March 15, 2004 12:00 PM

Millions of viewers may have been surprised when Bachelorette Meredith Phillips chose free spirit Ian McKee over straight-arrow Texan Matthew Hickl on the show’s Feb. 25 finale, but not her old pal T.J. McHugh. From the beginning “you could tell she was very happy about Ian,” says McHugh, a friend of Phillips’s from her days at Oregon State University who helped her winnow down the candidates during the show’s taping. “I told her I hadn’t spent much time with him because he was very reserved. Later she pulled him aside and told him, ‘You know, you should talk to my friends.’ ”

Luckily, McKee was smitten too. “When I walked out of the limo, it was ‘Uh-oh,’ ” he recalled after the finale. “I love this girl.” But McKee, 29, a former equity research salesman raised in Brazil, played it cool. “From day one, he said he could never see himself proposing to a woman on national television or saying the words ‘I love you,’ ” recalls co-executive producer Lisa Levenson.

So Levenson—like almost 80 percent of Bachelorette viewers, according to an ABC poll—believed Phillips would select Hickl. But she picked a trembling and nearly hyperventilating McKee, who ditched his preppy reserve during the final rose ceremony and asked Phillips to marry him. “When he dropped to his knee, [series creator] Mike Fleiss and I dropped to our knees, and Mike was like, ‘He’s going to do it!’ ” recalls Levenson, who was watching off-camera. “We had no idea!”

Phillips has made no secret of the fact that she’d like to get married (“I’m 30 and I’m ready for that”), but don’t expect to see a Trista-style TV wedding anytime soon. Instead, she’s thinking a small ceremony on a beach somewhere. “When, I don’t know,” she says. “But I know right now that I am in love and I’m happy that I’ve finally found my companion.”

Until then, “they plan to live together, and have a couple cities in mind,” says Levenson. “Ian wants to show Meredith Brazil, and Meredith wants to show Ian her world.” Starting with a barbecue at her parents’ Portland, Ore., home. “I’ve been searching my whole life for this person,” says Phillips. “And that I found him on national television? That’s pretty great. Pretty unconventional, but pretty great.”

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