December 02, 2002 12:00 PM

For a man who had just spent six weeks whittling down a field of 25 would-be wives, Aaron Buerge was feeling awfully romantic. At his rented Malibu mansion, he took Helene Eksterowicz’s hand and finally told her how he felt about her. Then with ocean waves lapping in the background, the 28-year-old banker dropped to one knee, fished a 2-carat oval diamond ring from his pocket and asked her to marry him. “I got this rush of warmth over me and I was like, ‘I hope I don’t faint or throw up,’ ” says Eksterowicz, 27, an elementary school psychologist. “It was an overwhelming experience.”

Buerge’s proposal—and Eksterowicz’s elated “Yes!”—capped a second hit season of ABC’s reality dating show The Bachelor. When he finally chose Eksterowicz over 22-year-old college student Brooke Smith on the show’s Nov. 20 finale, Buerge ended eight weeks of watercooler speculation about his nuptials pick. Not to mention a tough two months of secrecy for the newly engaged couple, who were allowed only two high-security trips together since the proposal was taped in mid-September. “I get sweaty’ palms just thinking about seeing Helene again,” Buerge said two days before the finale aired.

Still, the couple, who watched the show by themselves in a Manhattan hotel room, admit their time hasn’t been all bliss. “We’ve had our fair share of tense moments,” says Buerge, who lives in Springfield, Mo. “We’d get together and feel like we’re starting over.” Watching Buerge’s outings with her fellow contestants has been especially awkward for Eksterowicz. “The overnight dates are a little hard,” she says. “I’d prefer they didn’t happen, but they did.”

Both she and Buerge also endured needling from friends, who tried to persuade them to fess up, but the way Buerge tells it, there was never much suspense: He was smitten from the start. “My first impression of her was really good,” he says. “She’s very headstrong, independent and intelligent. I think that first greeting tipped off a lot of people, actually! It’s producers who keep the mystery alive.” Despite the editing, “I wasn’t questioning him all the time,” says Eksterowicz. “We had a lot more lighthearted times.” But no hanky-panky during their overnight stay in Aspen: “My dad said, ‘You’re not having sex with him no matter what anyone says!’ ”

Still, the pair aren’t exactly rushing down the aisle. Eksterowicz is staying put in Gloucester City, N.J., while they get to know each other better—and reassure their families they haven’t gone completely mad. “My parents will be relieved we didn’t fly off to Vegas to get married,” she says. “That would be their worst nightmare.”

Susan Horsburgh

Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles

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