Talk about your rebound relationships. On March 2 The Bachelor
winner Melissa Rycroft had been humiliated on national television when her new fiancé, Jason Mesnick, unceremoniously dumped her in favor of runner-up Molly Malaney on the After the Final Rose
special. But just seven days after she was seen tearfully storming off the set, Rycroft triumphantly returned to ABC, beaming and with a new man on her arm: her Dancing with the Stars
dance partner Tony Dovolani. She even received a standing ovation before making one move on the dance floor. "I cannot think of a bigger word than overwhelming to describe how it felt to have people yelling, 'Go Melissa!'" Rycroft told PEOPLE right after getting high marks for her waltz. "I feel so great."
And just like that, Rycroft's incredible roller-coaster ride over the past few months has taken its wildest and most unexpected turn yet. After the Bachelor
bombshell, Rycroft, who turned 26 on March 11, was adamant about returning to a "normal life" in Dallas. But that all changed when DWTS
producers called March 6, frantically looking for someone to replace Nancy O'Dell, who'd suffered a torn meniscus and had to withdraw from the competition. (Fellow competitor Jewel, who had fractured tibias in both legs, also bowed out and was replaced by The Girls Next Door
's Holly Madison.) Says Rycroft: "This is a reward, in a way, for what just happened."
's Dovolani isn't the only new man in her life. Rycroft now has a boyfriend, Ty (she refuses to reveal his last name), an insurance agent who coincidentally has the same first name as Mesnick's 4-year-old son. They met two years ago, but "our big issue was always timing," Rycroft explains. "When I wanted a relationship, he didn't, and when he did, I didn't. All the behind-the-scenes stuff was going on between Jason and I, and it was such a hard situation because I can't tell anybody what I'm going through, and I want somebody to lean on. Ty came back into my life and was that rock for me. I have no idea what I would have done without him."
While her on-camera split with Mesnick occurred six weeks prior to airing, Rycroft says the subsequent public outrage over the breakup touched her heart. Fans rallied to her defense (77 percent of PEOPLE.com readers said Rycroft was better off after the breakup) and commended her for taking the high road—she resists slamming Mesnick or Malaney—at a time when nobody would have blamed her for letting it rip. "I'm so far past Jason and Molly," she says. "You can either dwell on it or you can move on. I chose to get everything out and move on."
That's exactly what the former Dallas Cowboy cheerleader was doing—until she got a call three days before Dancing
's premiere. "I had to make the decision within 30 minutes because of how quick everything was coming up," Rycroft explains, swearing that she had no intention of doing a third reality show. (She also appeared in CMT's Dallas Cowboys Cheerleaders: Making The Team in 2006-07.)
After consulting with her parents and Ty, who told her that the opportunity was too good to pass up, Rycroft bolted from her job in the marketing department of a liquor distribution company, cryptically explaining to her boss, "I can't tell you where I'm going or how long I'll be."
The next 48 hours took their toll on Rycroft, who upon landing in Los Angeles underwent intensive ballroom training with Dovolani. While she has a dance background—mostly cheerleading and drill team experience—she says that ballroom "couldn't be further from what I'm trained in." Learning the Viennese waltz, Rycroft jokes, made her feel "like an elephant in high heels." But sore muscles and all, she says the bottom line is "I'm going to go and have fun. That's the best I can do." That will be more than enough, says Dovolani. "People will be rooting her on because of what she went through," he says. "She could fall on her ass and she'd still be a success story."
And whenever the time comes for her to stop Dancing
, Rycroft says this time she's done with reality TV for good—well, probably. "Absolutely, but I know I said that after The Bachelor," she says. "I'm happy back in Dallas. I don't see myself being in front of the camera for the rest of my life." One thing, at least, is certain: "I will be very happy if I never see a rose again!"