Ever since Prince Harry made the bold announcement he was dating Meghan Markle, royal watchers have been eagerly counting down the days until the perennial bachelor pops the question.
His unprecedented acknowledgement of their relationship status last year seemed to mark the end of a trail of naughtiness, which included naked billiards in Vegas and failed love affairs.
The idea that Princess Diana's youngest, and arguably more sensitive, son had finally met a woman he could share his life with put his new romance under intense pressure from the start—a pressure that's only increased with time (it took Prince William and Kate Middleton almost a decade to get to the same stage).
Last week Meghan was snapped on the set of her TV show. It'll likely be the last time we see her as Rachel Zane, a role which helped get her noticed by Harry (he developed a crush on Meghan after watching Suits for two years before actually meeting her). Once she finished shooting in Toronto last Thursday, she jetted to London to be by Harry's side.
There is now very little standing in the way of Meghan becoming the newest member of the royal family. The 36-year-old has passed each hurdle with flying colors as she's moved closer into the inner circle of the House of Windsor. Over the last 18 months, she's proved she has the mettle to live a life dedicated to the crown to ensure the future stability of the blue-blooded dynasty. Earlier this year she shut down her lifestyle website, The Tig, while simultaneously going silent on her (previously chatty) social media channels, thus removing the risk of making an accidental public faux pas.
She's also demonstrated she can be discrete, despite falling head over heels in love with a prince—after all, who wouldn't want to be shouting about that from the rooftops?! Her only comments about Harry have been thoughtfully considered and brief, crafted for a glossy magazine aimed at her new high society audience. Her parents have been equally restrained; both Doria and Tom have remained silent despite the ever-hungry international press pack knocking at their doors. Then there was a set of immaculately executed public appearances by Harry's side at September's Invictus Games, a flawless demeanor being an essential qualification for any future duchess (tradition dictates Harry will likely be gifted a dukedom when he gets married).
Most importantly, of course, is that she's met the Queen. Harry's grandmother is the only person who can really stand in the way of the 33-year-old getting hitched, thanks to the Succession of the Crown Act which dictates she has to approve the marriages of the first six people in line to the throne. Harry currently stands in fifth place; he'll drop down to sixth when the third baby Cambridge arrives in the spring.
According to an insider, a secret meeting between Harry, Meghan and the Queen took place at Buckingham Palace in October. While it might seem unimaginable the Queen would wield her unique power, she's used it before, to veto her own sister's engagement, when Princess Margaret wanted to marry the previously divorced Peter Townsend (a real no-no in the 1950s).
Like Peter, Meghan has tied the knot once already but her previous relationship status is a moot point considering Harry's dad, Prince Charles, eventually ended up with his mistress. Plus, the family learned a really big lesson from the mismatch of Charles and Diana: that kind of fallout can never happen again.
Regardless of whether Meghan and her two dogs, Bogart and Guy, decide to move into Harry's flat in the grounds of Kensington Palace, or if she gets her own home base (she has been seen looking at properties with realtors), the public is increasingly asking not if Harry and Meghan will get married, but when. Yet while, selfishly, a lavish royal wedding might be just the type of celebration we need right now, it might be better if we refrain from rushing out to buy new fascinators.
The pace of Harry and Meghan's romance has been dizzyingly fast. After spending last December in London, followed by a wildly romantic jaunt to see the Northern Lights for New Year's, the couple were able to hole up for a few weeks of happy domestic bliss in Nottingham Cottage. But by the spring, Meghan was back at work. Aside from a wedding in Jamaica, an African vacation and a handful of snatched weeks here and there, their time together has been fleeting.
Now that Meghan is finally free from her shooting schedule it will give the pair a chance to see what their future life might really look like, outside of the honeymoon phase. Long distance relationships can be passionate and intense, but that's a far cry from the reality of matrimony within the strict regime of the British monarchy.
Kate and William made it work thanks to an extended transition period, which gave Kate the breathing room she needed to truly understand what she was giving up by marrying the second in line to the throne. And the years of dating and living together also exposed Kate to copious amounts of princess training, so she was fully prepared by the time she said, "I do."
As Meghan herself said in her Vanity Fair cover story, "I'm sure there will be a time when we will have to come forward and present ourselves and have stories to tell, but I hope what people will understand is that this is our time. This is for us. It's part of what makes it so special, that it's just ours. But we're happy. Personally, I love a great love story."
As do we.
We don't doubt Meghan and Harry will have a happy ending. Eventually. Now that she's free to spend as much time as she wants with her boyfriend, it's more important than ever they take the time to really get to know one another.
Clandestine mini breaks with Harry have barely prepared Meghan for a future life filled with copious public appearances, while simultaneously losing all her privacy and seeing out her days in a gilded cage. She needs to fully comprehend what being one half of a royal couple truly means because no one wants history to repeat itself by having an ill-equipped bride in the palace. It doesn't matter how modern her romance with Harry seems, his royal responsibilities will never wane. So as the public pressure to get married mounts, holding off for a short time is going to be Harry and Meghan's best bet at actually building the kind of bond that could last a lifetime.
For the latest on Meghan and Harry, tune into E! News tonight at 7 & 11 p.m.