The Bachelor's Jason & Molly Love Under Fire

UPDATED 04/06/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 04/06/2009 at 01:00 AM EDT

In many ways Jason Mesnick and Molly Malaney are like any other new couple—just learning each other's likes and dislikes and trying to work through their differences. Take their tastes in fast food.

"McDonald's!" Molly says, proudly wearing the Golden Arches on her faded red T-shirt. "I'm a big Burger King fan," Jason reveals. Uh-oh. Could a classic battle of the brands mark this reality couple's doom?

"It will be the downfall of our relationship," Molly says jokingly.

Given the backlash these two have encountered since rekindling the romance they started—then ended, then started again—on ABC's The Bachelor, a squabble over Big Macs versus Whoppers would be the least of their worries. The drama started on the emotional season finale of the ABC reality show, where Jason was tasked with finding a soulmate among 25 women. Confessing that he had fallen "in love with two women," Jason, the 32-year-old insurance agent and single dad to son Ty, 4, was forced to choose between Molly, the department-store buyer, and Melissa, the event planner and former Dallas Cowboy cheerleader. In the end he chose Melissa, proposing on bended knee—and sending Molly home alone in disbelief.

Then, on an After the Final Rose special filmed six weeks later and aired in the hour immediately following the finale, Jason sat on a couch and—as more than 17 million viewers' jaws collectively dropped—told Melissa it was over. Moments later Jason sat with Molly on the very same couch and confessed that he still had feelings for her. And then they kissed!

"The reason I changed my mind is that it was in my heart," Jason told PEOPLE at the time.

That's when the outrage began, as bloggers, critics and everyday viewers lashed out at Jason for breaking Melissa's heart on-camera instead of privately. Fans also vented at Molly for happily jumping right back into Jason's arms.

"People are entitled to their own opinions, but people burned me a little more than I was expecting," Jason says as he snuggles up to Molly, 25, on a comfy brown sofa in her suburban Milwaukee condo during one of the few chances they've had to get together in the past month. "What I had to do was right for everyone involved."

"At first," adds Molly, "I was reading all the things people were saying, all the negativity. But all that really matters at the end of the day are the people who are in our lives, who are happy for us."

Jason points to the way things have settled down as the proof that he did the right thing. Not only are he and Molly happy, he says, but Jillian Harris—his second runner-up—has been cast as the new Bachelorette; and Melissa, 26, has moved on to a new boyfriend—coincidentally named Ty—and is living it up as a contestant on Dancing with the Stars. "Everything worked out the way it had to work out," Jason says. "I think Melissa would be the first to say, 'I'm exactly where I need to be.'"

Where Jason needs to be at the moment is on Molly's turf: meeting her friends, taking strolls along Lake Michigan and "grilling out."

"I've learned new terminology," he says, laughing at the Midwestern word for barbecuing. "It's normal, right, to say 'grilling out'" Molly insists with a laugh.

In their off-camera time together, Molly is charming Jason with her cooking—her Cheesy Chicken "is so good!" he raves, noting that she won't share her secret family recipe for artichoke dip "until I'm family." And Jason's been getting the thumbs-up from Molly's friends. "They all gave him the stamp of approval," Molly says. Turning to Jason, she adds, "They love you."

Not that they don't have their differences. For instance, Molly tends to keep to a more disciplined schedule than Jason. "But I need that in my life," he says. "She needs to relax a little bit too. She really has a hard time trying new things. We pull each other in the right direction."

Overall they have no regrets. "We wouldn't be as close as we are now if we didn't go down this unique path," Jason says. "Molly and I are happy."

"We really care about each other and want to be with each other," adds Molly. "So we need to forget the controversy and start moving forward with our relationship, which is what we're doing."

For now, their relationship is still a long-distance one. While they e-mail each other during the day and talk on the phone every night, Molly, who used up much of her vacation time for the finale, hasn't had a chance to see Ty since the series wrapped. "I'm heading out to Seattle in a couple of weeks," she says. "I'm excited to just spend some time with Ty outside of the cameras and production." For now, she speaks regularly to the 4-year-old by phone (see box).

Overcoming real-life struggles isn't a bad thing, Jason says: "One out of 17 [Bachelor] couples has made it. I want to make sure we don't do the things that failed those other relationships. Some couples come out of this [show] and leave everything in their regular lives. [Previous doomed Bachelorette couple] Jesse and DeAnna were together and traveling for two straight months. We're only together for a few straight days."

Moving to Seattle is an option for Molly—but not yet. "It will definitely happen," she says, but "I don't think anytime soon." So they're trying to look on the bright side. "It helps your relationship in the long run," she says of the distance. "It forces us to really communicate with each other."

As for the critics who say this romance will never last? "People that know us genuinely know we're doing what's right for us," says Jason.

And what's right for them is to take it slow, from Jason's taking the time to talk to Molly's mom on the phone (until he has a chance to get down to Molly's hometown of Grand Rapids again), to planning visits with each other around their jobs and Jason's responsibilities with Ty. "We're taking it like a regular couple," Jason says. "Just because we met in this fast environment doesn't mean we need to keep going fast-forward." Agrees Molly: "We have maybe the next month planned out. We'll see what happens from there."

Those looking for a happily-ever-after ending will need to stay tuned. "We're just figuring it out," Jason says, looking at Molly lovingly as he strokes her hair. "We're going back to where everyone else starts."

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