07/27/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Odds are they had met before, back when he was a tow-headed tyke in shorts who thought of her simply as a family friend. But when Prince William
, now a confident and clued-in 16-year-old, crossed paths June 12 with his father's longtime mistress, Camilla Parker Bowles, 51, no one, least of all Parker Bowles, underestimated the significance of the encounter. (It was surely the first since Diana's death.) After 30 minutes of tea, soft drinks and small talk at the St. James's Palace royal apartments, a jittery Camilla said, "I really need a gin and tonic."
Make it a round. The Sun, which broke the story on July 9, was giddy over the prospect that the meeting, and two subsequent visits over tea and lunch, might signal Camilla's return to public view—or greater exposure—after 10 months of lying low. "Show Us You Love Her," the next day's headline urged Charles. And the palace not only confirmed the story, a spokesperson told the Press Complaints Commission that it would not object if it were published.
Why the change of heart? One reason may be Charles's approaching 50th-birthday bash at Highgrove on Nov. 14, which his children and Camilla plan to attend. "They wanted to get the introductions done before the party," says royal watcher Peter Archer. Which means 13-year-old Harry is likely up next.
The episode, says Camilla biographer Christopher Wilson, is a sign that "Charles is consulting William and treating him as an adult." William's good opinion may someday count for even more. After the meetings, British bookies cut the odds of a Charles-Camilla wedding from 10-1 to 5-1. Says royal author Brian Hoey: "People feel Charles deserves a little happiness."