Indeed, when Sophie unexpectedly joined Edward, the Queen and Prince Philip for a 10-day cruise of Scotland's Western Isles early this month, some Windsor watchers thought they heard wedding bells. "Edward to Wed Sophie," declared the News of the World in a front-page story Aug. 6.
But the Love Boat announcement may have been premature; a Palace spokesperson dismissed it as "purely speculative." Still, no one argues that the inclusion of the 30-year-old Rhys-Jones on the cruise is a sign that the Queen would be happy to welcome her into the royal fold—the sooner the better, perhaps. Just last month the Venerable George Austin, Archdeacon of York, admonished the Queen for allowing her 31-year-old Edward to "cohabit" with Rhys-Jones. Though Sophie still pays rent on a two-bedroom flat she shares with a girlfriend in West Kensington, newspaper accounts have Sophie spending several nights each week with Edward at Buckingham Palace or Windsor Castle. A Princess Di look-alike with her cropped hair and elegant carriage, Sophie has been frequently photographed on mornings-after heading to her job at the London public relations firm of MacLaurin Communication & Media. "We still look to the royal family to set an example," scolded the archdeacon, urging the Windsors to return to the values of "no sex before marriage."
Most citizens of the realm, however, aren't bothered by the premarital sleepovers. "Ninety-five percent of the British people don't really care," estimates one palace watcher, noting the rumors of homosexuality that have dogged Edward for years. "They're delighted he's being linked with a woman rather than a man."
In fact, some think the Queen may deliberately be looking the other way to give Sophie and Edward, who manages his own television production company, a chance to get to know each other outside the prying lenses of the paparazzi. "If Sophie wasn't with Edward at Buckingham Palace and Windsor, they would have no privacy at all," says Ingrid Seward, editor-in-chief of Majesty magazine and author of a new biography on Prince Edward. The rule bending also gives Sophie, the only daughter of Christopher, a tire exporter, and Mary, a homemaker, a chance to become accustomed to the peculiar ways of the Windsors, an advantage Diana and Fergie—neither of whom stayed at the palace until after their engagements—didn't have. "Both are rather irritated by it," says Seward. "Princess Diana and the Duchess of York feel that had they been allowed to spend time there, it would have helped them a great deal to learn about palace intrigues."
(On the Princess Di front, meanwhile, palace circles were abuzz last week with reports linking Di to rugby star Will Carling. His former assistant claimed that Carling not only chatted with Di on the phone several times a day—her pet name was "Boss" and his "Captain"—but visited her as often as three times a week at Kensington Palace. Carling, 34, issued a statement saying his friendship with the princess "has not in any way affected the priority" he has given to wife Julia.)
As for Edward and Sophie, the laissez-faire approach seems to be working. The couple, who met in August 1993, when she helped handle publicity for one of his charity events, share a love of sports and cooking. At Windsor they sometimes dine with the Queen and Prince Philip, and Rhys-Jones occasionally goes horseback riding with the Queen. Whether or not a royal alignment lies around the corner, the lovers are finding life together sweet. "Basically," said Rhys-Jones in June, "we are simply two people who are very happy enjoying each other's company."
LYDIA DENWORTH in London