January 10, 1994 12:00 PM

AFTER A FORCED-MARCH HOLIDAY IN the company of her estranged husband and his family, Princess Diana did what most unhappy wives would want to do. Twenty-four hours after escaping from the Windsors’ Christmas gathering at Sandringham, Di, 32, skipped the country, bound for the United States. On Dec. 26, she arrived in Washington, where she stayed with close friend Lucia Flecha de Lima, 52, wife of Brazilian ambassador Paulo-Tarso Flecha de Lima. The two shopped for shoes, sipped cappuccino and, one suspects, had a heart-to-heart about the Waleses’ moribund marriage.

Obviously attuned to shop-happy Di, Flecha de Lima (whose husband was posted in London until November) whisked her the next day to Neiman Marcus on Wisconsin Avenue; later, the two hit stores in Chevy Chase, Md.—cruising through Banana Republic and scanning the lingerie at Saks Fifth Avenue.

By all indications, the Windsors were pleased to have the princess out of the picture. Although she announced on Dec. 3 that she wanted to escape from the press and relinquish her public duties, Di still casts a long shadow over Charles. On Dec. 16, at her final official engagement, she was cheered as she arrived at The Mall for a meeting of Centrepoint, a charity for homeless youngsters. Six days later reporters were invited to cover her “private” visit to a north London children’s refuge. Photos of the event appeared in five papers, while a shot of Charles, 45, loading grocery bags for the homeless rated a tiny space in a single tabloid.

On Christmas Eve, the strain was clear. Di showed up at Sandringham at 5 p.m.—just in time to see her sons (who were staying with Charles) open their gifts. The next morning, 1,000 spectators watched the Windsors arrive at St. Mary Magdalene Church. Di made her getaway after the service; when the family returned to church without her the next day, the crowd had dwindled to 450. Said one Palace watcher: “It vividly demonstrated her pulling power. The royals are resigned to the fact that that is the way it is, but take comfort from the fact they may not have to put up with her much longer.”

Not that family discord was the only holiday theme for the Windsors. The estranged Yorks put up a united front at Princess Beatrice’s school concert on Dec. 10, and Fergie, 34, Bea, 5, and Eugenie, 3, spent Christmas on the Sandringham estate. The real seasonal heart-warmer, however, was the romance between Prince Edward, 29, and London public relations rep Sophie Rhys-Jones, 28—a Di look-alike who in fact is distantly related to the princess. Although the couple have been dating only three months, the press has anointed Rhys-Jones the next royal bride, and reporters have slaked out her office.

On Dec. 21, Edward sent a gallant letter to the media asking that they allow the “friendship” to progress in peace. “Other members of my immediate family,” he wrote, “have been subjected to similar attention and it has not been at all beneficial to their relationships.”

And if Fleet Street persists? Di, for one, might recommend a course of overseas shopping therapy.

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