The Royal Romance

A photogenic young woman is thronged by paparazzi. Tabloids scream of an imminent proposal by the heir to the throne. Reporters pore over her ancestry. In 1981, the prey was a shy 19-year-old named Lady Diana Spencer, a nursery-school teacher from an aristocratic family whose royal romance ended in a scandalous divorce. This year, it's Kate Middleton, 25, Prince William's steady girlfriend for more than three years. An accessories buyer who met William at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, Middleton faces a new generation of paparazzi clamoring for a single shot of a future queen in a bikini. But her story could have a much happier ending.

Diana faced the media hordes on her own. Middleton clearly has her prince on her side. Middleton's lawyers (who also happen to represent William) are examining possible legal restraints against the onslaught of cameras. "William is angry and upset about it," says a member of his staff, "because of what happened to his mother." Both William and his younger brother, Harry, still blame out-of-control paparazzi for Diana's 1997 death by car crash in a Paris tunnel. Middleton now has police protection when she leaves for work and there's speculation that she will soon get a permanent bodyguard.

Unlike his parents' relatively brief romance and engagement, William and Middleton have had time to build a solid relationship. The couple had been together a year before the public was aware of her. She first hit the papers in 2002 after William paid $40 for a front-row seat to watch her model a negligee at a charity fashion show. Middleton, who has been quoted as saying that William is "lucky to be going out with me," was invited on royal family ski trips to Switzerland and spent weekends at Queen Elizabeth's Balmoral retreat. "William is absolutely adamant that Kate is what he wants," says Penny Junor, Charles's biographer.

If so, she will be a very modern princess. According to The Times of London, her ancestors were coal miners. Her father, a former pilot, and her mother, a former flight attendant, now own a successful mail-order company that sells children's party supplies. Middleton attended Marlborough, a posh boarding school, where she earned top grades. Before she met William, she had dated another student, but the possibility that she isn't a virgin doesn't seem to be an obstacle. It's widely reported that William often spends the night at her Chelsea flat.

So far, Middleton has faced the cameras with much more composure than the young Diana. "I think she is a very confident person," says Robert Jobson, author of "William's Princess," a biography of Middleton. "Anyone prepared to get on a catwalk and strut down it in a see-through negligee in knickers and bra in front of a prince is not exactly going to be a shy and retiring type." Middleton actually reminds Jobson of another royal bride--Camilla. "She comes across like a confident person, and that is what Camilla is as well," he says. "They are more alike than Kate and Diana." Of course, Camilla waited decades to make it to the altar; Middleton may need patience, too. William, 24, is ensconced in his new job as a second lieutenant in the British Army and has said he doesn't want to marry until he's 28. Still, the retailer Woolworths has already commissioned wedding souvenirs and the British bookmaking firm William Hill is no longer taking bets on whether they'll marry--only the date. Here's a tip: bet on Kate.