08/28/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT
AS SEX SCANDALS GO, PRINCESS Diana's flirtation with English rugby star Will Carling, 29, was about as steamy as a cup of tepid Earl Grey. The lonely princess has always enjoyed the attention of other men—from "Squidgygate" car salesman James Gilbey to her telltale riding instructor Capt. James Hewitt to art dealer Oliver Hoare—but this time Di's indiscretion seems to have been pure flirtation. Still, it cost her an embarrassing comeuppance—not just from the usual suspects on Fleet Street but from a wife irritated by the princess's presumed pursuit of her husband.
Proclaiming that Diana had "picked the wrong couple" to fool around with, Julia Carling, 30, a bride of only 14 months, last week implied that her husband was naive and described the princess as a pathetically grasping Other Woman. In an interview with The Mail on Sunday, Carling, the head of her own public-relations firm and obviously a pro at the game, said, "I am sad that Will put himself in that position, and that the princess did as well. This has happened to her before, and you hope she won't do these things again, but obviously she does."
Immediately, the British press jumped in. "This time, it's Diana humiliated on the sidelines, a little hussy and frustrated home wrecker," clucked columnist Peter Bradshaw in the Evening Standard. Says one journalist close to the Palace: "Diana is always seen as a victim, but in this case she is seen as a predator."
The tale of Diana's friendship with Carling, 29, the popular captain of England's national rugby team, appeared in the News of the World on Aug. 6. It had been peddled by ex-aide Hilary Ryan, who worked for Insights, Carling's business leadership company, until she was fired in July. Ryan said the pair met 18 months ago while working out at the Harbour Club in Chelsea. They began to have coffee together, and after teasing Diana about the pink Martha's Vineyard, Mass., sweatshirt she wore every day, Carling gave her a china pig similarly garbed. Diana playfully responded by sending him a huge toy troll wearing his team rugby shirt. In time, Ryan claimed, the two were calling each other two or three times a day, and Carling began visiting the princess at Kensington Palace as often as three times a week.
In March, Diana brought her sons to scrimmage with Carling's team, and in May, Ryan said, Will kept the whole team waiting to depart for World Cup competition in South Africa while he bade Diana a 3-hour farewell at Kensington Palace. (Diana's friends insist it was only 20 minutes.)
At least one friend tried to warn the infatuated rugger off. Last winter, Carling had arranged to bring soccer star Gary Lineker to lunch at Kensington Palace, but Lineker forced him to cancel the date at the last minute. "That woman's trouble," Lineker said, according to the News of the World. "She loves it that we haven't told our wives where we're going." Carling and Lineker dined alone at a cafe instead.
When news of his flirtation first broke, Carling told the press that the friendship was "perfectly harmless" and vowed loyalty to his wife. But he allowed that "it was flattering that the princess was interested in me." For her part, Diana reportedly told friends she wouldn't apologize to the outspoken Julia. "I've done nothing wrong. What would people say if I apologized?" she asked. "They'd think I was guilty."
Diana's crime is not sexual intimacy, which most royal watchers believe she fears because of what one calls "paranoic frigidity," but rather a flirtation that ended in embarrassment. "Diana is lethal," says one watcher. "She becomes obsessed with people. The price of being involved with her isn't worth it to anybody. She's become more and more isolated."
Her latest indiscretion has renewed concern about the princess's growing remoteness. "She's got two sisters, but she apparently hardly ever speaks to them," says author Brian Hoey. "She's cut off most of her family, including her brother. She sees her women friends less often and spends a lot of time at home. I don't know if she's getting therapy, but she needs a lot of help."
Now 34 and in her third year of post-separation limbo, Diana seems desperate to find people she can trust. "Surely I'm allowed to have a friendship without being accused of having an affair," she reportedly told friends about the Carling incident. "I can't speak to a man without people assuming I'm up to no good." One observer tends to agree. The princess, he says, is "living in a gilded cage. She can do everything, and she can do nothing."
LYDIA DENWORTH and ELIZABETH TERRY in London