It had been a rough year already for Sophie, Countess of Wessex, the wife of Britain's Prince Edward. But the blow that struck Dec. 6 was far more devastating than any fashion faux pas or embarrassing newspaper story. Early that morning, Sophie, 36, doubled over in pain at the couple's mansion in Bagshot Park, 25 miles outside London. Edward, 37, quickly summoned his mother Queen Elizabeth's physician, who suspected an ectopic pregnancy, a life-threatening condition in which a fetus implants outside the womb, usually in a fallopian tube. With no time to waste, Sophie was whisked by helicopter to London's King Edward VII hospital for surgery. "I'm obviously very sad, but it was just not meant to be," she said later from her hospital bed. "But there will be other chances."

Sophie had been pregnant for six to eight weeks. Two years after marrying the Queen's youngest son, the part-time director of a public relations firm had hinted she was ready to start a family. "If I'm lucky enough to have any, one of each [a boy and girl] would be nice," she told Britain's News of the World in April. If at least one fallopian tube is still healthy, that could still happen, fertility experts say. (The child would be eighth in line to the throne.)

After visits from her parents (but not her mother-in-law; with Sophie exhausted, Edward told the Queen not to cancel her weekend plans), Sophie left the hospital Dec. 10 and will recuperate for several weeks at home. Ultimately the couple's most difficult trial to date may finally prompt the press to back off from their other travails—including Sophie's indiscreet comments about her in-laws to an undercover reporter and Edward's dispatching of a TV film crew to chronicle his press-shy nephew Prince William's activities around campus at Scotland's St. Andrews University. "They have been shown, like other couples, to be vulnerable to this sort of personal loss," says the British Press Association's royal correspondent, Peter Archer. "It has humanized them."