03/03/2003 at 01:00 AM EST
Last November Helene Eksterowicz was the big winner on ABC's reality series The Bachelor. In front of 26 million viewers, she received a marriage proposal and a 2-carat engagement ring from dashing blond banker Aaron Buerge. She might have expected to be celebrating again on Valentine's Day with her betrothed, but instead all she got was flowers—from Mom and Dad. "My parents gave me roses," says Eksterowicz, "for fear that I would get nothing."
Nothing from Buerge, anyway. Just five weeks after The Bachelor ended on Nov. 20, Eksterowicz says she was unceremoniously dumped at a Starbucks near her one-bedroom apartment in Haddonfield, N.J. As Buerge prepared to catch a flight back to his home in Springfield, Mo., Eksterowicz says he told her that he was no longer "emotionally invested" in their relationship. "It felt like a bomb dropped," she says. "I said, 'I feel very deceived by you. You've told me every single day that you love me, and now this is it?' "
Fact is, there had been more than a few thorns since the couple filmed their final "rose ceremony" in September. Obligated to keep their engagement a secret for two months until the finale aired, Buerge and Eksterowicz, both 28, "tried to talk every day on the phone, but it was hard," she says. In late September they shared a clandestine rendezvous in Toronto—and had their first fight when Eksterowicz caught Buerge staring at another woman at a bar. "I gave him back the ring and told him, 'If you're serious about this, you shouldn't be looking at other girls,' " she recalls.
The pair ironed things out, and Eksterowicz, an elementary school psychologist, began making plans to relocate to Springfield. "She was willing to move down there—to leave everything, knowing they were going to have a future together," says her close friend Laurie Townsend. "Helene genuinely loved him."
Buerge even popped the question once more for good measure—this time without a camera crew standing by. Watching The Bachelor finale together in their Manhattan hotel room, "we were so happy," recalls Eksterowicz. "I was just so relieved to have all this over so we could see each other as much as we wanted. It would just be us. We were laughing in the bed, and I asked, 'Would you mind proposing again?' "
Many lip locks, two proposals and one ring later, what went wrong? Buerge—who has remained friendly with runner-up Brooke Smith, 22, but notes, "I'm not interested in dating anyone from the show"—says there was no third party. "It was just the best decision for both of us," he says. Eksterowicz, who has the ring (which Buerge paid for himself) in a safe-deposit box, isn't so sure. In one of their last conversations, she recalls, "I said, 'I think you're making a big mistake. I was in this for the right reasons. I would have done anything for you.' "