By Monica Rizzo
October 26, 2009 12:00 PM

It’s been six months since Jillian Harris cut him loose on The Bachelorette, but the memory is still vivid for Jake Pavelka. “I will never forget what it felt like. It hurt,” says Jake, the Dallas-based pilot who went out on a limb by warning Harris that one of her other suitors on the ABC reality show, swaggering Wes Hayden, had a steady girlfriend at home (both Wes and the woman deny they were a couple at the time). Jillian may have appreciated the gesture, but she ultimately selected software consultant Ed Swiderski as her chosen man on the season finale last May. “There will always be a special place in my heart for Jillian,” says Jake, who has bounced back enough to declare, “I’m ready to be in love again. What a feeling that is!”

Though The Bachelor has a poor track record of successful pairings, Seattle single dad Jason Mesnick found love with retail buyer Molly Malaney last January (after a few twists and turns), and Jillian and Ed, who moved in together last month, are still going strong. That, Jake says, is ultimately why he signed on to be ABC’s next Bachelor. “I actually believe in the process,” says Jake, 31. The new season, which begins filming later this month and will air in early 2010, has made him hopeful about finding The One among 25 eligible women. His only trepidation is letting go of the unlucky ladies during the show’s always-dramatic rose ceremonies. “I fall pretty hard, and I think that when the numbers start to dwindle and there’s only a few girls left, I’m expecting to be a wreck. I don’t like to hurt people,” says Jake, who notably shed a tear or two during his time on The Bachelorette, a trait for which he makes no apologies: “To me, if you’re dating a guy and you’ve never seen him cry, that’s a major red flag.”

“Jake has a huge heart and he’s very sensitive,” says Jillian, who calls Jake “a catch. He’s a guy that will never cheat and is always honest and close with his family. He isn’t afraid to show his emotions.”

Jake says he and his brothers Jason, 38, and Matthew, 30, were never raised with a “macho man code.” As a teenager, he says, he was half the man he is today. “I was a nerd. A geek. I was short, skinny. I had braces—twice,” he says. He filled out, playing football at Billy Ryan High School in Denton, Texas, and discovered his passion for flying. “He began lessons when he was 12, and he mowed lawns to earn the money for them,” says his mom, nurse Sallie Pavelka. “By the time he was 16, he had enough hours to fly solo.”

Jake also tried his hand at acting for a few years. Using the stage name Jake Landrum, he booked local commercials and landed a gig on the TV series Walker, Texas Ranger, playing a young version of Chuck Norris’s character in flashbacks.

A pilot for Atlantic Southeast Airlines since 2000, Jake says finding love is the “missing piece” in his life. His most recent long-term relationship—which lasted five years—ended in November 2007. Given recent tabloid headlines involving the Bachelor franchise (Jason Mesnick switched women after filming; Ed Swiderski was accused of infidelity), Jake promises his reign should be scandal-free. “I’m friends with all of my ex-girlfriends,” he says, noting that he can’t think of any skeletons in his closet. As for the show’s infamous hot-tub scenes, Jake says, “If it doesn’t feel right, it isn’t going to happen. I have to be true to myself. I’m not here to make a TV show. I’m here to fall in love.”