July 05, 2004 12:00 PM

Tellingly, when the breakup came on June 12, NFL quarterback Jesse Palmer was in New York, training for the coming football season, while law student Jessica Bowlin was in L.A., preparing to leave for Hawaii to run a half-marathon for charity. Over the phone, she cried and he listened. But in the end the decision was mutual. “We decided that we wanted to move forward as friends rather than romantically,” says Palmer, 25. “Obviously distance played a role.” Bowlin, 22, agrees: “Not being able to spend a lot of time together was probably the toughest thing on our relationship.”

A few days later Bowlin flew to Hawaii, accompanied by none other than Tara Huckeby—the woman who’d been her last rival for Palmer’s affections on The Bachelor. Despite a situation so tense that, during the May 19 finale, Huckeby heaved into the bushes, the pair remained close. In Hawaii, Huckeby, who is now dating a 26-year-old Oklahoma City University student, helped Bowlin nurse her disappointment. They spent hours by the pool, people-watching, and crossed the finish line of the race holding hands. “Jessica put in a lot more effort than in a normal relationship,” Huckeby, 23, says. “It was not a bad, horrible breakup, but I definitely think she’ll be happier with another man.”

As Palmer and Bowlin jointly discussed their breakup with PEOPLE during a conference call, they sounded a refrain familiar from each of the four past Bachelor couplings that headed for Splitsville. “We all went into this expecting a fairy tale,” says Bowlin. After a whirlwind, on-camera courtship, the two had to stay apart for two months, waiting for the finale to air. Then there was the pressure of the media attention. “I try not to pay attention to things that other people are saying about what I’m doing or what Jesse’s doing; only Jesse and I really know what’s going on,” says Bowlin. “I tried to let all of that roll off my back.”

Both hope to remain friends. “We do really care about each other,” says Palmer. As for the plane ticket to New York that he gave her at the final rose ceremony, he says, “She’s always got an invitation to come see a game or hang out for a weekend.” Bowlin’s response? “I’ll take him up on that.”

Jill Smolowe. Cynthia Wang in Los Angeles

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