PORT CHARLOTTE, Florida (AP) — On Friday — 11-11-11 — Sheila Barnett and Melissa Patrick will walk down an aisle and stand in front of a giant, crescent-shaped window at the Crowne Plaza in Manhattan, look each other in the eyes and say, "I do."
The same-sex couple from Florida was one of 11 couples to win the hotel's "Marry Me 11-11-11 Wedding Contest" on Facebook, which gave away dream weddings on that once-in-a-century day that's supposed to be lucky for love: Nov. 11, 2011.
Yet as Barnett and Patrick packed their nearly identical dresses for the ceremony (Patrick will wear white, Barnett, purple), they tried not to think about one fact: when they return home, their marriage won't be legal in Florida.
"I don't like it," said Patrick, who sat in her living room on a recent day with her arm around her fiancee.
Same-sex unions aren't recognized under Florida law. In 2008, Florida voters amended the state's constitution to define marriage as a union only between one man and one woman. A gay rights group is sponsoring legislation in the upcoming session to provide domestic partnership benefits to committed same-sex couples in the state.
A same-sex couple from New York and another from Ohio also won the contest. Ohio has an amendment similar to the one passed in Florida, but gay marriage is legal in New York. The state also recognizes unions from other states.
The couples flew to New York on Wednesday. On Thursday, everyone was to rehearse for the ceremony and then tour the city.
Barnett and Patrick, who are both 37, haven't always been in same-sex relationships — and are reluctant to identify themselves as lesbians, saying that their love "blindsided" both of them. Barnett was in a relationship with the same man for 20 years — married for many of them — and Patrick had a long-term relationship with a man. Both have children from those prior relationships.
"I fell in love with a person, for who she is and everything about her," Barnett said. "Not because she was a female."
Said Patrick: "Love doesn't discriminate, I'll tell you that. You're able to fall in love with anyone if it's right."
The two women met 20 years ago in high school and played on the softball team together. They were friends, but nothing more. After graduating, Patrick moved to Indianapolis and became a firefighter.
They kept in touch throughout the years and in 2010, Patrick visited Florida on vacation. She and Barnett spent every day together, and when it was time for Patrick to leave, they both cried.
"When she left it was one of the saddest days of my life," said Barnett, who is a hairdresser. "Something was going on, but I didn't know what it was."
The couple dated long distance, and then Patrick quit her job as a firefighter and moved to Florida so they could be together. They initially planned to hold a commitment ceremony in the summer of 2012, but a friend told them about the Crowne Plaza contest a few months ago.
"Two women, true love, awesome story and it's just that simple," they wrote. They asked friends and family to vote for their entry, and were chosen in October. Steve Ward, a matchmaker who also is the star of VH1's "Tough Love" show, will perform the ceremony on Friday. The hotel will serve a lavish lunch and provide plum-and-white flower bouquets or corsages, along with wedding photos and video. As part of the promotion, every couple stays at the hotel free and was able to invite 10 friends or relatives.
Patrick and Barnett spent the past week getting ready for the trip: having their nails done in an identical French manicure with black heart details on their ring fingers, buying winter clothes and deciding where to visit once they get to the city. Barnett has never been to the Big Apple.
"She wants to go purse shopping," Patrick said of her fiancee. "I want to visit Ground Zero and eat some New York pizza."