Kate Middleton and Prince Wiliam
10/27/2010 at 10:00 AM EDT
After years of anticipation, royal watchers say Kate Middleton may soon be walking down the aisle to wed the world's most eligible bachelor.
One royal expert interviewed in this week's PEOPLE cover story says Prince William
will likely propose to his girlfriend of eight years in February 2011. "There won't be an announcement before Christmas because William has got to ask the Queen first," says longtime royal watcher Ingrid Seward. "And they will get married soon after."
The fiercely private couple, both 28 – who almost always show up and leave events separately – sparked a new round of engagement rumors after appearing together at a friend's Oct. 23 nuptials in Northleach, Gloucestershire
. Shocking everyone, they strolled out of the stone church in full view of waiting photographers.
Might that have been a hint that their own wedding
"There's a sense this is the beginning, we may as well get used to seeing Kate in the royal arena," says Ken Wharfe, the former bodyguard for William's mother, the late Princess Diana. "As if this were a rehearsal."
For more on Will and Kate, including their surprisingly low-key grocery store and pub outings, pick up this week's issue of PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday