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Happily Ever After?

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On the surface, Prince Albert II of Monaco’s wedding to Charlene Wittstock was everything it should be: lavish (an estimated cost of $65 million for the two-day celebration), glamorous (the bride wore a Giorgio Armani Privé gown adorned with 40,000 Swarovski crystals) and star-studded (Karl Lagerfeld, Naomi Campbell and various European royals were in attendance). Yet all of the pomp and pageantry could not hide the fact that as the couple exchanged vows in a Catholic ceremony on July 2, the bride and groom appeared distant. Their kiss? A seemingly perfunctory peck on the lips-hardly romantic. And though the couple smiled for the cameras, Prince Albert’s cryptic toast to his wife at a reception that night confirmed that this is no storybook romance. “It has been a very emotional journey to this day, sometimes not an easy one,” he said. “Charlene, thank you for putting up with my inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies…I’m happy to share my life with you.”

Many royal observers wonder if the feeling is mutual. Three days before the pair was set to exchange vows in a July 1 civil ceremony, the French news magazine L’Express reported that Wittstock, 33-a former South African Olympic swimmer now known as Her Serene Highness Princess Charlene-wanted to fly home a week earlier after learning that Albert’s private life “was not as exemplary as she imagined.” The magazine said that she was finally persuaded to remain in Monaco by the Prince, 53, and members of his entourage. On top of that report, other French media claim Albert may have fathered a child (or two) during his relationship with Wittstock; he may soon take a paternity test. The Palace strongly denies all the claims, with spokeswoman Christiane Stahl telling PEOPLE the stories are “false, absolutely false.” Dr. Jon Turk, a close friend and wedding guest, adds, “She didn’t have cold feet…She and Albert have an abiding love.” Wittstock herself told she thinks the rumors “were timed to sabotage such a happy occasion. They are categorical lies.”

While a friend says Wittstock is “relieved” to have the stress of the wedding behind her, Monegasques are also relieved that Albert, leader of the tiny principality of Monaco since 2005, has finally decided to settle down and possibly produce an heir to the throne.

“Albert knew Charlene was the right woman for him; he just had to get his bearings,” Turk says of his Amherst College fraternity brother who has admitted he’s fathered two illegitimate children (see box). “He’s glad he waited.”

The Prince first met the competitive swimmer, the daughter of a sales manager and a swim coach, in 2000, the same year Wittstock competed in the summer Olympics. With her slim build and delicate features, the blonde beauty drew frequent comparisons to Albert’s late mother, Hollywood starlet-turned-princess Grace Kelly. Drawn together by a love of sports, the couple became serious in 2006 when Wittstock relocated to Monaco. Says a pal: “He convinced her that no matter how anyone treated her, he had her back.” Though she is liked by Albert’s sisters Caroline, 54, and Stephanie, 46, Wittstock, who speaks limited French, has few confidantes in Monaco. She told Tatler last year, “I only have two people I consider friends here.”

Once the newlyweds return from their South African honeymoon, the new princess may draw upon her athletic training to cope with life in the spotlight. As she told pre-wedding, “I was a competitive swimmer for 15 years. Every morning I woke up and dived into a freezing cold pool; this challenge is no more daunting.”