Mark Armstrong And Cynthia Wang
November 20, 2002 12:00 PM

Nothing like cutthroat competition on national TV to get America in a weepy, romantic mood, as ABC’s breakout hit “The Bachelor” ended Wednesday night with hunky banker Aaron Buerge dropping to one knee and proposing to Helene Eksterowicz, 27, a brunette school psychologist from New Jersey.

Naturally, she said yes.

With a rented Malibu mansion as the backdrop — and roses scattered around the swimming pool — Buerge, 28, chose Eksterowicz over 22-year-old college student Brooke Smith, wrapping a second season of the show that once again sparked heated debate around the watercooler.

“The qualities in her that I love are that she’s very headstrong, independent and intelligent,” Buerge told PEOPLE before Wednesday’s finale aired.

But, he adds, they’re not going to rush into anything just yet. “Now that the show is over, we can really get to know each other and see how we interact, not only outside of the show but without the media. I anticipate us both being relieved.”

The couple also planned to share their relief — reuniting in a Manhattan hotel room to watch the final episode.

Wednesday night’s two-hour conclusion began with both women making trips to meet Buerge’s family in Springfield, Mo. (Admits Buerge: “They liked Helene more.”) After one last date, the two women returned to the mansion and Buerge popped the question to Eksterowicz, giving her a 2-carat oval diamond ring (which he bought himself) and a single rose.

Over the course of the show’s eight-week run, Eksterowicz says she and Buerge were able to sneak off for a couple of outings together, albeit with tight security.

“We have seen each other a few times — once was under pretty heavy surveillance and once was out of the country,” she tells PEOPLE. “They had a chaperone come along with us to an out-of-the-way place. But the show has been really good working with us, trying to make this work out.”

As for the future, Helene and Aaron say they’ve been making plans to get to know each other better. “We talked about him coming down and seeing me sometime in December,” she says. “I think the feelings are there, but we just have to see how things are going to go outside of ‘The Bachelor.'”

For more about Buerge and Eksterowicz’s "Bachelor" experience and their plans for the future, pick up the newest issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.

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