Bachelor Speaks Out About Romance With Marla Maples

Bachelor Speaks Out About Romance With Marla Maples

04/08/2008 AT 12:00 AM EDT

Former Bachelor Andy Baldwin and Marla Maples -- a.k.a. the former Mrs. Donald Trump -- have a "blooming romance," the Naval officer tells PEOPLE.

"We met (last year) and I found her to be very sweet, positive," he said of the 44-year-old Maples. "She's polite and respectful and has a great heart."

Although the two were spotted together in New York City over the holidays -- prompting rumors of a love connection -- Baldwin said their relationship didn't became romantic until February, when he returned home from an overseas military mission.

Baldwin, who's in his early 30s, is in the process of relocating from Hawaii to Washington, D.C., for a new job assignment. He's currently vacationing in Los Angeles, where he's been logging quality time with the California-based Maples.

The two have been spotted frolicking on the beach, attending a youth camp supported by their friend Deborah Gibson and arriving arm-in-arm at Monday's Dancing with the Stars.

"It takes someone special for me to spend time away from my daughter (14-year-old Tiffany), because she's my priority," Maples told PEOPLE before the show. The two held hands through the evening, and spoke earnestly of their love connection.

"There's a lot of sweet, cute in the world, but it's what's in here," Maples said, gesturing to Baldwin's heart, "that counts."

So is the age difference an obstacle? "She has the mind, body and energy of a 25-year-old," insisted Baldwin. "When you have a connection with someone, age goes out the window."

As for social worker Tessa Horst -- to whom he proposed in the Bachelor finale -- they called it quits last September. "I definitely care for her a great deal," said Baldwin, who added that they have kept in touch. "I have no regrets about that experience or the relationship that we had." -- Elaine Aradillas

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