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Unlike her royal relations, Princess Anne has never lived a charmed life. She never had the looks or panache of her sisters-in-law Di and Fergie. As Charles's overlooked younger sister, she always "accepted being second in everything," she once admitted. Nor has she had even average good fortune in matters of the heart; her 15-year marriage to Capt. Mark Phillips has not been happy, a dismal truth the couple have made little effort to disguise. Periodically, rumors have flared that either the princess or her husband had sought solace outside the marriage, but the affairs—if such they were—seemed to fizzle out. Marked by every appearance of mutual indifference, the loveless union just drifted along. Now, suddenly, Anne, 38, faces a marital crisis that is profoundly embarrassing, yet may hold the opportunity for escape: One of the rumors has apparently been substantiated. Buckingham Palace has confirmed that one of the Queen's equerries, Comdr. Timothy Laurence, 34, has written four intimate letters to Anne. With regal irony, the plain princess is caught in a scandal that might result in the first royal divorce since Princess Margaret and Lord Snowdon parted ways in 1978.

The revelations began this month when the Sun, Britain's largest-selling newspaper, claimed it had anonymously received letters written to the princess, "all in the same black-ink handwriting," and apparently stolen from the Palace. Since it couldn't publish the missives without being sued for breach of copyright—and had been chastised only last year for printing a photograph stolen from the royal family—the paper contented itself with a story headlined: "PALACE THIEF STEALS ANNE'S LETTERS...SUN TO THE RESCUE" and handed the four epistles over to Scotland Yard.

A full investigation was launched. The Sun, in a rare burst of discretion, gave no hint as to the letters' contents or to the identity of their mysterious author. Instead, public curiosity was satisfied by—of all sources—Buckingham Palace. Breaking with its tradition of lockjaw silence, the Palace issued an extraordinary statement: "The stolen letters were addressed to the Princess Royal by Commander Timothy Laurence, the Queen's Equerry. We have nothing to say about the contents of personal letters sent to Her Royal Highness by a friend which were stolen and which are the subject of a police investigation."

If the Palace expected its crisp statement would stem the tide of innuendo, it was doomed to disappointment. Commander Laurence began vying with Prince Charles for reluctant stardom in the tabloids. Laurence is one of two equerries to the Queen; a handpicked group of well-bred young military officers, they attend her during all public functions and royal tours. They are invariably charming, impeccably mannered gallants, and Anne is not the first of the Windsor women to find them both aide and comfort. In 1955, Anne's aunt, Princess Margaret, wanted desperately to marry former royal equerry and Battle of Britain fighter pilot Peter Townsend, but his divorce ruled him out as a matrimonial prospect, and she later settled for an ill-fated marriage to Lord Snowdon.

Whatever his fate with Anne, Laurence has been a favorite of the royal family since he joined the Palace entourage in 1986. A former navigation officer on the royal yacht, Britannia, he stood behind Queen Elizabeth II as she received Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev recently and escorted Princess Diana to lunch last February when Charles was playing polo in the U.S. Last September, Laurence was chosen to be one of three personal advisers to Anne's Charities Trust. "The appointment," says a source, "just shows Anne's affection for him."

Dividing his time between a three-bedroom house in Winchester, 60 miles southwest of London, and a so-called grace-and-favor (rent free) apartment in Kensington Palace, where fellow residents include Charles and Di, Laurence has been described by a Winchester neighbor as "very quiet. He keeps to himself, but he rarely gets the chance to mix with anyone because he usually seems to be in London."

Apparently, he doesn't always keep to himself. One source says Princess Anne visited Laurence last spring when he was suffering from shingles. "The princess was extremely worried about his health and went around to his home to cheer him up," said one of Laurence's Royal Navy colleagues. "This happened several times, and Tim was grateful for her interest and caring attitude."

Another of Laurence's friends was reported to have said the equerry's feelings burned brighter. "Tim never stopped thinking about Princess Anne from soon after their first meeting.... Anne has treated him as her closest confidant for some considerable time. Obviously, Tim and the princess were physically attracted to each other, but their friendship goes deeper than that. Tim has filled a loneliness in her life and given her a shoulder to cry on when she needed someone to tell her troubles to. He understands her tantrums and the bad publicity she attracts. But most of all, he cares for her in the way her husband does not."

According to neighbors, when Laurence was recovering from his shingles attack, Anne visited him again with her children Peter, 11, and Zara, 7. "There was no attempt to hide the fact that any of them were there," remembers a neighbor. "They all seemed to be having a good time."

It was during this time, presumably, that Laurence was writing notes to the princess and delivering them to Buckingham Palace by hand rather than sending them to Gatcombe Park, Anne's Gloucestershire home. The letters, reportedly written over an 18-month period, were said to have been purloined from Anne's desk (or possibly her briefcase) before the end of March.

Their content is a matter of some dispute. "Too hot to handle," said one tabloid. But according to an informed source who has read them, the letters are more romantic—one bears the salutation "darling"—than sexy or lascivious. "It's quite clear that he is potty about her," he says. "But they are very boring and ramble on. They are the sort of letters 18-or 19-year-olds write to one another, thoughts about life and rather philosophical, discussing how beautiful a field is in the sunshine with a stream running through it." A "security source" quoted in one tab agreed: "The contents are not raunchy and do not suggest any intimacy, but they are written in affectionate terms. If Captain Phillips wanted to know why they were written, the princess would have some answering to do."

Perhaps. But Capt. Mark Phillips, 40, sees his wife so infrequently, there hardly seems time to inquire about her health, let alone cross-examine her about her fan mail. Over the past several years, Mark and Anne have spent increasing time apart. It's hard to believe this is the same couple once described by the Queen Mother as a perfect duo: "They could have been computer-dated," she said.

Something went wrong with the program soon after it was inaugurated with nuptial pomp at Westminster Abbey in 1973. Less than 10 years later the couple, originally brought together by a love of horses, had developed divergent interests. Mark, a former cavalry officer, threw himself into such money-making ventures as riding clinics and equestrian centers. They were keeping the marriage intact, friends said, for the sake of Peter and Zara. In the first years of her marriage, Anne's ungracious behavior had become legendary, and the British public began to see her as the Palace "problem child." Then in the early '80s, there was a startling turnabout. Anne became a royal workhorse, a friendly, smiling presence on the endless circuit of hospital openings and charity lunches. Kitchen-table wisdom in Britain concluded that the princess was using work to ease the pain of her marriage.

"What Mark and Anne have is not what I would think of as married life," Phillips's father recently told a reporter. "But it is up to them how they lead their lives." The past several months show how they do:

•From Jan. 1 to Jan. 10, the couple took their children skiing in France but reportedly spent little time together. It seemed an echo of their behavior at the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles, when Anne and Mark elected to stay in separate hotels.

•When the family returned to England, Phillips headed immediately for Glen-eagles, Scotland, where he runs a riding center. Meanwhile, Anne racked up 42 engagements in 21 days.

•Mark came back to England at the end of February, and Anne took off for Tasmania and New Zealand.

•At Easter, Mark showed up only in the evening but did spend the next five days with Anne, then went back to Gleneagles.

Rumor mills have long maintained that when Anne and Mark are apart, they aren't exactly alone. Fleet Street, rather implausibly, has tried to link the princess with actor Anthony (Brideshend Revisited) Andrews, a frequent guest at Gatcombe Park. According to one report, the two had a rendezvous in Paris in 1987, when Andrews was playing Anne's abdicating great-uncle Edward VIII in a TV movie. "The gossip is so far removed from reality as to be beyond belief," was Andrews's response.

There was no such chivalrous denial from another of Anne's supposed romantic attachments—her former police bodyguard Peter Cross. Accused by Scotland Yard of having become "overfamiliar" with the princess, and relieved of his assignment, Cross confided to the tabloids that he and Anne had had a "special relationship" and were "close friends, extremely close friends." He claimed that Anne telephoned him at his insurance office using the name Mrs. Wallis (presumably as in Wallis Warfield Simpson) and even called him the day she gave birth to Zara.

Phillips called the story "a load of rubbish," which is pretty much what he has said about rumors of his own affairs. Over the years he's been linked with a string of women, most notably British TV personality Angela Rippon, stable girl Zena Pilgrim and Toronto PR consultant Kathy Birks, all of whom have denied the allegations.

Although now overshadowed by his wife, Phillips has also made some recent headlines. Pamella Bordes (PEOPLE, April 3), the former Miss India turned celebrity call girl, has indicated that she enjoyed some special moments with Mark at his Gleneagles riding school two years ago. "We struck up an immediate rapport," said Pamella, adding that she and Phillips both had had a bit to drink. "We were being drawn to each other, so we spent the evening drinking and talking until very late, certainly after everyone else had left." The innuendo was so implicit that Phillips responded snappishly, "I never had a relationship with Miss Whatever-Her-Name-Is."

The day the news broke that Laurence had written the letters, Anne and Mark were where they usually are—apart, she competing in a local horseshow, he riding in a competition 150 miles away. "I know Tim Laurence is an equerry," said Mark when quizzed by reporters. "I left home on Friday and have not spoken to Princess Anne since. I will be ringing home tonight on my car phone to find out what is going on."

Many people would like to know what's going on. Royal watchers are taking due note of the fact that Laurence was relieved of a recent assignment to accompany Queen Elizabeth to a gala preview performance of Andrew Lloyd Webber's new musical Aspects of Love. However, he has not been dismissed from the Palace in disgrace, suggesting perhaps that the royal family does not disapprove of his conduct. Palace watchers are also noting that since the Affair of the Stolen Letters started, the princess and her husband have made no pretense of showing a united front.

A few royal watchers feel Anne has reached the point of no return. "ANNE DIVORCE CRISIS AT PALACE" crowed one recent headline. "CAN THIS MARRIAGE BE SAVED?" screamed another.

For the royals, who band together and weigh the dynastic as well as the personal implications of any crisis, the question may be whether the marriage should be saved. With the union a joyless sham, a divorce might grant Anne and Phillips another shot at happiness. Public reaction, always important, would possibly be favorable: The British man-and-woman-in-front-of-the-TV feel sympathy for the princess in distress. Still, no matter which course she chooses—staying in a painfully empty marriage or going through the painful process of divorce—Anne's life will become fodder for large black tabloid type. In a way she never wanted, the overlooked princess is finally getting attention.

—Joanne Kaufman, Jonathan Cooper in London