June 23, 2004 02:00 PM

After her breakup with Bachelor Bob Guiney last year, Estella Gardinier made a pact with a friend to take a year off from dating – only she wasn’t able to stick to it, PEOPLE reports in its upcoming issue.

“I wanted to focus on spending time with my mom and my friends,” says the Beverly Hills mortgage broker. That was before she met country singer Steve Holy.

“As they say, when you’re not looking, that’s when it hits you.” Gardinier, 28, was attending the Academy of Country Music Awards in Las Vegas in May when her friend, Trick Pony guitarist-singer Keith Burns, introduced her to Holy, 32, who’s known for his 2002 No. 1 hit “Good Morning Beautiful.”

Lately, Gardinier and Holy have been inseparable. “It’s been more of the same fireworks we felt early on,” says Holy. “We haven’t tapered off one bit. All we do is laugh.”

Here’s hoping the smiles last, given how most Bachelor players have fared in relationships. None of the show’s male stars – Alex Michel, Aaron Buerge, Andrew Firestone, Guiney and Jesse Palmer – has ended up with the women they chose from the show (which, of course, worked out pretty well for Holy).

Then again, the two women who starred in The Bachelorette have fared far better – Trista Rehn married the man she chose, Ryan Sutter, in a $4 million televised ceremony, and Meredith Phillips is still engaged to Ian McKee.

The latest casualty came less than two weeks ago, when 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.

“We decided that we wanted to move forward as friends rather than romantically,” said Palmer, 25. “Obviously distance played a role.” Bowlin, 22, agreed: “Not being able to spend a lot of time together was probably the toughest thing on our relationship.”

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,” said Bowlin.

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