April 30, 2001 12:00 PM

Why shouldn’t Friday the 13th be a lucky day for someone who makes a living battling the un-dead? In the wee hours of April 13 the cast and crew of TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer were shivering on location east of Los Angeles, but star Sarah Michelle Gellar had her love, actor Freddie Prinze Jr., to keep her warm. “Between takes she would go over and hang out with him and be all cuddly and lovey,” says costar Emma Caulfield.

Nothing unusual—except that after dating since January 2000, Buffy and her beau were about to raise the stakes. Prinze, 25, and Gellar, 24, announced their engagement over the Easter weekend (which also included Gellar’s birthday, April 14). “It seemed pretty obvious that it was going to happen sooner or later,” says Caulfield. “He adores her and makes her very happy.”

Prinze gave Gellar a ring crafted by L.A. jewelry designer Cathy Waterman, who specializes in delicate diamond-and-platinum baubles. Thus far, the pair are keeping mum about wedding plans. They met in 1996 while filming I Know What You Did Last Summer. “We really didn’t dig each other, and then one day I gave her a ride to the gym,” says Prinze. “We talked on the way up, and she was a cool chick.”

The romance didn’t begin until last year, after Prinze split with his live-in love of nearly four years, actress Kimberly McCullough, 23, of ABC’s Once and Again. He and Gellar, whose past romances have included actor Jerry O’Connell, soon set up house in L.A. with Prinze’s dogs Cody, a rottweiler, and Tyson, an Akita, and Gellar’s Maltese Thor.

So far, they’ve kept their romance low-key. “We were very lucky we were able to keep it quiet for as long as we did,” Gellar told Glamour last year. Then, in December, they jetted to Bali for a two-week romantic getaway. “It was the greatest experience of my entire life,” Prinze says. “I didn’t stop holding her hand the whole time.”

A steady grip isn’t all the two have in common: They both made early show business debuts and were brought up by single mothers. Prinze’s father, Freddie Prinze, star of the ’70s sitcom Chico and the Man, killed himself in 1977 at 22 while addicted to prescription drugs. His mother, real estate agent Kathy, now 51, raised Freddie (10 months old when his father died) in Albuquerque. He headed for Hollywood after high school, becoming a Generation Y leading man in 1999’s She’s All That and 2000’s Down to You. Gellar’s mother, Rosellen, 51, a former New York City nursery school teacher, was divorced from Sarah’s father, Arthur, 60, when her daughter was 7. In commercials by age 4, Sarah won a daytime Emmy at 18 for All My Children before joining Buffy in 1997.

Next up for the twosome: finishing the live-action Scooby-Doo film now shooting in Australia during Gellar’s Buffy breaks. After that? Well, Prinze is keen on little Prinzes: “I know one day I’m going to be the best father in the world,” he has said. “Me not having a father makes me want to be a great one.”

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