, ‘Uh-oh, he’s an ex-convict.’ ” Norodom, who lives with Coumeri in Connecticut, is thankful that her parents—Yuvaneath Norodom, 59, and Yin Kim, 55—didn’t insist their children follow the Cambodian custom of arranged marriage. “Marc’s charming, well-mannered, sweet and honest,” she says. “He’s a true prince.”

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