There are just days to go until British royal Prince William weds Catherine Middleton on April 29, in a ceremony that is expected to be watched by billions around the world. Observers have praised the future princess as a glamorous new face for the royal family. While Catherine?s journey to the palace has not always been smooth, she now faces a life of extraordinary privilege played out in the world?s spotlight.
In November last year, Prince William and Catherine Middleton appeared in front of the cameras to announce their engagement. The bride-to-be answered one reporter?s question on why it had taken so long.
"Obviously we have been going out a long time, and we had spoken about our future, and it just seemed a natural step for both of us," Middleton explained.
How they met
The history of the royal couple goes back nearly 10 years - to the Scottish town of St. Andrews, where the prince began university in 2001. It was there, protected from media intrusion, that he met fellow student Kate Middleton.
Observers speculate that Cupid?s arrow struck when William saw Kate modeling a see-through dress at a fashion show. They became friends and shared a house with other students. Exactly when they began dating is unclear, but Linda Cunningham, the owner of a local café who claims William wooed his future bride over coffee and cake, says she had early suspicions.
"She used to come in with his friends, and he would be here with his friends," recalled Cunningham. "So they would be in the building together, but not necessarily sitting together. And then when we heard there was something going on between them, we kind of put two-and-two together."
After graduation, the couple once again entered the glare of the world?s media. That reached a peak in 2007 when William broke off the relationship for several months.
The royal family has long had a fractious relationship with the press. William?s mother, Princess Diana was killed in a car crash in 1997 while being pursued by photographers on motorbikes. He was determined to protect Kate from the media scrutiny his mother endured.
Royal lawyers warned off paparazzi who got too close.
The couple got back together, and in October 2010, William proposed while on holiday in Kenya - with the engagement ring of his late mother.
Kate - or Princess Catherine as she will be known after the wedding - is about to enter a world known only to a privileged few.
"Could she have predicted it 10 years ago I wonder? I would guess not," said Joe Little, managing editor of Majesty, a magazine devoted to the royal family. "Yes, there were break-ups in the royal romance but they got back together again and they are clearly stronger than ever. I would imagine that Kate has many surreal moments and will continue to have for many years."
Kate?s biggest challenge will be the inevitable comparisons with Princess Diana.
She was just 20 when she married Prince Charles. The nation and much of the world were captivated.
Middleton was raised in a wealthy family. Her parents are self-made millionaires who run a party accessories website from their home west of London. Kate?s mother used to be an air hostess and traces her family back to coal miners and butchers.
In a country obsessed with class, much has been made of the fact that a commoner is marrying royalty.
Little of Majesty magazine says that will benefit the royal family.
"Kate?s a breath of fresh air. You could say that there hasn?t been any glamour, dare I say it, in the British royal family for a while and we?re just getting a huge injection of that," Little said.
William has long been used to the so-called ?goldfish bowl? of life as a royal prince.
For Middleton, a journey of rarefied privilege and pressure lies ahead - starting with the wedding itself.
* For more information about the Royal Wedding, visit our Special Report page