March 10, 2003 12:00 PM

The day after cameras filmed Bachelorette Trista Rehn bestowing her final rose on firefighter Ryan Sutter last November, series creator Mike Fleiss was back in his Los Angeles office, anticipating the show’s debut on ABC two months later. Then Fleiss’s assistant buzzed to tell him that Sutter, who lives in Vail, Colo., was on the phone. “I thought, ‘Oh no—already they’ve broken up?’ ” says Fleiss. “I always assume the worst.”

As well he might, given the way the Bachelor franchise has spun off its own broken-hearts club: The original Bachelor, Alex Michel (in addition to rejecting a contestant named Trista Rehn), never got anywhere near an altar with Amanda Marsh, and a few weeks ago Helene Eksterowicz cried on national TV after being dumped by the second Bachelor, Aaron Buerge. But a few minutes later Fleiss put down the phone a happy man. “Ryan just called to thank me for giving him this opportunity to meet his future wife.”

A date has yet to be announced—but maybe three is the charm? Host Chris Harrison estimates “a 99 percent chance of a wedding” for Rehn, 30, a pediatric physical therapist, and her fiancé, 28, who proposed (before an audience of 20 million) on the Feb. 19 finale. “I’m looking forward to vindicating the show and the theory that it can work,” says Harrison.

Even though many viewers thought she was leaning toward financial analyst Charlie Maher, 28 (see box), Rehn says Sutter has given her all the proof she needs. “He has it all,” she says. “He’s a masculine guy, but he’s also sensitive. He makes me feel very safe. There’s a kind of unspoken chemistry.”

Unspoken, but potent enough that the couple asked producers to arrange several clandestine rendezvous while the show was airing. Recalls Fleiss: “They were so madly in love. One time Trista said, ‘Oh my God! Eighteen days to the finale!’ She was counting down before they could be together.”

They were reunited Feb. 19 to watch the conclusion together in a Manhattan hotel room before launching the obligatory media-honeymoon tour (which will include a Bachelor reunion special). Three nights later they were holding hands exiting a party at the Villard Bar. One guest said to Sutter’s brother Chris, “See you at the wedding.”

One teeny fissure did open very briefly: Rehn went along with Sutter’s unpretentious wardrobe when he wanted to go on ABC’s Good Morning America wearing a promotional T-shirt for Moe’s, a restaurant owned by friends in Vail. “Trista is like, ‘Okay, you need to change the shirt,’ ” he says. “But she finally caved in and let me wear it.”

One of the two will have to make a much bigger concession before they ever wed: Who’s moving where? Rehn is looking for L.A.-based TV work, “maybe as a correspondent,” while Sutter, who waited tables before becoming a firefighter a year ago, is exploring his options there too. If Hollywood passes, says Rehn, “I’ll go to where he is. He’s established a life in Colorado, and he loves it there.”

Indeed, says Chris Harrison, seeing Sutter’s camaraderie with his firehouse buddies may have played a role in nudging her toward him instead of Charlie Maher. Now, says Sutter, “I look forward to talking to the guys. It’s hard not to expect razzing.” More likely sincere congratulations. “Trista is pretty and has a lot of fun energy,” says fire technician Mark Mobley. “And she looks like she had a good head on her shoulders.”

But—as so many matchmaking reality series would have us believe—two heads are better than one. After their Manhattan whirl, “we’ll be visiting my best friend in Houston, who just had a baby,” says Rehn. “Then we’ll be going to Colorado and Miami for a wedding.” Instant clarification. “Not my wedding.”

Tom Gliatto

Cynthia Wang and Johnny Dodd in Los Angeles and Liza Hamm, Jennifer Sobie and Elizabeth Cobb in New York City

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