June 29, 2011 12:00 PM

Their fairy-tale romance got off to an inauspicious start: When Kate Middleton first set eyes on her future Prince Charming and fellow student at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, she “went bright red,” she has said, “and scuttled off feeling very shy.”

Clearly she regained her confidence. The young coed who first drew William’s appreciative gaze by sauntering down a catwalk in a see-through mini-dress in 2002 has since impressed the world with her unfailing charm and princess-like poise. But at the end of the day, when the tiaras and tuxedoes come off, William and Kate’s partnership is founded on something much deeper than the proper public appearances. “He looks after her, and she looks after him,” says a source close to the couple. “It’s lovely to see.”

The pair had been friends for a year and shared a home off-campus with two other students when their romance “sort of blossomed,” William has said. “We share the same interests and just had a really good time…. It’s just really easy being with each other.”

Even after they were first caught by a paparazzo looking cozy on the slopes of the Swiss ski resort Klosters in 2004, the couple kept their courtship low-key. Aside from occasional forays into London nightclubs, they mostly hung out in pubs and cafes in St. Andrews or around Kate’s rural hometown of Bucklebury, where her mum and dad, Carole and Michael, embraced William as a member of the family. Vacations were decidedly more flashy, including long weekends at the Queen’s Balmoral estate and trips to the exclusive island of Mustique. But it wasn’t always paradise: In April 2007 the couple broke up. “I wasn’t very happy about it,” Kate has said of the split. “But actually it made me a stronger person.”

Within just a few months, the two were back together. Before long, Kate became a fixture within the royal family, both privately and publicly, having spent time with Camilla and Charles (who “likes her very much,” according to a family friend) and attended William’s graduation from Sandhurst military academy. She finally met the Queen in 2008 at a family wedding and found her “very friendly,” she has said.

A full year before their engagement—even as the tabloids dubbed her Waity Katey—the patient prince and his bride-to-be had already decided to wed, but on their own schedule. When Kate gleefully accepted William’s proposal—and his late mother’s engagement ring—on vacation in Kenya last October, the people of Britain, like so many nosy old aunts, fired up the next question: When can we expect kids? “Obviously we want a family,” an endlessly tolerant William replied, adding, “We’ll take it one step at a time.”

WHERE Romance BLOOMED

SCHOOL TIES

When Prince William met Kate Middleton as a freshman at St. Andrews, he instantly felt a spark. “I knew there was something very special about her,” he has said. Kate echoed the sentiment: “We did become very close friends from quite early.” And so it was … until they moved to a house with pals and surprised their roommates by becoming romantically involved. “Then they realized [the relationship] was really nice,” William has said. Theirs was a typical college courtship, complete with romantic dinners (though Will-as-chef had some ill-fated moments in the kitchen), and even a brief bout of drama. “We were young,” William has explained of their momentary split. Now William has said, “we are hugely excited about spending the rest of our lives together.”

EIGHT YEARS TOGETHER

Why the long wait? William, who weathered his parents’ painful split, has said he is “trying to learn from the lessons [of] the past.” He also wanted his bride-to-be to have a full and clear picture of life in the Royal Firm and the chance, he added, “to back out if … it all got too much.” He needn’t have worried. After a brief breakup in 2007, the couple reunited and have been together ever since. From the checkout line at their local supermarket to the royal box at the races and everywhere in between, Kate has proven herself an unfailingly discreet and charming consort, and, as veteran royals author Robert Lacey puts it, “a 21st-century queen.” Members of the royal household have been equally impressed, declaring her “a natural” on and off the job. “The major guidance in her life is William,” says a palace insider, and Kate herself agrees. “He’s looked after me,” she has said of her “loving” prince. But despite his position, theirs is a relationship of equals, as their frequent loving glances reveal. “She’s someone who is there with him to share his innermost secrets,” says a close observer of the couple.

WHERE she said “YES”

THEIR STARRY-EYED SAFARI

For three weeks Prince William nervously carried his late mother’s sapphire-and-diamond engagement ring in his rucksack until he was ready to slip it onto Kate Middleton’s finger. “As any guy out there will know, it takes a certain amount of motivation to get yourself going,” he has explained. “It just felt really right out in Africa.” And how: In October, while vacationing with friends at Kenya’s Lewa Downs wildlife sanctuary, owned by the father of Will’s longtime friend (and former girlfriend) Jecca Craig, the couple sneaked away to spend one night at a secluded cabin nearby. “I had done a little bit of planning to show my romantic side,” the prince said. “It was beautiful.” For her part, while Kate thought William had contemplated a proposal, she was sure it wasn’t going to happen on their trip. After all, “we were out with friends!” she said. “It was a total shock.” They shared their happy news with loved ones right away but waited nearly a month to tell the world of their engagement. “We’ve been talking about it for a long time,” William said. “It’s really nice to finally be able to share it with everyone.”

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