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William & Kate: They're Engaged!

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He carried it to Africa in his rucksack, the 18-carat sapphire ring, encircled by 14 diamonds, that belonged to his mum, who died in a car crash when he was just 15. “I literally would not let it go,” he said. “I knew this thing, if it disappeared, I’d be in a lot of trouble.” And then, secretly-and with achingly sweet sentimentality-Prince William, second in line to the British throne, bestowed the prized keepsake of the woman who raised him onto the love of his life, Miss Catherine Elizabeth Middleton. “It’s very special to me, and Kate’s very special to me now,” William, 28, told a select group of British press Nov. 16 at St. James’ Palace, “so it’s only right they are put together.”

About time! After eight years of dating and waiting (British tabloids had mercilessly dubbed the bride-to-be Waity Katie), Prince William finally told the world he’d put a ring on it-and divulged news of a secret engagement on that mid-October Kenya safari that took even the Queen by surprise. He’d called his grandmother, his father, Prince Charles, and brother Prince Harry, 26, only that morning-at which point the newly betrothed couple cracked open a bottle of champagne. A traditionalist at heart, he’d earlier asked Kate’s father, Michael Middleton, for permission-and promptly swore him to secrecy. And so what took him so long? “I don’t know how long it’s been,” William told reporters, “and I also didn’t realize it was a race. The timing is right now, and we’re very, very happy. And I’m very glad that I have done it.”

Now that he has, the big day-to be in the spring or summer of 2011-is already being heralded as the wedding of the century. The announcement, made before a stone fireplace in the State apartments of St. James’ Palace underneath a portrait of King William IV, the last William to take the throne, was greeted by a “great banging of tables” by British Cabinet ministers, according to a gushing Prime Minister David Cameron. But the engagement itself was vintage William and Kate-traditional but done their way and so altogether stealth that his beloved and press-hounded mother would surely have been proud. “He’ll love that he caught people out [unaware],” says Ken Wharfe, Diana’s former bodyguard. “It’s something very personal to William, and he’s done it on his terms.”

Looking poised, relaxed and happy, her arm tucked into her prince’s so the ring could be seen, Kate, 28, told the waiting media on Nov. 16 of William’s African proposal. “It was really romantic, a wonderful holiday in Africa,” Kate said as she stood in a blue mid-length wrap dress by her favorite designer, ISSA. In a voice steady and clear-never heard publicly before-she made the point once again: “It was very romantic.”

No doubt that romance, which began when the couple met at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, was helped along by the support of both families-that would be the Windsors of Buckingham Palace, Sandringham and Balmoral, and Michael and Carole Middleton, upper-middle-class parents of three who run a party supply business in Bucklebury, Berkshire, where Kate has worked in recent years.

Michael, 61, told reporters the courtship over “quite a number of years” was okay with him because it gave him and Carole time to really get to know the prince. “We think he’s wonderful, and we’re extremely fond of him,” Middleton told well-wishers. “They make a lovely couple. They’re great fun to be with, and we’ve had a lot of laughs together.” In what was viewed as an initiation into royal-family life, the Middletons spent the last weekend of October at an exclusive hunting party on the Queen’s Scottish Balmoral estate. “Family is very important to Kate,” says a friend. “She’s had very little support from the Palace, as far as I know, but she’s shown much dignity.” Her future with the royal family now decided, Kate had better start getting used to much more support from Buckingham Palace, starting with a 24/7 security detail.

As newlyweds, the couple will live in North Wales, where her fiance, known as Flight Lieutenant Wales, serves as a helicopter rescue pilot for the RAF. Comparisons between this couple and the young Charles and Diana, who wed when she was only 20 and divorced 15 years later, are inevitable. Even Kate herself acknowledged that the prospect of becoming a member of the British royal family was “daunting.” But, showing the jauntiness-reminiscent of his mother-that first drew William to her, she flashed a radiant smile: “Hopefully,” she said, “I’ll take it in my stride.”