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ONLY YESTERDAY, IT SEEMS, Gwyneth Paltrow WAS MADLY, PASSIONATELY, head-over-her-Prada-heels in love with her fiancé, Brad Pitt. Honoring their policy never to be apart for more than two weeks, the 24-year-old actress, based in London while filming Sliding Doors, a whimsical comedy-drama due this November, beamed with her betrothed at local clubs, gazed into his blue eyes at a British Oscars party at the Savoy Hotel and, on a romantic getaway in Paris, held his hand as they strolled along the Seine. "She was incredibly close to Brad," says one member of the crew. "She was talking about him all the time."

Only when Pitt, 33, had jetted back to his Los Angeles home or to their shared Manhattan apartment did his willowy bride-to-be appear to wilt a little. Off the set she drank coffee out of a mug emblazoned with Pitt's likeness. She glanced often at her engagement ring, a band with four diamonds—one large and three tiny stones—chosen by Pitt. "She would say, 'I need my Brad to be with me today, I am really missing him,'" says the crew member. By the film's wrap party at the end of May, Paltrow—who had turned down a plum role in the big-screen version of The Avengers (opposite Ralph Fiennes) to be closer to her fiancé—was more than ready to head home. "She was very, very keen to get back to Brad," says the crew member. "She was saying that she couldn't wait."

Talk about a change of plans—not to mention heart. On June 16, Pitt's publicist Cindy Guagenti announced that Hollywood's golden couple had called an abrupt end to their 2½-year romance: "They have been broken up for a couple of weeks now," she told the New York Post. "It's not because of any one specific event." A source close to both added, "It's a real relationship with real problems. This is not about any third party. This is absolutely between the two of them." Even in a town where love is as unpredictable as opening-day grosses, the revelation came as a shock. What other celebrity couple in recent years seemed so fresh, so guilelessly in love—so like "a happy Romeo and Juliet," as one friend put it last year? "Oh, it's too sad," says L.A. hairdresser-to-the-stars Laurent, who cut Paltrow's hair just before she left for London in February. "They were so much in love the day they were here. He was holding her hand the whole time. They were looking at her [engagement] ring."

Of course, in retrospect, there are always signs, however subtle. Although the hush-hush wedding was rumored to be set for late summer in East Hampton, N.Y., one person familiar with the couple's plans says it never—despite a trip by Paltrow to wedding-dress designer Vera Wang in New York City—even got to the planning stage.

And London celebrity photographer Nikos spotted the couple making a fast, glum exit into a white Mercedes limousine from a London nightspot several weeks ago. "Something went wrong," Nikos says. Paltrow was later spotted in the car, being consoled by Pitt.

Pitt, who's filming a comedy-fantasy, Meet Joe Black, in New York City, was seen carousing solo with a group of male friends at a party at a photographer's studio on June 12—four days before news of his split became public. "Brad actually looked really happy, smiling and enjoying himself," says one guest. "It was noticed by everyone Gwyneth wasn't there."

With Pitt staying in their Manhattan place and Paltrow bunking with a friend, an intimate of the couple's says they are still talking regularly. But don't expect to see them at such favorite haunts as the restaurant Villa Mosconi or the honky-tonk Hogs & Heifers. Paltrow, for her part, has been keeping out of view. Though she accepted an invitation to attend the June 17 New York City premiere of Julia Roberts's new comedy, My Best Friend's Wedding, she didn't show. According to a friend of Pitt's, the actress is "stunned and devastated."

The reason, says Pitt's friend, is because the decision was, in fact, more one-sided than Guagenti claims. "Brad called it off," the source insists. "He changed his mind about a month ago. He got caught up in the frenzy of getting married, but he really didn't want to. He hasn't had a second to think about what's going on."

"He's commitment-shy," surmises another Pitt acquaintance. "He needs to figure out what he wants."

An intimate of the actor's, however, says "he was full-speed-ahead with the wedding. He did want to get married, and now he's upset." And at least one person close to both performers dismisses the idea of unilateral action by Pitt as "absolutely not true." It is a "true and deeply felt love," adds this person, that is being tested by "a bumpy time." Paltrow is herself "optimistic," this source adds, that the split may not be final. Pitt's brother Doug, 30, who owns a computer-service company in the actor's hometown of Springfield, Mo., would say only, "Of course there's sadness. They're both great people."

Indeed, in the beginning, it seemed like destiny had brought the enchanted pair together. The two fell in love on the set of the grisly murder thriller Seven, where, by unpleasant irony, Paltrow played Pitt's doomed wife. The actress, previously linked with actors Donovan Leitch and Robert Sean Leonard, at first resisted her costar's killer chemistry (he was PEOPLE'S Sexiest Man Alive in 1995). "And then I started getting a crush on him," she told the Los Angeles Times last August. "I'm like, 'Are you sane? You can't get a crush on Brad Pitt. Get hold of yourself.'" Pitt, on the other hand, was smitten from the start. When he grabbed his Golden Globe trophy for his performance in 12 Monkeys in 1996, he thanked her as "my angel."

The couple seemed blissful whether in high society (they went to the White House for a screening of Emma) or low (she danced for him on the bar at Hogs & Heifers). They finally became engaged—after months of speculation—when she visited him last December in Argentina, where he was shooting a historical story, Seven Years in Tibet. Then at Christmas he took her home to meet his father, Bill Pitt, who used to own a trucking company, and his mother, Jane, a school counselor. (In celebration of their anticipated union, the family dined at the local Red Lobster.) Just two months ago, Pitt rhapsodized to Rolling Stone as he envisioned their wedding day. "I can't wait, man," he said, "...walk down the aisle, wear the ring, kiss the bride. Oh, it's going to be great."

Whatever derailed the momentum toward that all-important walk, everyone interviewed by PEOPLE agreed on one point: There is virtually no possibility that Pitt was putting his charms to work on another. "Brad is not a womanizer," says one friend, "and he doesn't cheat. He always has one girlfriend." At worst he has a tendency to fall in love—one at a time—with his leading ladies. Among them: Jill Schoelen (Cutting Class, a slasher pic), Robin Givens (he had a part on her sitcom Head of the Class in 1988) and Juliette Lewis (Kalifornia). Nonetheless, his relationship with Paltrow seems far more serious. "Brad wouldn't get engaged lightly," says Janice Johnson, his former high-school drama coach. "Brad is a pretty down-home basic boy."

That presumably was okay by Paltrow, even if hers is a more genteel sensibility than Pitt's, with his love for country music and beer. Her pedigree is impressive. Paltrow, whose father is producer-director Bruce Paltrow (St. Elsewhere), was raised with younger brother Jake bicoastally, with homes in Santa Monica and on New York City's Upper East Side. She spent summers doing regional theater with her mother, actress Blythe Danner, and the school year attending Spence, an exclusive girls academy in Manhattan.

More than anything, though, Paltrow is probably just a homebody who wants a family—and Pitt by her side. For all the well-documented nights out in Manhattan with Pitt, Paltrow has usually emphasized the snugly domestic in their relationship. During a typical day, she told E! online, "we hang out alone, read papers, have coffee, watch Unsolved Mysteries or have friends over for dinner and laugh and play Pictionary." And she has been quite vocal about having children, even if that might mean putting her career on hold. "I love acting," she told New York magazine. "But it's not the most important thing to me."

Ironically, as their personal life has come unglued, their professional one has fallen in sync. In September the pair are scheduled to make their first movie together since Seven. But it won't be much of a reunion, either. They may have only one scene together in Duets, an oddball film about participants in karaoke contests, to be directed by Paltrow's father. Last week a nervous producer flew to New York City to make sure the couple were still in the cast. For now, yes, although as one agent puts it, "I can't imagine suddenly not being engaged to someone and then going to make a movie with them."

But between now and the fall, romantics can only hope Pitt and Paltrow will overcome their differences. "I hope they work things out," says a Sliding Doors crew member. "Everyone likes a fairy-tale story."

TOM GLIATTO
BRYAN ALEXANDER in London, SUE MILLER in New York City, ANNE-MARIE OTEY and JEFFREY WELLS in Los Angeles and LUCHINA FISHER in Chicago

  • Contributors:
  • Bryan Alexander,
  • Sue Miller,
  • Anne-Marie Otey,
  • Jeffrey Wells,
  • Luchtna Fisher.