NEW YORK - It was Jessica who won NFL quarterback Jesse Palmer the finale of "The Bachelor." Tara, her overanxious rival, fumbled - and before that, hurled during Wednesday's final episode.
"I'm so sorry," Tara moaned on her way to the final "rose ceremony," dropping into a crouch and throwing up in a hedge.
Palmer, a backup for the New York Giants, had begun the ABC dating series with 25 possible mates. Then, week by week, he narrowed the field to two blond finalists: Tara, a 23-year-old general contractor from Oklahoma, and California law student Jessica B., 22.
"This whole thing to me is like a dream," Jesse told Jessica at the moment of truth, "and tomorrow morning I'm gonna wake up from that dream into the real world. But I don't want to wake up tomorrow morning if I can't wake up with you."
Jesse's "gut instinct" was telling him they were meant to spend their lives together, he said, but added, "I am not ready to propose to you tonight. I think that we need more time to grow and learn about each other."
"That's all I want," she said.
Jesse produced a one-way plane ticket to New York, inviting her "to chase all your dreams, but do it with me."
Then Tara was fetched from her limousine, where she had retreated after her anxiety attack, to learn her fate.
"I don't want you to say anything," Tara tearfully told Jesse as they stood face to face. "You would make me happier than any other person in this entire world, if I am the girl standing here at the very end."
"Tara," Jesse said gravely, "I've fallen in love with someone else."
Earlier in the episode, Jesse had taken each contender home to meet his parents. Then it was off to Beverly Hills' Rodeo Drive with each of them to shop for an engagement ring.
"Today is very bittersweet," Jessica confided to the camera. "It's really, really hard for me to have to sit down and think that he is sharing the same moment with Tara."
She needn't have worried. But as is typical with this kind of show, Jesse claimed to be torn until the last minute.
"I don't have the answer right now," he had told Jessica the night before. "It's gonna come to me."
"I don't know how I feel about that," she frowned.
Then, just in time, he announced to the camera, "It hit me like a ton of bricks: I know what I'm feeling. I know what my heart and my head are telling me."
In an interview before the series' April 7 premiere, Palmer, 25, said he was looking for an honest, self-assured woman who was comfortable with herself. The show was taped in Los Angeles last fall, but Palmer had been mum on whom he chose, referring to her only as "the missus."
Trying to determine who was genuinely interested in him, and who might have seen only dollar signs (Palmer made $389,000 in 2003) was one of the hard parts of choosing Ms. Right, he said.
"I think I'm more confused about women in general after doing this show than I was before I got on," he said at the time.
In its fifth season, the series has done well for ratings-strapped ABC, drawing 12.5 million viewers last week. It ranks 21st in households.