By David Jones

For Trevor Engelson, a hotshot Hollywood producer and agent, his wife's sudden announcement came as a shattering blow.

Meghan Markle, the beautiful actress whom he'd mentored to stardom and married 18 months earlier in an exuberant ceremony at the Jamaican beach hotel once favoured by Marilyn Monroe and Errol Flynn, was asking for a divorce.

It was 2013 and they'd been juggling a long-distance relationship. She was shooting the TV drama Suits in Toronto, while he was living at their home in Los Angeles - for three years.

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Their frantic work schedules and frequent flights between the two cities had become too taxing, she told him. She was sorry, but she just couldn't do it any more.

According to the pair's friends, Engelson, who had met Meghan eight years previously when she was starting out in showbusiness, was utterly 'devastated'. He tried to persuade her that they could overcome the difficulties. To this day, he still can't fathom why Meghan bolted so quickly for the exit.

Inevitably, it led Engleson, now 40, and his friends to question whether his wife, who is four years his junior, had found someone else while living for months on end in Toronto.

Indeed, there were posts on Meghan's social media sites - which she hastily closed down after her relationship with Prince Harry began - which at least hinted at the possibility, despite her protestations to the contrary.

They concerned a handsome Canadian ice-hockey star called Michael Del Zotto, now 27, and suggested she might have grown close to him.

She tweeted pictures of herself with the sportsman - whom she called 'the best' - after watching him play for the New York Rangers, and revealed she had seen him on April 8 and 22, 2013. (Her spokesman denies they had a relationship, saying she was never alone with him and he had absolutely nothing to do with the split.)

Some four months later, her no-fault divorce from Engelson, on the grounds of 'irreconcilable differences', was finalised.

Since then, friends of the couple - who had been together for six years before they married - have maintained a strict code of silence, but one of them, Adam Goldworm, who has known Engelson for 25 years and was a guest at the Jamaica wedding, broke it to tell me: "[The divorce] was her decision, totally out of the blue.

"Nobody, including Trevor, knows whether there actually was [anything going on]. Yes, there was that hockey star [Michael Del Zotto] ..."

Mr Goldworm says he has not seen Meghan since the split - an observation repeated by other friends, who say she has drifted away from her old circle as she has climbed the social ladder in Toronto, where she now consorts with elite members of the Canadian establishment.

"She's like a ghost," he said - before adding enigmatically: "I will just say that I think it's strange, for anyone who's ever met her, that she's moving into the Royal Family."

Presumably, he was referring to Meghan's capricious, fun-loving nature. Before Harry came along, she described herself variously as a 'brash American' and a free-spirited Californian 'hippy'.

Or perhaps Mr Goldworm was alluding to Meghan's penchant for partying, as exemplified by the boozy games at her wedding, where she took part in wheelbarrow races, wearing a skimpy yellow polka-dot bikini and baseball cap.

If that's so, then some might think she will make the perfect match for Prince Harry, hardly a shrinking violet himself - though the fact she rushed to the divorce court so swiftly when her marriage hit the rocks will doubtless be causing jitters at the Palace. For the royals use an old-fashioned, and rather perjorative, term for women who walk out on a marriage. They call them 'Bolters'.

Pictures last weekend of Meghan and Harry embarking on a romantic holiday to Botswana - the African country that Harry described earlier this year as his 'second home' - have prompted speculation that an engagement is on the cards later this year.

Harry, 32, has made no secret of his desire to start a family, and with Meghan having celebrated her 36th birthday on August 4, time is of the essence.

Countless words have already been written about Meghan, but, as I have learned while investigating the background of this most unlikely royal girlfriend - and possible princess-to-be - there is so much more to her story.

For this series, I have spoken to family, friends and colleagues to learn about her fascinating ancestral roots, her strict but troubled childhood, her bizarre family - from which her relatively unscathed escape is little short of a miracle - as well as her intriguingly discreet love life before and after that divorce.

Meghan's childhood and teenage years were surprisingly sheltered. She was doted upon by her parents, particularly her fiercely protective father, Thomas Markle, an award-winning Hollywood cinematographer who worked, almost obsessively, to help his daughter become an actress. As a result, Meghan was something of a late developer in the romantic stakes.

According to Sonia Ardakani, mother of Suzy, her best friend at high school, despite her stunning looks Meghan didn't start dating until well into teens. '"Meghan and Suzy] were very good girls and they would find other ways of having fun," she told me. "They were in all sorts of different clubs, and they liked to do things like horse-riding in the park, skating and bowling."

Meghan's half-brother (from her father's first marriage), Thomas Junior, agrees. "I'm sure a lot of boys were running after Meggie, because she was very pretty, but they'd have to get past Dad first - and that wasn't easy," he told me with a smile. "He is 6ft 3in and was pretty strong in those days."

Her mother, Doria, an African-American social worker turned yoga teacher and therapist, who was divorced from Thomas Senior when Meghan was six years old, was also strict when it came to boys.

Tight-fitting clothes and low-cut tops were strictly forbidden, and she spelled out her reasoning to Meghan in blunt terms: "Never give the milk away for free."

On her 'prom' night at the Immaculate Heart High School - an exclusive Catholic establishment in Los Angeles - Meghan was escorted by Danny Segura, a handsome pupil from a nearby boys' school. But her first real boyfriend was his older brother, Luis, now an estate agent in Pasadena.

He told me that he'd been in contact with Meghan recently, adding: "I'd like to talk about the good times we had, but she's a very private person, and it's a big deal with the royals, so I can't. All I'll say is, she's great."

Astonishingly, given Meghan's beauty and winning personality, in the years since she became a well-known actress, no other men have come forward to claim they stole her heart.

She met the next important male in her life when, after gaining straight As in her high school graduation exams, she went to university.

She was offered three scholarships, but turned them all down to study theatre (combined with international relations) at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, where the drama department was renowned for nurturing talent.

For a girl of mixed race, raised in the ethnic and cultural melting-pot of Los Angeles, it was a chastening experience. Just 14 miles north of Chicago, Evanston is a relatively small town, and the Midwestern campus proved itself small-minded in some of its attitudes.

Meghan has said that she met with ignorance and prejudice among her fellow students. When she told a faculty member her father was white and her mother black, and that they had divorced when she was very young, the girl fixed her with a knowing look and said this 'made sense'.

For Meghan, the implication was that the failure of an inter-racial marriage was inevitable.

However, her saviour was Larnelle Quentin Foster, now 35, a flamboyant, larger-than-life African-American student who also aspired to an acting career. Though they were in different classes, he told me, they became 'soul-mates' and remain close.

Indeed, they met up again recently in London, where he was visiting friends and she was in the UK seeing Prince Harry.

Meghan and Larnelle became constant companions, but theirs was not the conventional campus friendship, of spending time in each other's rooms or at bars.

He lived locally with his parents, who were both pastors, and she would have meals with his family at weekends and attend services at their church.

They also enjoyed cooking exotic meals together - Indian dishes were Meghan's speciality - watching avant-garde theatre shows, and 'just hanging out'.

"We were very social, put it that way," he said, laughing. "We were always doing different things, having fun.

"She was ambitious to be an actress, but we didn't want to be in rehearsals all day like a lot of the others. We would much rather watch a show than be in one."

Asked to describe Meghan's character in those days, Larnelle, now a professor of drama, says she was "very kind, very genuine, someone who cares deeply about her family, her friends and the world".

He adds: "She was also very quirky - and always smiling. I never saw her mad."

His parents also adored Meghan - particularly his mother, who clearly hoped they might one day settle down together.

What Larnelle had not told her - or indeed anyone else at that stage - was that he was gay, so could never countenance marrying Meghan, much as he adored her.

"'If my mother had had her way, of course I'd be with Meghan," he says. "She would say: 'Oh, I love Meghan so much.'

"I was like, 'Yes, Mom, I do, too' but it was never going to happen. I obviously knew she was a beautiful woman, but it was just not on my radar.

"Only a few years ago, my mother told someone over dinner that Meghan was my ex-girlfriend.

"I had to say: 'Mom, that's not true.'"

Was Meghan aware that he was gay? "I'm pretty sure she was. But I didn't tell her outright because I wasn't ready then. The straight guys would have died to be in my position. They'd say:'How do you go out with her?' And I would say: 'Because I'm not trying anything!'"

After graduating from university, eager to broaden her horizons and to learn Spanish, Meghan spent several months as an intern at the U.S. embassy in Buenos Aires.

Meghan Markle attends at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. Photo / Getty Images
Meghan Markle attends at the Wimbledon Tennis Championships. Photo / Getty Images

Already a committed feminist, with a strong social conscience, at that point she was unsure whether or not she wanted a career in the shallow, chauvinistic Hollywood entertainment industry. If anything, she was thinking then that she might become a producer.

A brief trip home to Los Angeles changed all that.

Meghan attended a party where she fell under the admiring gaze of an acting agency manager. The next day, he watched a student film she had made.

"Stick me with me - you're going to make money," he told her.

Hawking herself around the studios was a demeaning task, though. Larnelle Foster, who'd also beaten a path to Hollywood, saw how his friend was forced to compromise her high-flown ideals.

"She started doing that 'suitcase girl' thing on Deal Or No Deal," he recalls, referring to the forgettable interlude when Meghan was a glamorous gofer on the cheesy game-show, wearing five-inch heels and a revealing red dress.

"That was just funny," says Larnelle. "But it was just one of those things she needed to do to make money. It takes a while to get a movie or TV job."

A succession of similarly unedifying roles followed in the TV soap General Hospital and crime show CSI, with Meghan often appearing in scanty lingerie.

Then there was a 30-second part in a box-office turkey called A Lot Like Love. This time, she wasn't even named in the credits, which listed her only as 'Hot Girl'.

That was in 2005, the year she began dating Trevor Engelson.

Precisely how much influence he had on her early career is open to debate. However, as he was already making his name in Hollywood, he must have used his influence to help her progress.

With his sandy hair and square jaw, in his younger days Engelson did not look unlike Prince Harry. But their personalities and, of course, their backgrounds are light years apart. The son of a wealthy, Jewish orthodontist from Great Neck, an uber-affluent town in Long Island, Engelson is a brash, go-getting New Yorker.

Last year, in a podcast interview, Engelson - whose company has produced movies starring Bradley Cooper, Sandra Bullock and the late Robin Williams, and represents Trainspotting writer Irvine Welsh - described how he 'hustled' his way to success.

Having started out as a lowly production assistant, he was so impressed by his bosses' cushy lifestyle that he set out to emulate them, he said in the highly revealing, expletive-ridden interview.

"They were great at what they did, but they didn't look like they were working that hard and they were making a bunch of money, and they had the cutest girls on set," he rasped.

"I was like, 'I want to do that! That looks a good job!'" Engelson soon moved on to work for a major literary agent, but then his prospects suffered a major blow.

He was fired, he admits, for using his employer's letter-headed note-paper to pitch his own ideas. It might have finished lesser men, yet at just 24 he set up a company called Underground Films and began signing writers. His thirst for success was, and remains, unquenchable.

Even while taking his morning steam-shower, he claims, he sits and pores over polythene-covered film and TV scripts - reading several at a time and marking them with a waterproof pen. But he also, he says, works equally hard at having a good time.

"If I'm on a plane somewhere, I'm working. When I land, I'm working. When I'm drinking, I'm working. But I'm always having a lot more fun than most people I know," he says.

"I'm a gigantic believer that all this s*** can come to an end tomorrow, and you gotta take advantage of the ride.

His philosophy clearly appealed to the comparatively inexperienced Meghan, who was just 24 when they met. Friends say she was besotted with him, forever hugging and kissing him, and calling him 'Trevity-Trev-Trev'.

During a conversation in a London pub with Piers Morgan last year - before her relationship with Harry became known - she inadvertently revealed how greatly Engelson had influenced her.

Her motto in life, she told Morgan, was this: "Never give it five minutes, if you are not prepared to give it five years".

It sounded original, but on his podcast Engelson cited precisely the same adage, saying it had resonated with him when he first heard it, years ago.

Meghan eventually moved in with Engelson, sharing the tiny, yellow bungalow with a postage-stamp garden, just off Sunset Boulevard, where he still lives.

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle embrace following the polo in Berkshire, UK. Photo / Rupert Hartley/REX/Shutterstock
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle embrace following the polo in Berkshire, UK. Photo / Rupert Hartley/REX/Shutterstock

Had she remained a bit-part actress, they might still be living there together. But in 2010 - the year they got engaged - Meghan auditioned to play the role of Rachel Zane, a sophisticated, sexy New York legal assistant, in a new cable network series, Suits.

She landed the part.

Having struggled for recognition for almost a decade, she was understandably thrilled.

Engelson appeared to share her delight, hailing the success of his 'badass fiancée' on Facebook. But then she jetted off to Toronto to film where, after the TV series was successfully launched, she suddenly became a big fish in what was a relative showbusiness backwater.

For Meghan, it was intoxicating. She found herself mingling not only with any A-list celebrities who were in town, but with politicians eager to be associated with her fame and allure.

Canadian magazines featured her on the cover, and published her views on racism, women's rights and other causes she'd become involved with.

Swept up by this seductive new world, no wonder the prospect of a five-hour flight back to Trevor and their little yellow bungalow in LA seems to have lost its appeal.

Meanwhile, other powerful and attractive men were clamouring around her. Among them was Britain's most eligible bachelor. And as we shall see next week, his attentions proved irresistible.

Additional reporting: Tim Stewart and Hugo Daniel