February 28, 2005 12:00 PM

The flashes were blinding. The ring sparkled—almost as much as the glowing bride and groom to be. But when Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles stepped out for the cameras the evening of Feb. 10, hours after formally announcing their engagement, two people were noticeably absent: Camilla’s soon-to-be stepsons Prince William and Prince Harry. Throughout the frenzy, William remained in St. Andrews, Scotland—just over an hour’s flight from London—where he’s in his final year of college, and Harry stayed put 80 miles away at the family’s Highgrove estate, where he’s busy, uh, hanging out, until entering the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst in May. In a one-line statement, William, 22, and Harry, 20, said, “We are both very happy for our father and Camilla, and we wish them all the luck in the future.”

Even by the understated utterances of royalty, that was considered short—and not overly sweet. As for appearing in that elusive family photo, “They are reluctant to be used for stunts,” sniffs a royal source who knows the princes, who have remarkably never been snapped alongside Camilla despite being among the world’s most photographed young men. “They have always been resistant.”

In fact, the young princes had different—but equally distant—reactions to the news that their father would finally wed the woman their beloved mother, Princess Diana, blamed for destroying her marriage. Sure, they have both accepted Camilla for the sake of their dad. “They love him terribly and want him to be happy,” says Charles’s former press secretary Colleen Harris. But while William, acting pragmatically as the future king, simply gets on with his life, according to an observer, friends say a more brooding Harry feels Camilla’s replacement of his mother deeply. “I’m sure he wants his father to be happy,” says a close friend of the family. “But he was at a more impressionable age when his mother died.” It is he who remembers most keenly, perhaps, the impact the destructive marriage had on Diana.

Who could forget? The last the world heard from Diana—as recently as last year—were video recordings taped before her death in which she said she feared forces inside the palace might have murdered her bodyguard boyfriend and again laid bare her marital woes. “All you have to do is consider that last year or so of Diana’s life,” says Camilla biographer Christopher Wilson. “She had managed to edge Charles out of parenting their sons. He had effectively given them up. During that period, Diana had complete access to them. She would be whispering about Camilla. How would you recover from that?”

By all accounts, the princes have recovered enough to have a civil relationship with Camilla, if not an affectionate one. Now adults with their own lives, “they hardly ever see her,” notes Diana’s former bodyguard Ken Wharfe. “It’s not as if she’s home cooking them tea every night.” And certainly there is no suggestion that they would snub the royal wedding. One family friend says Charles “would not go ahead with something like this without their blessing.”

The blessing of his future subjects may be a little harder won. As with any grand affair, the British public lapped up the details: Charles, 56, proposed on bended knee and later gave her a diamond ring worth nearly $950,000 that belonged to the late Queen Mum. He declared he was “absolutely delighted”; Camilla, 57, remarked that she was “just coming down to earth.” They will wed April 8 in an understated civil ceremony at Windsor Castle attended by family and friends followed by a blessing by the Archbishop of Canterbury in St. George’s Chapel.

But while a reliable U.K. poll showed 65 percent of Britons were in favor of the marriage, only 7 percent said that if Charles became king, Camilla should be queen. The pair have avoided that, semantically at least, by announcing that Camilla would become the Princess Consort (see box). Until then, she’ll be known as HRH the Duchess of Cornwall—not Diana’s former title, Princess of Wales. What would Diana make of it all? “She would have been supremely indifferent to it by now,” says her friend Vivienne Parry. “She was coming to terms with [their relationship] prior to her death.” But the very tragedy of her death in that Paris car crash in 1997 has slowed the process of acceptance for others in Britain, says Wharfe: “The line is not ready to be drawn under Diana. Camilla has a rocky road ahead.”

She should be used to it by now. From the day a 23-year-old Camilla Shand sauntered up to the Prince of Wales at a party and told him, “My great-grandmother and your great-great-grandfather were lovers. So how about it?” She was always going to be his No. 2 in the eyes of the world. The pair had a brief romance, but Camilla had already indulged in a long-term relationship with a young cavalry officer, Andrew Parker Bowles, and knew that the woman who wed the Prince of Wales was expected to be a virgin. After Charles went on a six-month Royal Navy tour in 1973, she wed Parker Bowles. Later, Charles would visit them at their country estate, where the prince and Camilla would sneak off for romantic trysts—reportedly with Andrew’s knowledge.

The affair cooled in the early years of his marriage to Diana, but after Harry’s birth in 1984, Camilla reentered the picture. Where the glamorous Diana hogged the limelight, low-key Camilla let Charles shine. “She gives him enormous self-confidence,” says a friend. “She lightens him.” The affair finally became public in 1992 after the British tabloids printed a 1989 taped phone conversation in which Charles wished aloud he were a certain feminine sanitary product, so he could be close to Camilla. “Your greatest achievement is to love me,” he told her. “I’d suffer anything for you,” she replied. In a 1994 TV interview he admitted he had committed adultery. The Parker Bowleses divorced the following year, followed months later by Charles and Diana.

After Diana’s death, Charles eased the vilified Camilla into public view, although “it took a couple of years before William and Harry agreed to meet her,” says a royal source. (After meeting with William in 1998 for the first time since his mother’s death, Camilla told a friend she “needed a gin and tonic”) But as the years and carefully orchestrated photo ops went by—a high-profile date in 1999; a public kiss in 2001—the public’s anger at her diminished.

Full acceptance was another matter. The Queen had never allowed Charles to bring Camilla to events like the Windsors’ annual Christmas gathering at Sandringham. At the monarch’s golden jubilee celebration in 2002, Camilla was seated behind, rather than with, the prince. When a similar seating arrangement was proposed for the wedding last November of his godson Edward van Cutsem to Lady Tamara Grosvenor, Charles was so miffed that the couple opted not to come. “That may have brought [marriage] into sharper focus,” for Charles, says a source close to the prince.

Soon after, Charles talked about a wedding with the Queen, 78, who supported him in his decision to go ahead. “Is [the Queen] happy about it? No,” says Camilla’s biographer Wilson. “But she realized it would be damaging for the reputation of the royal family unless things moved forward.” The pair will honeymoon at Birkhall on the Queen’s Scottish estate, Balmoral, where Charles will likely savor not only the peaceful atmosphere but, for the first time in decades, peace of mind. “The uncertainty is something that has haunted his life,” says Patty Palmer-Tomkinson, a longtime friend of the couple. “As soon as it is a wrap, so to speak, I think everybody will settle down and let them get on with it.”

By Thomas Fields-Meyer and Pam Lambert. Simon Perry, Caris Davis, Pete Norman and Courtney Rubin in London

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