They were the couple of the moment, so beautiful and beaming on their big day. Not the bride and groom-though they looked pretty happy too-but rather Prince William and longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton, who were at the church of St. Peter and St. Paul in Northleach, Gloucestershire, for the Oct. 23 nuptials of their friends Harry Meade and Rosie Bradford. Famously cagey about being photographed together at public events-they almost always show up and leave separately-William and Kate shocked everyone by strolling out of the stately stone church and down a garden pathway in full view of the media, dressed to the nines and bathed in a glorious sun. For those who have been waiting forever to see them take a walk on church grounds, the scene had the feel of a fairy tale-or at least a dry run. “If so, so different from what we’ve seen, with them scowling in the corners when the media’s around,” says Ken Wharfe, the former bodyguard for William’s mother, the late Princess Diana. “There’s a sense this is the beginning, we may as well get used to seeing Kate in the royal arena. As if this were a rehearsal.”

The sight of William in tie and tails alongside Kate in fetching formal wear seemed like a sneak peek at what will be the wedding of the century-whenever it finally happens. According to one report, the Royal Mint is busy etching Kate’s face on a commemorative coin, making an announcement imminent. One royal expert interviewed by PEOPLE says the prince, 28-who has been dating Kate, 28, for eight years, with three short breaks sprinkled in-will likely propose in February 2011. “There won’t be an announcement before Christmas because William has got to ask the Queen first,” says longtime royal watcher Ingrid Seward. “And they will get married soon after.”

Until that day comes, William and the girl who caught his eye in school at the University of St. Andrews have been spending time with each other but away from the world-as if they were enjoying a quiet honeymoon before their life-altering wedding.

So how have they kept their love alive? They’ve done what other long-distance couples do-sweeten the absences with romantic time together, from fabulous ski and safari holidays to private domestic days together. Kate nips up nearly every weekend to William’s place-a private farmhouse near the Royal Air Force base in Anglesey, Wales, where William is stationed as a search-and-rescue helicopter pilot. William also visits Kate at her family home in Bucklebury, Berkshire, where the couple frequent intimate country pubs like the Pot Kiln in Frilsham. This summer they were spotted grocery shopping in the Welsh village of Blaenau Ffestiniog buying frozen pizzas and orange juice. They also turned up at a Tesco superstore in Holyhead in August. “They were buying everyday things like everyday couples do,” says Gabbey Brown, who works in a bakery on Anglesey and bumped into them in the Tesco. “He was in a baseball cap and jeans, and she was in a summer dress. So down-to-earth, nothing over-the-top about them whatsoever.”

But of course the instant they announce their engagement, “they will be the most famous couple in the world,” says one royal insider. Such scrutiny might not shock Prince William, but it will surely take getting used to for Kate, who works for her parents’ mail-order party-supply company and has stayed behind-the-scenes in William’s royal life. In fact, she’s never spoken in public; most of the country has no idea what she sounds like. And that, apparently, is by design. “William feels very protective,” says the insider. “He wants to keep Kate away from all this as much as he possibly can.”

What he can’t seem to do is keep her away from a church: In the last five years, William and Kate have attended the weddings of six couples together, and, as a friend of William’s says, “When the team starts to go, people start chatting that this might be a good idea.” Their cheery appearance in Gloucestershire, though, stands out. Freshly tanned from a safari in Kenya, they arrived for the ceremony early and joined 200 guests in the 12th-century church, filled with white roses. The prince had on a traditional dress coat and purple tie, while Kate wore an electric-blue dress by her favorite designer, Issa, and a broad-rimmed hat. “They were so relaxed, and she looked incredibly demure by his side,” says royals author Judy Wade, who spoke with attendees. “She was very much his fair lady.”

And now the girl in the big picture hat seems on the verge of her happily-ever-after. Says Wade: “You got the impression the wedding in Gloucestershire was just what they wish they could have.” Only in the case of William and Kate, the world will be watching.