Bachelor Jason Mesnick’s Change of Heart

03/05/2009 at 12:00 AM EST

Bachelor Jason Mesnick’s Change of Heart

Jason Mesnick is in the hot seat this week. Some 17 million viewers watched him get engaged to 25-year-old Dallas beauty Melissa Rycroft on the Mar. 2 season finale of The Bachelor, only to dump her minutes later on the After the Final Rose special. The 32-year-old insurance agent then confessed he still had feelings for 24-year-old department store buyer Molly Malaney.

In an exclusive sit-down interview with PEOPLE, Mesnick defends his decision to end his engagement to Rycroft in front of the cameras.

“That was part of the deal. I signed up for this. Your relationship is -- good and bad -- in front of everybody,” Mesnick says.

His change of heart occurred after he and Rycroft returned to their normal lives.

“After we got back into the real world, all of a sudden, we had less to talk about, and I didn’t know why,” Mesnick says, adding that as the days went on, he couldn’t stop thinking about runner-up Malaney. “There was part of me that wanted things to work out with Melissa so bad. But the whole other piece was I had these crazy feelings for Molly,” Mesnick says.

Malaney tells PEOPLE she felt a mix of emotions when Mesnick asked her if he could have another chance.

“After the finale I thought he made the wrong decision and I was so upset. I was shocked,” Malaney says. “I thought, Gosh, it would be so awesome if he called me up and was like I made a mistake, I want you back. Never in a million years did I think it would happen.”

As for Rycroft, whose pain was felt by viewers around the country, she tells PEOPLE she’s “going to be fine. It was a life lesson and I wouldn’t be where I am now,” she says. “I don’t want to feel sorry for me or that I was a victim in all of this. I am okay.” --Monica Rizzo

For the complete interviews with Mesnick, Malaney and Rycroft, pick up the latest issue of PEOPLE on newsstands Friday.

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