THE LONDON TABLOIDS HAVE A NEW word: Camilla. It is in the headlines; it is on the front pages. Camilla—Camilla Parker Bowles, 43, to be exact—is the latest, most visible sign that all may not be rosy and romantic—or even contented and cordial—between Prince Charles and Princess Diana. Last summer, Camilla was spotted sunbathing in a bikini at Highgrove, the Wales's country estate. In May she visited central Italy at the very moment Charles was visiting central Italy. And now the tabs report that she—and not Diana—served as hostess at several of the Prince's dinner parties at Highgrove.

What does it all mean? Maybe nothing. Camilla's husband, Brig. Andrew Parker Bowles, 51, was present for at least some of the dinner parties tossed by the Prince last year after he broke his arm playing polo. And the curiously timed trips to Italy might—just might—have been a coincidence. After all, Charles stayed in a private estate in Cetona, Umbria, about an hour's drive from the villa in Siena where Camilla was visiting. Besides, the two trips overlapped for only a few days.

On the other hand, Camilla's Highgrove sunbathing was done with her husband elsewhere. And Diana, who has been spending little time with the Prince of late, is said to be fuming that Camilla is usurping her role as Charles's hostess. "This has irritated Diana immensely," says a veteran royal watcher. "Particularly on one occasion, when she arrived at Highgrove late one evening...to find [Camilla] plumping the pillows on a sofa Charles was sitting on."

Camilla might once have had her own spousal pillow at Kensington Palace. "The Prince fell deeply in love with Camilla—more so, some friends say, than he has ever been again," says Charles's biographer Penny Junor. "She was in love with him and would have married him at the drop of a hat." But Charles dithered, and Camilla got tired of waiting. She married Parker Bowles instead.

The friendship endured, however. Charles became godfather to her son, Thomas, now 14. And Camilla vetted prospective princesses, eventually giving Lady Diana Spencer the nod. Far from showing her gratitude for Camilla's support, after the wedding Diana reportedly frowned on Charles's seeing Camilla (as well as another old flame, Dale Lady Tryon, known as Kanga). But over the years both Camilla and her husband became frequent guests of the royal couple—and more recently of the Prince alone. In May 1989 the Parker Bowleses joined him for a week on a private yacht off Turkey. Camilla and Charles then reportedly went swimming and speed-boating—alone (if you can call being surrounded by the Turkish Navy alone).

No one outside Charles's inner circle knows how far the relationship goes. "Charles unquestionably likes older women—certainly women older than Diana—looking after him and fussing over him," says a royal observer. As for Camilla, the gossip about her and Charles has left her angry and embarrassed. She even took the unusual step of commenting publicly, telling a London tabloid, "The allegations are a load of utter and complete nonsense. I obviously can't talk about my friendship with the Prince."

Still, it's unlikely Camilla will drop him. "Without doubt, there are gaps in the Prince's life with his much younger, beautiful wife," said royal biographer Ann Morrow. "Camilla Parker Bowles fills those gaps."

JOE TREEN
TERRY SMITH in London

  • Contributors:
  • Terry Smith.