September 09, 1996 12:00 PM

TO CONSPIRACY THEORISTS, AT least, the timing said it all: Just three days before a clerk rubber-stamped the divorce decree that made the Prince of Wales a free man, the veil on his affair with Camilla Parker Bowles was fleetingly lifted. Though no photos of the couple in private have surfaced for years, the Aug. 25 edition of a London tabloid showcased a shot of the two strolling with their hosts at a secluded house in Wales. Never mind that the royal companion was scarcely identifiable or that she and Charles were several paces apart; the sighting triggered fresh rumors about a campaign to sell Camilla to the public—and heightened curiosity about the woman who had haunted the Waleses’ 15-year marriage.

Taken on Aug. 18 at Glyn Celyn House in Powys, South Wales, where Charles and Camilla are frequent guests of banker Nic Paravicini and his wife, Sukie, the photo that was splashed across the front of the Neivs of the World allegedly stemmed from a tip-off phoned in by “a well-spoken woman”—the sort who might work, say, at the Palace. The Sunday Express suggested that the Palace had arranged a long-distance photo op in return for the News’s spiking a shot of Camilla at a window in her dressing gown that same weekend (a story that seems implausible, at best).

Though more-reliable sources scoffed at the notion that Charles’s camp had collaborated with Rupert Murdoch’s tabloid, most Windsor watchers believe that he is eager to ease his loyal inamorata out of the shadows—or at least amend her image as a home-wrecker. Even if marriage seems out of the question for the moment (last week, 88 percent of those responding to a Daily Mirror poll said they would veto Camilla as a royal bride), the public, too, seems to expect some sort of resolution. On Aug. 26, the London Times reported that senior royals were expected to discuss “what part Mrs. Parker Bowles should play in a future in which the prince is free of marital ties.”

Camilla herself seems ready to shuck her scarlet letter. “She’d be happy to improve her stock with the public, because she’s had a really rough time,” says Daily Mail royal correspondent Richard Kay. Slammed by the press for her dowdiness, she has upgraded her look: A chain-smoker who lived on cigarettes after Charles’s 1994 admission of adultery, she has dropped 30 pounds, bought a stylish suit or two and is sporting a new, sleeker, blonder hairstyle that has prompted comparisons to Diana. “There’s no question that certain people have advised her to change the way she looks [and to] smile in public,” says Kay.

Though tabloids have invented tales about Charles’s showering Camilla with diamonds and roses, their lives together remain low-key. Based in Wiltshire at Ray Mill House, a comfortable country home she bought for $1.2 million last year, Camilla is just 16 miles from Charles’s retreat, High-grove. Although she has a housekeeper, she shops for her own groceries at a nearby market.

During the week, Camilla reportedly follows a supremely genteel routine of exercising her horses for two hours, then bathing, having a light lunch and doing a bit of painting or gardening (passions that she shares with Charles). After a nap, she often eats with only the TV for company, since son Tom and daughter Laura are away at school. And every night, she and Charles speak on the telephone for at least an hour.

On Friday evenings, Camilla often meets the prince at Highgrove, which she has helped redecorate. There, she “gives dinner parties for him and sits at the head of the table,” says a veteran royal watcher. During the day, the two apply themselves to riding or sketching; at 4:30, they stop for a sumptuous tea. “She really enjoys whatever [food] Charles enjoys,” says Christopher Wilson, author of A Greater Love: Charles & Camilla. “She’s the perfect mistress where that’s concerned.” Smoking, it seems, is the only subject on which they seriously disagree. “He often asks her not to smoke at Highgrove,” reports Brian Hoey, author of 12 books on the royals, “and she says she must.”

The question, of course, is whether Camilla will ever be accepted as Charles’s companion outside their own aristocratic circle. Though Diana—who attended a luncheon at the English National Ballet on the day the divorce became final—is said to feel sorry for her old rival, those who know the discreet Camilla see her as anything but an outcast. “In 10 years,” says one well-placed Windsor watcher, “people will say, ‘She’s never put a foot wrong. They’ve been in love all this time. Why shouldn’t they be together?’ ”



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