March 30, 1998 12:00 PM

THE TIME: JUNE 1997. THE PLACE: a seedy bar in war-torn Bosnia. But the sparks weren’t coming from sniper fire on the horizon—they were igniting over margaritas at the table shared by CNN’s top foreign correspondent Christiane Amanpour and chief State Department spokesman James Rubin. By the time Rubin arrived back in the States, he was waving the white flag. “He just said, ‘I’ve never felt this way,’ ” recalls close pal Jonathan Prince. “Inside, he kind of thought this could be it.”

Seven months later it was. During a late-night walk on a beach in Tobago, Rubin, 37, got down on both knees and offered Amanpour, 40, a sapphire-and-gold band bought in Paris. Within hours, the two were burning up phone lines with their breathless scoop. “I got engaged!” the normally composed Amanpour trilled to family and friends. Reports Eason Jordan, CNN’s chief of international news coverage: “She sounded just over the moon, ecstatic. Jamie is the one and only—the one she’s been waiting for forever.”

Since then the biggest problem facing Amanpour, a familiar face to CNN viewers during the recent Iraq crisis, and the globe-trotting Rubin, who became then-U.N. Ambassador Madeleine Albright’s spokesman in 1993, has been how to shoehorn romance into their hectic schedules. Until now, Rubin “worked so hard that he never had time to date,” says friend Peter Pringle, a British writer. Amanpour’s “whole life is work” also, says CNN producer Nic Robertson. “We would do eight weeks in Bosnia, then go to Goma and live in a tent with people dying around us.”

In the past three months alone, Amanpour (who signed a $2 million contract in 1996 to report for both CNN and CBS’s 60 Minutes) has traveled to Iran (where she flashed her engagement ring during an interview with President Mohammad Khatemi), to Cuba for the Pope’s visit and to Baghdad. At the same time, Rubin has accompanied Albright to Europe to meet with allies about the current Iraqi crisis and juggled back-to-back visits by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and P.L.O. leader Yasser Arafat. Still, the couple have found time to hit Tuscany, London and the Dominican Republic—where over Christmas they scuba-dived (she picked up her certification) and bird-watched. “There’s nothing they like to do more than to just wander around on their own,” Pringle says.

The middle child of Harvey, an independent publisher, and Judith, a home-maker, Rubin was raised in Larchmont, N.Y. He majored in political science at Columbia University, where, even then, he made an impression. “He was tall, handsome, brash,” recalls friend Jordan Tamagni, now a Clinton speechwriter, who caught her first glimpse of a 19-year-old Rubin “[roaring] down a driveway in a beautiful green Mercedes convertible.” After getting a masters in international affairs in 1984, he did a stint as a consultant to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee before being hired by Albright at the U.N.

Amanpour, the eldest of four daughters born to Mohamed, an Iranian airline executive, and his British wife, Patricia, grew up in Tehran. As a girl she raced Arabian horses and vacationed in Switzerland, but when Khomeini came to power in 1979, her family fled the country and “my father lost everything,” she told PEOPLE in 1993. Enrolling at the University of Rhode Island in 1980 (where she befriended John F. Kennedy Jr., who was attending nearby Brown), she joined CNN in 1983 as “a glorified secretary,” says CNN’s Jordan, but moved up quickly. By the end of the Gulf War, she had become a household name.

Though Amanpour first met Rubin in ’93, it wasn’t until last summer, with an assist from CNN chairman Tom Johnson, that things heated up. “I told Christiane that Jamie has a sense of humor, is smart and energetic,” says Johnson. “I may have even said he’s virile.” With neither having had any serious prior relationships, the two, at last, seemed ready. “You get to a point [in your career] where you think, well, I’ve done this and now what else is there?” Amanpour told London’s The Guardian in ’96. Rubin, too, was yearning for more. “Jamie was saying he was excited about his job,” says Bill Drozdiak, a friend and Washington Post reporter. “But he also wished he had a strong, sustaining relationship.”

For a time the couple kept their love secret. “I didn’t realize how serious it was until the death of Princess Diana,” says CNN’s Jordan, who recalls that Amanpour, vacationing with Rubin in Italy, “politely declined to report the story.” In October, at a Washington book party for Sally Quinn, the two were so engrossed in one another, Quinn recalls, that “when I talked to them, they were having a hard time concentrating.” Or as columnist Richard Cohen, a friend of Rubin’s, jokingly puts it: “If you walk between them, you could get burned. It’s a zoning violation.”

For now, the lovebirds are planning summer nuptials (in London, probably, where Amanpour is based) and to feather a nest, possibly in Rubin’s D.C. apartment. There, at least, “my rent is paid up,” he told The Washington Post. Anyway, he added, his bride-to-be is “someone who needs an airport more than a residence.” In the meantime the pair will have to weather more long-distance bills. When Drozdiak was crashing in Rubin’s study not long ago, the phone woke him “early in the morning and late at night.” Yes, they were urgent calls, all right, but not from the White House or the State Department. “Invariably,” he says, “it was Christiane.”

MACON MOREHOUSE in Washington

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