A Winning Team
updated 05/31/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT
•originally published 05/31/2004 AT 01:00 AM EDT
Scars, moles and videotape—ain't love grand? Of course, cynics will say Jesse and Jessica—like the four Bachelor couples before them—are just another tricked-up TV romance destined to wilt faster than the final rose. Perhaps, but don't bet on it. Although Palmer, 25, a backup quarterback for the New York Giants, and Bowlin, 22, a first-year law student, are the show's youngest twosome ever, they may also be the most levelheaded. On the May 19 finale Palmer chose Bowlin over runner-up Tara Huckeby but didn't cough up any jewelry—no engagement, friendship or promise ring, a Bachelor first. Instead he surprised producers by giving her a one-way plane ticket to New York City, near his Hobo-ken, N.J., home. "Marriage is very sacred to both of us," he explains. "We always joked how the show is like dating on speed. You can get caught up in the whirlwind and make very rash decisions. But we both have a chance to have a real relationship." Says Bowlin: "I was very happy with the way things happened. Jesse and I both discussed that the Bachelor is 0 for 4." That Palmer presented her with a one-way ticket, she says, made it "a symbol of starting our lives together."
At a secret dinner arranged by PEOPLE two days before the finale (over takeout chimichangas and Thai chicken), the two joked and kissed and nudged each other like any young couple in love. Palmer showed up with two dozen peach-and-red hybrid tea roses—"my second batch this week," says a blushing Bowlin. Their attraction, says Palmer, was instant. "From when she was the first girl out of the limo," he recalls. "And when we went on a date, we were chattering the whole time and there were no awkward silences. It was so easy to be myself."
The two were so wrapped up in each other "that a lot of the time I didn't even notice the cameras were there," says Bowlin, who liked winking at Palmer during rose ceremonies and had a producer smuggle him a Valentine's Day card during the taping. Nor did Bowlin worry Palmer would pick Tara, her best pal on the show, or end up with villainess Trish (see box). She was even okay with watching him make out with other hopefuls. "She's not a jealous person," he says. "I thought I'd have to totally explain myself if I kissed another girl, but she's never questioned me about it."
Jesse's close friend Jenny Schiralli, who posed as a Bachelor contestant to spy on the ladies for him, says the couple's romantic Rose Bowl date—during which they picnicked and played catch in the empty stadium—pretty much sealed the deal. "Jessica had never thrown a football in her life, and it proved to Jesse that she doesn't have to 'get what I do, she just has to get me,' " says Schiralli. "I don't know if he's ever felt that before."
Still, they had to keep their feelings a secret for more than two months after taping. They were allowed to talk to each other on secure telephone lines ("We had bat phones!" says Palmer), using fake names chosen by producers (Jack and Diane). Later they came up with their own aliases to put into their cell phones' speed dials. Her pet name: Neb, after The Nebuchadnezzar, a ship in The Matrix. "It's very romantic," she says with a laugh. Her name for him? Mr. Derp. "That's from South Park," says Palmer. "We have a similar sense of humor."
Now that Neb and Mr. Derp are out of the closet, they'd like to take a European vacation with Schiralli and her husband, Nick. "But Jesse doesn't plan," says Bowlin. "It's highly annoying." The Huntington Beach, Calif., native has also applied to a few East Coast law schools to be closer to Palmer when football season rolls around in the fall. "I'm excited to start the real thing together," says Palmer, though it seems as if they've gotten a head start. "When we spoon," reveals Bowlin, "he's the little spoon and I'm the big spoon." Gee, aren't Palmer's football buddies going to love that.
Alex Tresniowski. Cynthia Wang in New York City and Carrie Bell and Strawberry Saroyan in Los Angeles