By Cynthia Sanz
April 11, 1994 12:00 PM

WHEN THE WINDSORS ARE IN THE mood for love, they often head for Balmoral, the Queen’s drafty retreat in the Scottish Highlands. Prince Charles took Lady Diana Spencer for a romantic weekend in 1980, and it was there that Prince Philip proposed to the Queen (then Princess Elizabeth) in 1946. So when Prince Edward whisked Sophie Rhys-Jones, a public relations consultant whom he met last August, to Balmoral on March 25, royal watchers started talking hearts and flowers. Opined the London tabloid News of the World: “It’s the perfect setting for lovestruck Edward to pop the question.”

Indeed, the question now seems to be not if but when the Queen’s youngest son will ask Rhys-Jones, 29, to be his wife. Since January, she reportedly has spent most nights at Buckingham Palace (where Edward lives in a suite he has occupied since childhood) and has been given clearance to come and go without stopping for security checks. Most telling, though, is the fact that the Queen seems delighted with her: at New Year’s, she invited Rhys-Jones to spend five days at Sandringham, where Sophie, an outdoorsy sort raised in rural Kent, earned her good-sport credentials by going on a pheasant shoot. On March 16, the Queen popped in on the posh belated 30th-birthday party that Rhys-Jones threw for Edward at London’s Savoy Hotel, a move the Daily Mirror described as “an unofficial engagement announcement.” Says author Brian Hoey: “That she likes to shoot, ride, fish and hunt—all the things that Diana detested—has endeared her to the Queen and the rest of the family.”

Cynics, of course, wonder whether the Queen is simply relieved that Edward, who has been plagued by rumors that he is gay, has found a prospective bride. Malicious gossip about his sexuality has circulated since he was a student at Scotland’s tough Gordonstoun school, where, shy and unable to fit in, he was nicknamed Mummy’s Boy. His decision to quit the Royal Marines in 1987 and pursue a career in theater production fueled the stories, as did a 1990 column by the Daily Mail’s Nigel Dempster that reported Edward had “developed a touching friendship” with actor Michael Ball.

Over the years, a string of loyal girlfriends, including London stage actress Ruthie Henshall, has denied the rumors. “The suggestions about his being gay are so far wide of the mark that they are laughable and absurd,” said Henshall, who dated Edward in 1990. Collared by a London Daily Mirror reporter at a New York party that same year, Edward himself said, “It’s outrageous to suggest this sort of thing. The rumors are preposterous. I am not gay, but what can I do about [the rumors]?”

In any case, Palace insiders claim that his affection for Sophie is genuine. “He looked like a dog with two tails,” one royal watcher told the Sunday Express after spotting the two during an outing at Sandringham. “He was laughing all morning. Everyone is saying how much more relaxed and friendly he is.”

If the diffident Edward (who is a joint managing director at Ardent Productions, a TV production company specializing in the arts) has lost some of his royal reserve, down-to-earth Sophie may deserve credit. Although she resembles the chic Princess of Wales—they do, in fact, share a common ancestor, the first Viscount Molesworth, who died in 1725—she grew up in a rural setting that was 30 miles, and worlds away, from Di’s Knightsbridge haunts.

The only daughter of Christopher Rhys-Jones, a tire importer, and his wife, Mary, a homemaker, Sophie (she has a brother, David, 31) opted for a secretarial course instead of college. In 1989 she went to work for Bladon Lines, a ski company, and was in charge of chalet girls at a Swiss resort, booking skiing lessons and organizing fondue parties and 10-pin bowling games. There she began a steady relationship with an Australian ski instructor and in 1990 followed him to Sydney, where she worked for a courier company and spent much of her free time lazing on the beach or drinking champagne at an oyster bar in Sydney’s Circular Quay. Says former boss Jonathan Miller: “Sophie just wanted to let her hair down. She seemed a bright, bubbly girl who liked to party.”

By the end of 1991, the Australian romance fizzled, and Sophie moved back to England, where she signed on as an events organizer with Macmillan Nurses Appeal, a cancer relief and research charity. “It was as if she had got Sophie the parly girl out of her system and was now ready to go out and face the real world,” a friend told the Daily Mail. A year later she was recruited by Maclaurian Communications and Media, where she briefly handled publicity for Mr. Blobby, a pink, yellow-spotted Humpty Dumpty-like character that is Britain’s version of Barney. But her first big job was handling the publicity for Edward’s charily “Summer Challenge” real-tennis tournament last August. By the time the matches were over, romance was in the air and Sophie was posing for photos with her arm draped cozily over Edward’s shoulder.

While their attachment may be the talk of London, both Edward and Sophie seem determined not to rush into anything. Already the pressures are considerable. Paparazzi snap Sophie on the street, and Fleet Street seems bent on billing her as a replacement for the departed Di (“DI-DENTICAL” screamed the Sun headline). Yet both she and Edward undoubtedly realize that, since Antony Armstrong-Jones (later Lord Snowdon) wed Princess Margaret in 1960, none of the marriages between commoners and members of the Queen’s immediate family have survived. Edward himself is keenly aware of the dismal fate of his siblings’ marriages—and of the perils of public scrutiny. After news of the romance broke in December and reporters began pursuing Sophie, he sent an open letter to the British media. “I am very conscious that other members of my immediate family have been subjected to similar attention, and it has not been at all beneficial to their relationships,” he wrote. “Please will you call an end to your harassment.”

Though the press did back off for a time, an engagement announcement, it seems, will only up the ante. In an era when the Queen’s subjects are growing impatient with her troubled clan, another marriage could provide a temporary boost for the Family Firm. The problem, of course, is what happens later. Writing in the Daily Mail, royal-expert Anthony Holden put it bluntly: “The Archbishop of Canterbury had better anoint this royal couple with Super Glue. One more royal separation or divorce and the House of Windsor can tell the footmen to start packing.”