Alicia Dennis
March 12, 2012 12:00 PM

If Kate was missing her husband during their first big stretch of time apart since getting married, she certainly didn’t show it. Looking radiant in a black dress and heels, the 30-year-old princess made the rounds at the oncology unit at Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool on Valentine’s Day, laughing and chatting easily with patients about the hometown soccer team and her new cocker spaniel puppy. Struck by Kate’s warmth with 12-year-old Elliot Casey, who was recovering from brain surgery, Elliot’s mother, Lisa, marveled at her surprisingly down-to-earth nature. “It’s a special gift to get that instant rapport with children,” she says. “She’ll be good at her job.”

The warm smile; the quick laugh; the steady, connected gaze-this commoner turned princess is showing that she’s better than good at her job. Less than a year since Kate Middleton became the Duchess of Cambridge, she’s winning hearts-and heartfelt admiration-as she steps confidently out into the royal spotlight for the first time without Prince William‘s steady guidance. While Will serves a six-week stint with the Royal Air Force search-and-rescue helicopter crew in the Falkland Islands, Kate has made six solo appearances in two weeks, including attending the opening of a Lucian Freud exhibit in London, visiting an alcohol-free bar (where she talked to recovering addicts), a children’s hospital in Liverpool and an art program for kids with special needs at a school in Oxford. Everywhere she goes she wins rave reviews for the seamless ease with which she has embraced her regal role. “She is genuine,” says a Palace source, “both in private and in public.”

She is also making history within the royal family. The Queen herself-who never appeared at an official engagement jointly with her daughters-in-law Diana or Fergie in their first year of marriage to her sons-personally invited Kate to join her at four upcoming royal events, including a tea party with Camilla at the London landmark Fortnum & Mason and a university fashion show in Leicester to kick off the monarch’s Jubilee tour. “The Queen has given more thought to mentorship,” says Robert Lacey, author of the upcoming book The Queen: A Life in Brief. “She has a lot invested in this couple. She thinks Kate’s her girl.” A Palace insider says the royal family is taking this success in its stride. “The Queen and Duke of Edinburgh are very supportive of what the duchess is doing,” says a royal aide. “[Kate] is going to look and learn with the Queen.”

In true do-it-her-own-way style, the young princess has made a point of selecting charities with a personal significance. An art history major at the University of St. Andrews, Kate became a patron of the National Portrait Gallery in London and has also lent her support to the Art Room, an art-therapy program for children. A former Brownie, she also became a volunteer with the Scouts. And this work is not just for show: She commutes between London and the house she and the prince share in Anglesey, helping children in a troop near the RAF base with their activities. “She is part of the leadership team,” says a Scouts source. “She isn’t hovering in the background.” Says a Palace insider: “It is good fun. She’s loving it.” In addition, says the Palace insider, Kate wanted to use her place in the spotlight to raise awareness of drug and alcohol addiction by supporting Action on Addiction, a national charity with a recovery center in Liverpool.

Whatever the event, making a personal connection appears to be her goal. “She seems to have fallen into it easily,” says Colleen Harris, former public relations director to Princes Charles, William and Harry. “I think that’s because William has given her lots of support and the space to do it gradually.”

Though not together, William, 29, and Kate can stay connected while he’s 7,500 miles away through Skype, cell phone or “e-bluey,” an e-mail communication delivered like an old-fashioned airmail letter. Like any other RAF wife, Kate’s shopping for one at the grocery store (she’s fond of chicken and vegetables) and looking after their new puppy alone. But the newlyweds are keeping the love alive. William sent her a card and flowers on Valentine’s Day, and he is ever in her thoughts; she mentioned him often at her recent appearances. During Kate’s Feb. 14 hospital visit, Megan Squire, 12, gave her a card decorated with the couple’s picture. “Thank you so much,” she said. “I’ll make sure I show it to William when he gets back.”

Her breezy self-assurance is consistent whether she’s making official appearances or strolling with royal puppy Lupo through Kensington Gardens near the couple’s two-bedroom cottage in a pair of jeans and rain boots. Despite her rarefied life, she retains the commoner’s touch that allows a stranger to feel comfortable opening up within minutes of meeting her. For Rachel Lyons, 36, a mother of two who has been sober for almost a year with the help of Action on Addiction, an encounter with Kate was profound. As Lyons struggled to tell a crowd how alcoholism strained her relationship with her children, Kate “was looking up at me,” Lyons told PEOPLE. “She was really interested.” Later, the duchess met privately with Lyons and praised her for her bravery and honesty. “She said it was really well done for me to get up and speak like that,” recalled Lyons. “It felt wonderful that our future Queen was sitting in front of me, listening.”

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