As Prince Harry's girlfriend Meghan Markle celebrates her 36th birthday on Aug 4, speculation has reached fever pitch as to whether he will present her with a special gift: an engagement ring. According to sources close to the Prince, it is not a question of if, but when he makes his union with the actress official. A proposal of marriage this month would not only mean a double cause for joy, it would help lift the shadow that the anniversary of his mother Diana's death brings.
An engagement in the run-up to Harry's own 33rd birthday – on 15 September – would certainly seem like perfect timing. Eight days later, on the 23rd, the Prince opens his beloved Invictus Games for wounded Armed Forces veterans in Toronto, where Meghan is based, making it the ideal platform for him to introduce his new fiancée to the world.
The American beauty, whom he's been dating for just over a year, moved there in 2011 on landing her breakthrough role as paralegal Rachel Zane in hit TV drama Suits. The daughter of award-winning lighting director Thomas Markle and his ex-wife Doria, a yoga instructor, therapist and social worker, Meghan has brought a grounding quality into the life of the Prince, who recently opened up about his emotional problems after the death of his mother.
Independent and hardworking, she is no spoilt Princess. "I was not a girl who grew up buying 100 dollar candles, I was the girl who ran out of gas on her way to an audition," quips Meghan, who supported herself between acting jobs by working as a calligrapher.
She was previously married for two years to film producer Trevor Engelson. Not that this matters a jot to the smitten Prince. And he isn't the only one to feel that she is perfect for him. While at first glance an American divorcee with more than a million Instagram followers is an unlikely choice of Princess, Meghan demonstrates all the credentials of a truly modern royal as the monarchy evolves. Sassy, smart and at ease in the spotlight with her beau, she seems more than capable of making a seamless transition into her new leading role.
"In Meghan, Harry has finally met someone who is not put off by what he calls 'the baggage' of dating a Prince," says Duncan Larcombe, author of Prince Harry: The Inside Story.
"As the weeks go by, Harry and Meghan are clearly falling deeper and deeper in love. To everyone's surprise, it seems they really do make a good couple." Meghan has a great sense of fun, which matches her sweetheart’s own high spirits, revealing in interviews that she enjoys a glass of rosé, which she refers to as "pink water". And her social media sites feature references to her two beloved rescue dogs, Bogart and Guy -- which should stand her in good stead with the Windsors, who all love animals.
Like Harry – and Diana before him – she is also a humanitarian, speaking out on issues including racism and sexism. The couple have both visited Africa to work with children's charities: Harry with Sentebale in Lesotho, and Meghan in Rwanda as a global ambassador for World Vision. She is also a UN Women’s Advocate, once giving a rousing speech for International Women's Day, after which Secretary General Ban Ki Moon led the standing ovation.
As Harry's wife, she would find that together they could shine even more light on their chosen causes. However, the impact marriage would have on her acting career is less clear-cut. According to historian Christopher Wilson, it would be a missed opportunity for the royal family if Meghan were to give up the job she loves.
"If she continued to act once married to Harry it would bring a whole new modern dimension to the family, which many people would welcome," he says. Harry has made no secret of his desire to settle down to a happy family life, like his brother Prince William.
The Suits star shared a sweet picture of two bananas hugging after her romance with Harry was revealed
"I've longed for kids since I was very, very young," he said in 2012. After two high profile romances – with Chelsy Davy and Cressida Bonas – behind him, he needs a partner who is emotionally suited to helping him shoulder royal commitment.
"It would be great to have someone else next to me to share the pressure," he has said. "But, you know, the time will come and whatever happens, happens, happens."
It seems Harry's time has finally come. Last November he made his and Meghan's relationship official – and his protective feelings towards her clear – when he issued an unprecedented statement demanding that the media respect her privacy.
Distance has proved no barrier to their romance. As well as enjoying getaways with her Prince, like their New Year trip to see the Northern Lights, Meghan is a regular visitor to Harry's home in Kensington Palace.
Meghan Markle has two adopted dogs, Humphrey and Bogart
Significantly, she recently joined him as his 'plus one' at two high profile weddings: his best friend Tom 'Skippy' Inskip's nuptials in Jamaica last March, and Pippa Middleton's wedding in May.
She's had ample chance to get to know Prince William and Harry's sister-in-law Kate, to both of whom he is famously close. And while Harry must seek the consent of his grandmother the Queen for a royal wedding, he'll know instinctively that Meghan would have his mother's approval.
"She is a beautiful humanitarian," royal writer Andrew Morton has told HELLO! "Diana would have seen in Meghan an eminently suitable partner for a modern Prince who is striving to find a place for himself in the world."