From PEOPLE Magazine Click to enlarge
It was like watching the trailer for a really, really big movie. The scene: St. Mary's Hospital in London on Sept. 20. The star: Prince William, handsome future King, gently cradling-and making goo-goo eyes at-a tiny infant swathed in a T-shirt that read, "Little Princess." The twist: it wasn't his baby-she was 3-week-old Sina Nuru-and Will was merely opening the refurbished Winnicott Baby Unit at the hospital where he was born 24 years ago. Still, it was captivating enough for someone to ask if it all made the prince "feel broody." That's when he put a screeching stop to the sappy stuff. "I don't know about that," he said. "Not yet."

Fine, don't mean to pressure you, guy-but, seriously, when? The top sport in England these days isn't football or polo, it's guessing when the prince will finally get engaged to his longtime girlfriend Kate Middleton and start the countdown to what would be the wedding of the century. Now into their fifth year as an absurdly attractive couple, Will and Kate, 24, have lately seemed so snuggly-and Kate so seamlessly ingrained into Will's inner circle of friends and family-that the engagement gossip is getting as hot as a pot of Earl Grey. Britain's Mail on Sunday even reported last week that Kate has been invited to the Queen's country retreat Sandringham to join the entire Windsor clan for Christmas Day lunch-an unprecedented honor for an unmarried partner of a royal and, if true, said one royal observer, tantamount to an engagement announcement (Buckingham Palace won't confirm the invitation).

There is also the 10,000-sq.-ft. neo-Georgian mansion being built by the royal family on part of a 900-acre estate in a village in Herefordshire, which many believe is being readied for Will and Kate. "It's decision time," says Robert Jobson, author of a new book about the couple, William's Princess. "Will has said he doesn't want to get married until he is 28, but that is just a smoke screen. The pressure starts now."

So just how close is Will to popping the question? Those in the know at Buckingham Palace say no one is ordering Save the Date cards just yet and insist Kate isn't being formally groomed for the future. "There are no people advising her or preparing her for anything," says one Palace insider. "She is going about her private life as a private individual." Friends of the couple say that Will, known for his stubborn streak, won't let anyone dictate a time frame-but also acknowledge an engagement is no longer a matter of if but rather when. "This is certainly not something they are going to rush into," says a family friend. "But their relationship is very strong."

The safe money says that Will-who finishes his training at Sandhurst military school this month-will not go ring-hunting until after he is through with his military duties, which could last as long as three years. After graduating, he will likely spend about a year in the Blues and Royals regiment in the Household Cavalry as a second lieutenant in the British Army, and then serve stints in the navy and air force as well. Those duties will keep him plenty busy without the extra commitments an engagement would bring. "If William married now, he would end up having to do a round of royal appearances as people would expect to see him and Kate," says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine. "And William doesn't appear to want to do that yet."

But what about what his grandmum the Queen wants? Actually, waiting this long may have been her idea. Palace observers say that after the short courtships of Prince Charles and Diana and Prince Andrew and Sarah Ferguson both produced disastrous marriages, the Queen is happy with a sort of waiting period. "She wants young royals and their girlfriends to be together for five years," says Jobson. "She wants them to be sure the relationship is going to continue." Will's leisurely romance with Kate (see box) "is the opposite of Charles and Diana," says royals author Robert Lacey, "when the family pressure and common wisdom was that it had to be done quickly."

To be sure, the royal family is acting like the engagement is a mere formality, embracing Kate in a very public way. "The Queen's idea is to have these girlfriends in the fold as much as you can," says Seward. "She likes them to get used to the regimented life of a royal." It has helped that Kate has held up so well under the scrutiny that comes with dating a prince. "She seems completely at ease with the whole Palace machinery," says Seward. "They are clearly treating her with a great deal of respect."

So just how cozy is Kate with the prince? Their body language says it all. See how she strode confidently into the royal viewing box for the Cheltenham Gold Cup horse race in Gloucestershire this March. Notice how, as one spectator put it, when the prince "saw her he had a big smile on his face." Not Prince Will, mind you-he wasn't even there. We're talking about his dad, Prince Charles, whose cheery welcome of Kate had royal watchers abuzz. "He likes her very much," a family friend says. "I am sure he wouldn't be averse to having Kate around."

It all seems so, well, normal, and that may be the most surprising thing about the relationship between Will and Kate. They meet up whenever Will gets time off from Sandhurst, often for dinner; they've feasted on Zimbabwean crocodile (him) and wild boar (her) at the London eatery Archipelago and shocked the staff at Pizza Express by dropping by for a meal and Chardonnay. And when Kate recently locked herself out of her flat in Chelsea, she called her prince for help.

This January, just before Will set off for Sandhurst, Kate threw him a surprise party in her flat, inviting some 30 of his buddies for champagne and dancing. "Will had no idea what was up," says one pal. "He walked in and beamed a big smile when he realized Kate had surprised him." Says another friend: "She laid this on him the same as any other girlfriend would want to do. She's a great girl, and they are very fond of each other."

For now, though, Kate can't do much besides act "like a lady-in-waiting," says royals author Judy Wade. One of three children raised in Berkshire by Michael Middleton, who runs a mail-order company that sells children's party goods, and his wife, Carole, Kate wrapped up her degree in art history from St. Andrews in 2005. But in the nearly two years since, she has yet to sink her teeth into any significant venture; plans to start a children's clothing line seem to have stalled. Besides, getting too involved in any commercial enterprise would be a no-no for a future princess. Which leaves lots of time for making the rounds on the arm of Will's best friend, Guy Pelly, who has become an unofficial chaperone. Still, says Wade, "you have to ask how long Kate can continue doing this."

Apparently, as long as it takes. "It is all progressing naturally," says one friend of the couple. And nature-and royal duty-may call sooner or later. Unlike his younger brother Harry, now an army troop commander who may be deployed to a war zone, Will's military duties won't put him on the front line. Instead, he will ratchet up his royal engagements; he has already started to show up on the court circular, a daily list of official royal appearances. "He is moving towards becoming a full-time working royal," says Jobson. "Then the next job is to secure the monarchy, and the only way to secure it is to have a child."

Not much pressure there-"Honey, wanna secure the monarchy tonight?"-but if anyone can handle it, it appears Will can. Looking ahead, Will and Harry are planning a concert to mark the 10th anniversary of their mother's death, possibly in London's Wembley Stadium next July 1-what would have been Diana's 46th birthday. "Whatever they decide to do, it will be their call," says a royal source. "They will set the tone." Most likely, the prince will handle his engagement the same way-how he wants, when he wants. And Kate, as always, will have his back. "He looks after her and she looks after him," says someone close to the couple. "It's lovely to see."

Okay, so the love part is under control, and the marriage part will take care of itself. That just leaves the baby carriage thing. At St. Mary's Hospital, Will was surprised when little Sina didn't break into sobs as he held her. "They usually start crying when I pick them up," he told nurse Ann Mason. But Mason, who recalled Princess Diana's visits to the hospital, said that Will was a natural. "He's got the same touch as [Diana]," she said. "The same manner." Shouldn't be too long before he starts feeling broody.

  • Contributors:
  • Simon Perry/London,
  • Courtney Rubin/London,
  • Ellen Tumposky/London,
  • Anneli Erasmus/Namibia.