Nikki Araguz said she finally found happiness -- just as it was ripped up from underneath her.
After a difficult youth and rocky first marriage that ended in divorce, in 2007, she met a volunteer firefighter named Thomas Araguz in the tiny town of Wharton, Texas, quickly fell in love and got married.
She relished her role as a stepmom to her husband's two young sons, over whom he had joint custody. She had just launched her own magazine in Wharton and encouraged her husband to go back to school and pursue his dream of becoming a police officer. Then, tragedy struck.
The unthinkable developments would set off a chain of events that exposed a long-kept secret of Nikki's life and rocked her small Texas town.
The devastating news came in the early morning hours of July 4, 2010. Nikki Araguz was away on a road trip visiting friends in California when she got a call from another firefighter's wife.
"She said, 'You need to come home right now. They lost Thomas in a fire at 11 o'clock last night," Nikki Araguz recalled.
While fighting a five-alarm blaze that broke out at a local egg farm, Thomas Araguz was separated from the other men on his team. The fire was so intense that more than 30 departments from all around Wharton responded. It took 10 hours to finally locate Araguz's body.
In a panic, Nikki Araguz got in her car and raced home. But the life she was running back to had already been turned upside down when, just two months earlier, Thomas Araguz' ex-wife, Heather Delgado, took him to court to challenge their custody agreement.
Thomas Araguz had the boys four days a week and Delgado was unhappy with the active role Nikki Araguz had begun playing in her children's lives.
"She just tried to take over right away, with school, medical appointments, dentist appointments," Delgado said. "I would make them. She would call and cancel to set them on a date when Thomas had the boys so that she could take them."
With the help of a lawyer, Delgado started digging into Nikki Araguz's past. They found arrests for passing bad checks and struggles with drugs and alcohol, but it was Araguz's birth certificate that would yield the bombshell no one saw coming.
Delgado discovered that Nikki Araguz was actually born Justin Grahm Purdue -- a man.
CLICK HERE to see photos of Nikki through the years.
Since the age of four or five, Nikki Araguz, born Justin Grahm Purdue, recalled feeling different from other little boys. Unlike his peers, Justin had no interest in boyish clothing or games. Instead, he gravitated to traditionally feminine activities, like playing with Barbies and dress-up, which led to constant bullying on the playground.
"They would always question me, 'Why is your brother a faggot?'" Justin's sister Vanessa Ball recalled. "I was like, 'Well, that's my brother and I love him and if you can't accept that, then I don't want to be your friend."
Justin's internal struggles continued into adolescence as the physical differences between him and other boys seemed to be getting more pronounced -- something his friends had noticed.
"When we all started developing and growing up, Justin had round shoulders. Justin had hips, a svelte waist and figure, a walk that matched, and a voice that didn't change to a masculine voice," said Rene Huff, a high school friend.