December 01, 2003 12:00 PM

The sun had set over the Caribbean and—in what would be one of the final episodes of the current season of The Bachelor—Bob Guiney and Estella Gardinier were facing a balmy night together on a private island in Belize. After a specially prepared five-course dinner, they’d barely reached the doors of their private fantasy suite when they were seized with a passionate mutual longing.

For more food. “We were so hungry,” says Gardinier, who’d been so immersed in her conversation with Guiney she’d barely touched her meal. “We asked [the crew] to get us some pizza.” Swift as Cupid, pizza arrived, and the couple resumed their intimate chitchat, “realizing how much we didn’t know about each other,” says Guiney, “but at the same time how much we had in common. It was pretty awesome—wind blowing in from the ocean, us sitting there eating pizza.”

Skip ahead past the moon shining down on whatever else followed. (“Some moments you just don’t talk about,” says Guiney.) It all ended, three months after taping began in June, with that final rose. Now Guiney, a 32-year-old mortgage broker from Detroit, and Gardinier, 28, a mortgage broker from Beverly Hills, have gone public. Meeting secretly in L.A. for a photo shoot just before the final, revealing episode aired Nov.19, he wrapped his arms around her waist and bent down to kiss her ear. She reached her arms to wrap behind him, saying, “I’m so happy.”

As millions of viewers now know, it was Gardinier who won Guiney’s heart on the finale of ABC’s Bachelor. But don’t buy a wedding gift just yet: While Guiney gave Gardinier a diamond, it was to wear on her right hand for now. “Having been divorced, I’m uncomfortable to make the next major step so soon, but I wanted to give her the ring as a token of what could be,” he says. “We hugged each other for a long time. She was elated.”

But sensible. “We want to take this as slow as possible,” says Gardinier, “and we want to make it last.”

Meanwhile, runner-up Kelly Jo Kuharski, 24, a marketing analyst from Wheaton, Ill., drove off in that long black limo of tears. “He knew he was going to break someone’s heart,” says host Chris Harrison. “I think he felt that guilt more than any of the other bachelors that we had.” Which may be why he sent personal notes to all the runners-up: “I was saying ‘Thank you,’ ” says Guiney, “‘for sharing your life with me a little bit.’ ”

So ended the eight-episode romance-a-thon in which 25 single women chased after the guy whom Trista Rehn, now destined to marry Ryan Sutter, ejected from The Bachelorette last year. (For Trista’s wedding details, see page 184.) Despite the tidy alliteration of their names, Guiney and Gardinier are pepper and salt. He’s an extroverted 6’3½” lug who used to sing in a garage band (and will soon release a solo album). “Even when Bob was little,” says his mother, Nora Guiney, 57, who runs a small publishing company, “I was afraid that a stranger would come and pick him up, because he just loves everybody.” Gardinier, on the other hand, tends to hang back. She fell for Guiney watching The Bachelorette—she recalls letting her spoon drop into a bowl of cookie batter and saying, “He is so gorgeous” when he first appeared onscreen—but she was unsure about appearing on Bachelor until she talked to her mother. “Don’t be afraid,” Karen Gardinier, 65, an elder-caregiver, told her. “Fear doesn’t get you through life.”

Maybe love will. “She’s a wonderful kisser,” says Guiney, who has developed a reputation as the Bussin’ Bachelor. “She’s very expressive, kind, compassionate and tender.” Still, the 5’5″ San Diego native remains guarded when talking about their future. “It was so amazing knowing we would get a chance to know each other more,” she says of their “rose” moment, “and looking forward to not having that stopped. I could possibly end up one day spending the rest of my life with him.”

Both are open to relocating, but in the weeks between the last taping and the airing of the finale, they didn’t learn much more about each other than they had on their tropical pizza date, where they shared a Rainman-like obsession with “Belize” puns: Gardinier accepted her rose that week by saying, “You better Belize it!” (Her friends all called, she says now, to wail, “Please tell me you did not say that.”)

Forced to keep the show’s conclusion a secret from friends and family, the couple communicated mostly by phone. Code names: Ricky and Lucy. Sometimes they whispered of love, other times they talked shop. “I’ve actually called her about interest-only loans,” he says. “It’s been so long since we’ve been together.” Neither is anywhere near ready to decide on marriage or children. Nora Guiney, however, says she asked Gardinier whether she wanted kids, “and I believe she said, ’20,’ and I said, ‘Thattagirl!’ ”

Gardinier says she sensed from the start that she and Guiney would end up together. “He was attracted to me the very first night,” she says, when he escorted her down a stairway at the Malibu mansion where most of the show taped. When she nearly lost her footing, “the way he helped me, his concern—I could feel it between him and me.” And then she heard that his middle name was Eugene. Her father, who died in 1998, was Max Eugene Gardinier. “I thought in that moment my father had a hand in what was going on,” she says. “And Bob is a lot like him.” (“He’s a peach,” says her mom.) Within days, she says, “it was so apparent we were going to end up together, the producers had to minimize what they showed of us. He was singing Journey all the time—my favorite band ever!”

But what about that meltdown at a Vegas hotel? Worn out by all the competition, Gardinier shielded her face from the camera and cried. In fact, that was a turning point. “Bob sat with me, looked me in the eyes and said to trust him,” she says. “I did. And from that very day, I have not looked back.”

Which leaves them the future to learn about each other. For instance: “I’m ridiculously anal,” he says. During shooting, “I would wake up every morning and make my bed.” Is Gardinier the same way? “She seems to be.”

One thing he can know for sure, says Gardinier. “I’ve completely fallen for him.”

Tom Gliatto. Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles

You May Like