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The ambience was cozy, the mood low-key as guests arrived at the fashionably converted barn in Hampshire, England, on Jan. 29 to celebrate British model Heather Mills's 32nd birthday. As she circulated through her candlelit home, where she had set out vegetarian snacks and piped in pop music, Mills appeared radiant in a low-cut red evening gown that draped the prosthetic device where her left leg used to be. "Heather looked incredibly glamorous," recalls Mills's friend Pamela Cockerill. "She outshone everybody." Including, even, the surprise guest, who was delivered by a chauffeur at about 10 p.m. "She just turned and suddenly said, 'Oh, there's my man,' and went outside," says Cockerill. "There was a big kiss on the lawn with their arms around each other, and it was perfectly obvious."

Indeed, after months of ducking rumors and paparazzi, Mills and her special guest that evening, Paul McCartney, 57, were no longer hiding their love away. By the time the music slowed way down, they were, says Cockerill, slow dancing "cheek to cheek and smooching," confirming the Fleet Street suspicions that the couple became romantically involved after first seeing each other at a London charity function last May. Finally, on March 15, after being stalked, snagged and snapped by the tabloid News of the World, McCartney decided to preempt a barrage of press inquiries by coming clean. "Yes, we're very good friends," he said in a statement. "We are an item."

An intriguing item at that and not just because of the obvious gap in their ages, which puts McCartney on the cover of Modern Maturity at the same time that Mills is appearing nude in the Disabilities Trust 2000 calendar (featuring photographs of disabled people in an effort to raise awareness). Mills herself makes an interesting match for Paul, whose wife of 29 years, Linda, died of breast cancer in April 1998 at age 56. Surviving a hardscrabble start in northeast England, Mills built a career modeling swimwear and a charitable image working with war refugees, only to be mowed down in August 1993 by a speeding police motorcycle as she stepped off a curb near London's Kensington Palace. The collision cost Mills half her left leg—and changed her life. A year later she founded her as-yet-unregistered Heather Mills Health Trust to recycle artificial limbs for land-mine victims in war-torn nations.

Though the secret is out, friends and family are maintaining a protective cordon. Mills's sister Fiona Mills, 30, warily confirms, "Heather is very happy." And while Cockerill, 53, who ghostwrote Heather's 1995 autobiography, Out on a Limb, allows, "From what I have seen of love in my life, I would say it's love," she also takes pains to note that Mills had nothing to do with the excerpts from her book that ran last week in Britain's Daily Mail. "She certainly did not want the serialization to happen," says Cockerill. "I think it casts doubt among Paul's friends and family that she's capitalizing on this. The fear is that they will think the worst."

Actually, many of Paul's friends are delighted by the new romance. "I think there's a natural time when you get over grieving," says Beatles chronicler Ray Connolly, 59. "I'm sure everyone is thrilled and relieved because Paul was so desperate [after Linda's death]." McCartney biographer Barry Miles says, "I'm sure Linda would be delighted." Even her closest friends might agree. "No one can take her place," says Danny Fields, who knew Linda for more than 30 years and has written a new book, Linda McCartney: A Portrait. "God, give him all the happiness he can find."

That wish seemed all the more poignant after Linda's first husband, Joseph Melville See Jr., 62, a cultural anthropologist, took his life on March 19 (see page 111). See, whom Linda divorced in 1965, was the biological father of Linda's daughter Heather, whom McCartney later adopted. See's death by a self-inflicted gunshot wound, which came a week after it was disclosed that Linda had left her entire $220 million fortune to McCartney, brought bittersweet memories of Linda to the foreground.

Still, the change in McCartney has been dramatic. Less than a year ago, at a public exhibit of his paintings in Germany, the private McCartney sobbed openly for his late wife when his paean to her, "Maybe I'm Amazed," played in the gallery. "I thought I might be dead by the end of the [first] year, it would just be so unbearable," he says in the current issue of Classic FM, a British magazine. Now he is so ebullient that he has entreated the press, "If this is to develop, then give us a chance." The turning, he told Classic FM, came "after about a year and two months....I am now another person."

As it happens, it was a year and a month after Linda's death that McCartney first laid eyes on Mills. Both were presenting charitable awards at London's Dorchester Hotel, he to an animal rights activist, she to a woman who had lost her arms and legs to meningitis. As Mills mounted the stage, says Paul Willis, an assistant editor of Britain's Mirror, which sponsored the awards, "Paul was clearly fascinated by her. I could see he was captivated." At the time he didn't realize that Mills was herself an amputee. Though they didn't meet that day—Mills had to take off quickly for Cambodia to film a documentary on land-mine victims—McCartney would later tell The Mirror, "I was hugely touched by Heather's presentation."

Sometime over the next few weeks, he left her a phone message. "I thought it was a joke when I first heard his voice on the voice mail: 'Hello, Paul McCartney here,'" she told PEOPLE last November. "He said, 'Look, I want to help [your] charity. I think you do great work.'" His $240,000 contribution, says Fiona Mills, "was the first big donation the charity had." After that, she says, "Heather kept him up to date on what was going on."

That July, Mills suddenly called off her engagement to freelance cameraman Chris Terrill just two weeks before their wedding. "It was a bit of a whirlwind romance," she told PEOPLE. The abrupt change of heart echoed two prior busted engagements, one to Italian banker Raffaele Mincione in 1993 and another two years later to British media executive Marcus Stapleton, to whom she became engaged after just 16 days. Both relationships followed her two-year marriage to Alfie Karmal, 42, a British computer-company executive, who says she left him in 1991 for a Slovenian ski instructor without so much as a goodbye note. "She's fiercely ambitious but just didn't know what she wanted," says the thrice-married Karmal. "She was always trying to come up with a get-rich-quick plan."

As it happens, it was a year and a month after Linda's death that McCartney first laid eyes on Mills. Both were presenting charitable awards at London's Dorchester Hotel, he to an animal rights activist, she to a woman who had lost her arms and legs to meningitis. As Mills mounted the stage, says Paul Willis, an assistant editor of Britain's Mirror, which sponsored the awards, "Paul was clearly fascinated by her. I could see he was captivated." At the time he didn't realize that Mills was herself an amputee. Though they didn't meet that day-Mills had to take off quickly for Cambodia to film a documentary on land-mine victims-McCartney would later tell The Mirror, "I was hugely touched by Heather's presentation."

Sometime over the next few weeks, he left her a phone message. "I thought it was a joke when I first heard his voice on the voice mail: 'Hello, Paul McCartney here,'" she told PEOPLE last November. "He said, 'Look, I want to help [your] charity. I think you do great work.'" His $240,000 contribution, says Fiona Mills, "was the first big donation the charity had." After that, she says, "Heather kept him up to date on what was going on."

That July, Mills suddenly called off her engagement to freelance cameraman Chris Terrill just two weeks before their wedding. "It was a bit of a whirlwind romance," she told PEOPLE. The abrupt change of heart echoed two prior busted engagements, one to Italian banker Raffaele Mincione in 1993 and another two years later to British media executive Marcus Stapleton, to whom she became engaged after just 16 days. Both relationships followed her two-year marriage to Alfie Karmal, 42, a British computer-company executive, who says she left him in 1991 for a Slovenian ski instructor without so much as a goodbye note. "She's fiercely ambitious but just didn't know what she wanted," says the thrice-married Karmal. "She was always trying to come up with a get-rich-quick plan."

Unaware of or undeterred by Mills's erratic love life, McCartney made his first move last fall. "He sort of confessed feelings for her," says a Mills confidant. "She was quite overwhelmed and found it hard to believe." Around that time, Mills and her sister Fiona decided to cut VO!CE, a CD of a song they wrote to raise funds for Mills's trust. But they were missing a backup singer. "Let me know what you want and I'll do it, luv," Paul reportedly told her.

After Mills recorded the single in Greece, where Fiona, who is unmarried, lives and runs Coda Records, an independent label, the sisters paid an overnight visit in early November to McCartney's estate in Peasmarsh, East Sussex, so that he could add backup vocals to the mix. Impromptu, McCartney invited the sisters to attend a party. Within days the News of the World was screaming that McCartney had a "new love"—inspiring protests from both Paul ("Because I work with these ladies does not mean I am having anything other than a business relationship with them") and Heather ("We are just friends"). When McCartney phoned Mills to see how she was bearing up under the scrutiny, she worriedly said, "I don't want you to think I put anyone up to this." Reportedly, he just laughed and said, "They do it all the time."

It soon became apparent that the exuberant model was a positive tonic for the grieving widower. "Heather's energy is very vitalizing to everybody who meets her," says Cockerill. In December, McCartney showed up for a night of rock and roll at the Cavern, the Liverpool club where the Beatles got their start. "That night he looked very confident," recalls Ray Connolly. On March 6, after he inducted James Taylor into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he sneaked off with Mills to Manhattan's Hogs & Heifers honky-tonk, where his mood was so high-spirited that the knighted rocker was persuaded to climb up on the bar and bump hips with barmaid Michele Gascoigne. "I don't know if they're in love, but they certainly looked very happy that night," says Gascoigne, 28, of the pair.

In January, McCartney took off for a three-week stay on Parrot Cay, in the Turks and Caicos Islands, where he'd rented a two-bedroom house with a private pool for $2,450 per night for him and his children Stella and James.

Halfway through the last week, he took a boat to a nearby island, where he met a mysterious blonde. "He wanted to get off the boat pretty quickly when he saw her," recalls a hotel employee. After that, says a hotel manager, McCartney and Mills hardly emerged from their room. "They ordered a lot of room service."

Only after McCartney saw his kids off from Parrot Cay did Mills join him at the beach house. "He wanted to be with her," says a boat worker, "but he didn't want to do it in front of the kids." Whether or not McCartney's four children—Heather, 37, a housewares designer; Mary, 30, a photographer; Stella, 28, a fashion designer; and James, 22, a guitarist and sculptor—knew then, they certainly know now. "They are all cool about it, but I don't know if she has been introduced to all the kids yet," McCartney spokesman Geoff Baker told a Scottish newspaper.

Growing up, Mills's own family life was far less idyllic. She has described her father, Mark, 64, an ex-paratrooper, as "a quite mad character" who beat her mother and terrified his three children. Her mother, Beatrice, a psychologist who died in the early '90s, ran away with an actor when Heather was only 9. In 1981, after her father was imprisoned for fraud, Mills went to live with her mother but, unable to get along with Beatrice's boyfriend, soon struck out on her own sometime after she turned 17. For a brief time she lived as a homeless teen under a bridge.

At 18, Mills met Karmal, who nudged her toward modeling. "He sent off a picture to a newspaper competition, which I won," she told PEOPLE. After some early nude "glamor" gigs (shots of which were dredged up last week by the Daily Sport, a seamy British tabloid), Mills started her own small modeling agency. By 21, she was ready to start a family, but her attempts resulted in two ectopic pregnancies. She claimed that Karmal's lack of support during this period persuaded her to leave the marriage. After she split for Slovenia to be with a new boyfriend, war broke out in the Balkans—a jolting experience that lured her into relief work in war-shattered countries.

Then, fresh home from a trip to Bosnia, she suffered the freak accident that would claim her leg. While she was in the hospital, she told PEOPLE, "one woman walked in and said, 'You've got to come to terms with the fact you're disabled. Men might not find you as attractive as before.'" Undaunted, Mills found a therapeutic calling: getting prosthetic devices to people who had lost limbs to land mines. "Now," she said, "I can make a big difference."

For now, Mills and McCartney are making an enormous difference in each other's lives. "I have not seen Heather so happy for a long time," says her friend Cockerill. "She feels this is the one." It no doubt helps that both McCartney and Mills are vegetarians. "I would think that she's not going to be cooking gooses for dinner," says Danny Fields. Beyond their respective charity work, both share a love of music, which the sax-playing Mills gained from her father, Mark, who has a passion for Wagner. Mark has been estranged from his two daughters and son Shane for years. He learned of Mills's new love "from the most recent newspapers." But he says he distinctly remembers that Heather "was into the Beatles" as a child.

Even as McCartney and Mills take wing, Paul remains devoted to Linda's memory. He recently joined eight British composers to promote the CD A Garland for Linda to raise money for cancer research and British music. His grandson Arthur, born last April to Mary and her husband, Alistair Donald, a British TV producer, helped him rediscover joy. But McCartney is ready to move on. "Some men his age might say, 'Wow, this is my chance to fly,'" says Fields. "Not Paul. He's conscious of the virtues of domesticity and courtship and devotion."

During their recent visit to Hogs & Heifers, McCartney stuck close to Mills as she played pool and sipped a beer. "He didn't leave her alone to fend for herself," says barmaid Gascoigne. She, like many fans, is rooting for the couple. "I think he deserves all the happiness in the world," she says. "And if they get married, I want an invitation."

Jill Smolowe
Pete Norman and Nina Biddle in London, Natasha Stoynoff in Parrot Cay and Sue Miller in New York City

  • Contributors:
  • Pete Norman,
  • Nina Biddle,
  • Natasha Stoynoff,
  • Sue Miller.