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Is a royal wedding announcement looming?

All eyes are on Will and Kate after the Middletons visited Balmoral, Queen Elizabeth II's 50,000-acre estate in Scotland, for a hunting trip.
/ Source: The Associated Press

They've met the parents. They've even gone shooting with the parents. They've had their trial breakups and trial makeups.

Now, people in this very English village say, it's time for Prince William and local girl Kate Middleton to make it official.

After all, the cautious prince has been dating Middleton on and off — mostly on — for more than eight years, ever since they met at the University of St. Andrews.

"We'd be delighted," said Pru Shepheard, doing her daily shopping at the village store where Middleton is a frequent customer, occasionally accompanied by William. "It would be madness for them not to get married.

"Kate's one of us — she doesn't put on airs and graces, and she's such a lovely girl. Everyone who meets her, likes her."

Shepheard said visions of a royal wedding have been stoked by the visit several weeks ago of Kate's parents — Michael and Carole Middleton — to Balmoral, Queen Elizabeth II's 50,000-acre estate in Scotland, for a weekend of shooting hosted by Prince William with the queen's approval. It marked the first time the Middletons had been invited to such an intimate royal gathering.

The event sent Britain's tabloids into a tizzy and prompted bookmakers to lower the odds at Britain's legal betting shops, reflecting the conventional wisdom that Middleton will soon be a princess, and in line to become queen. The bookies even predict a wedding for the two 28-year-olds this summer.

Britain's royal watchers said the hunting invitation was a way of welcoming the middle class Middletons into the very highest realm of British society. Middleton is not from the aristocracy: Her parents worked for British Airways before founding Party Pieces, a successful party-supply business.

But her background is acceptable, and perhaps even an advantage, as the British monarchy prepares to modernize and streamline in an age of austerity.

There is speculation about the wedding venue — publicity shy William is said to be opposed to St. Paul's Cathedral, where his parents married, in favor of a more private location. And of course a frenzied guessing game about Middleton's choice of dress, since she has so far championed Daniella Issa Helayel over more prominent British designers like Vivienne Westwood.

"It seems like it's in the cards now," said Roland Stoate, who recently took over Yattendon Garage, where the rare vintage Jaguars on sale reflect the affluence of the village, a charming spot crisscrossed by bridle paths that is favored by successful businessmen, stockbrokers and gentlemen farmers.

Everyone seems to think it's only a matter of time before an engagement is announced, with reports emerging that plans for the wedding are already underway.

But taking a bride is not so simple if you happen to be a future King of England whose wife can be expected to become queen. William is second in line for the throne; he would become king after his father, Prince Charles.

"Kate is not joining the Windsor dynasty to be a princess, she's joining to be a queen at some point in the future," said Patrick Jephson, former private secretary to Princess Diana, William's mother. "There's a lot at stake here, more than just pretty dresses and magazine covers. You have to show that the dynasty can renew and rejuvenate itself. She and William have to make sure this marriage works."

Jephson said that before the couple marry it is crucial they agree on what Middleton's public role will be.

"It has to be something that gives her job satisfaction, and something that is seen as duty," he said. "For the royal family to be held in high esteem, its members need to be seen as making some sacrifices in exchange for the perks of office."

Middleton has shown poise and patience with the paparazzi who now dog her every step, and she has not done anything to embarrass the royal family, despite being photographed wearing sexy black lingerie topped by a see-through dress at the charity fashion show where she first caught William's eye.

She has a "girl next door" appeal — if the girl next door happens to be tall and elegant with sparkling eyes.

Middleton seems natural and approachable, even if she has become accustomed to vacationing at the world's most exclusive hideaways or living it up in London's hippest night spots, where the couple's sky high bar bills are usually picked up by club owners happy to have glamorous royal patrons.

The prematurely balding William is training to be a military helicopter pilot specializing in airborne rescues. He is now at the youngest age at which he has said he would consider marriage.

The prince's attitude toward putting Middleton at the center of a sustained media frenzy is complicated by the unhappy married life and tragic early death of his mother, Princess Diana, who at times found the limelight unbearable. Some blame her death on the photographers who pursued her car through the streets of Paris before the fatal crash.

Much rests on William's shoulders. There is even talk that the aging and sometimes eccentric Prince Charles should make way for his son to take over from the queen, a beloved figure who has reigned for over half a century.

With all the looming responsibilities, perhaps it's no wonder the young couple prefer to cling to their unmarried state.

As things stand, William and Middleton are free to enjoy a certain amount of privacy in and around Yattendon, where supportive residents not only refuse to tell television crews how to find Middleton's house in nearby Bucklebury but ring up her mother to warn her when camera crews are lurking.

William can come and go as he pleases, although he does travel with protection agents since he is viewed as a potential terrorist target.

Some professional wedding planners in Britain say the couple has already exceeded the typical waiting time between being smitten with a potential mate and becoming engaged.

"It's usually about five years, and this has been about eight," said Lorraine Kerr. "But I think now we're going to see it happen."


Benjamin Timmins of the Associated Press contributed to this story.