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Loose Lips

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Indiscreet words. Secret tapes. A perturbed Queen watching as yet another daughter-in-law tries to extricate herself from a Fleet Street mudbath. This time the royal contretemps belongs to Sophie, bride of Edward, Elizabeth’s youngest son, and the one wife of Windsor who, unlike Diana or Fergie, had managed to steer clear of scandal. “Sophie was seen as the safe one,” says Peter Archer, royals correspondent for Britain’s Press Association, “the one the media thought was boring and the royals thought was smart and streetwise.”

The 36-year-old Countess of Wessex seemed anything but as she was captured on videotape gossiping about her royal relations and trashing British pols. Her woes began last month when a reporter for Britain’s News of the World, posing as the personal assistant to a wealthy sheik and potential client, set out to trap Murray Harkin, Sophie’s partner in R-JH Public Relations, into admitting to questionable business practices. The sting, however, caught a bigger fish than Harkin. Sophie herself arrived for a March 14 meeting at London’s Dorchester Hotel and, with hidden cameras rolling, blabbed away on a number of topics—including the breakup of Charles and Diana’s marriage—while intimating that her loft connections were a great business asset. To make matters worse, at a meeting sans Sophie, Harkin suggested he could organize a sex party for the right client and even hinted that the jury was still out on Prince Edward’s sexual preferences. “There’s no smoke without fire,” he reportedly said.

In a deal to keep the tapes under wraps, Sophie agreed to an interview with the paper in which she addressed the same subject and flatly denied rumors that Edward was gay (“I’d love to be able to go out and sing from the rooftops: ‘It is not true!’ “). But the agreement with the News did her no good. The Mail on Sunday got wind of the sting and wrote its own story, which prompted the News of the World to renege. On April 8 it ran a transcript of the tapes (see box).

The same day, despite the public support of Queen Elizabeth, who said she “deplores the entrapment, subterfuge, innuendo and untruths to which [Edward and Sophie] have been subjected,” Sophie announced that she would step aside from her role as chairman of R-JH. Harkin, her partner, has resigned and remains out of sight.

In the house of Wessex, all is as well as can be expected. Edward, says a friend, “is very distressed, but he’s not blaming her at all. He’s blaming the media.” And the public seems on her side too. When the countess stumbled over a word while reading aloud from a book during a visit to a center for the disabled on April 6, empathy was the order of the day. “It’s okay,” said a staffer. “We make mistakes all the time, too.”

Mike Neill

Nina Biddle, Jennifer O’Neill, Caris Davis and Simon Perry in London