Discover a True Story of Passion and Scandal in The Woman Before Wallis

Read an excerpt from Bryn Turnbull's stunning historical fiction novel.

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In 1936, King Edward VIII reigned for less than a year. Engrossed in a love affair with an American divorcée, King Edward became Prince Edward once again when he abdicated the throne to marry Wallis Simpson. Faced with a government brimming with anxiety over the potential of a queen with questionable morals, Prince Edward chose his heart above all else. And this was not the first time he had chosen a woman over his country.

In The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts, and Royal Scandal, debut author Bryn Turnbull introduces readers to the woman before Wallis, Thelma Furness. Furness, the American wife of one of Prince Edward's peers, became hopelessly entangled in a passionate love affair with the Crown Prince. While traveling abroad to help her sister through a scandal, Thelma leaves her lover in the capable hands of her friend Wallis Simpson. Never could anyone have anticipated what was to follow.

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Explore the glitz and glamour, the heartache and heartbreak that Europe has to offer in this book called "beautifully written, meticulously researched and altogether memorable," by USA Today bestselling author of The Gown, Jennifer Robson. Weaving intimacy with a sweeping love story for the ages, Turnbull has spun a truly stunning narrative. Perfect for fans of The Crown and The Paris Wife, any fan of the royals should consider this a must-read. 

Read on for an excerpt from The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts, and Royal Scandal, and then pre-order the book for download on July 21.

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The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts, and Royal Scandal

By Bryn Turnbull

October 9, 1934

RMS Empress of Britain

Thelma considered Manhattan her home, though she hadn’t lived there for over ten years. To her, it was a city of firsts: she had smoked her first cigarette there, a Lucky Strike stolen from a nun’s desk drawer at the convent and passed around the dormitory after bedtime. She and her twin sister Gloria had rented their first apartment on Fifth Avenue: an attic brownstone, which, at sixteen years old, they were far too young to live in unchaperoned but did so anyways, stuffing the living room with flowers and leaving the icebox empty. Her first encounter with the society pages had been at New York Harbor: she was eight at the time, mobbed by reporters at the behest of their diplomat father in an attempt to turn the tone of a negative press scrum. The next day’s papers would run pictures not of Harry Morgan on his recall to Washington but of his twin daughters, Thelma and Gloria, walking down the gangplank in matching pinafores. 

First marriage, thought Thelma, gripping the sable collar of her coat more tightly around her neck. First divorce. She stayed on deck long enough to watch the ship slip past the redbrick buildings of Southampton before seeking refuge from the chill air. 

Though Thelma felt uneasy at the prospect of being away from David for nearly six weeks, she knew that she had little choice: Gloria’s trial had become a media sensation, chewing up columns on front pages across America and Europe. The custody battle, dubbed the “Trial of the Century” by reporters who squeezed onto the courthouse steps each day, was a nightmare for her sister, forced to defend not only her right to raise her own daughter but also to preserve her own good name. Thelma still rankled at the letter Gloria had sent her: For Reggie’s sister to believe what’s being said about me is bad enough, but to know that the rumors came from our own mother is too much to bear… 

Thelma knew that the stories would continue long after the trial concluded—it was inevitable, given that it revolved around a Vanderbilt daughter with a Vanderbilt fortune. 

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She had received the letter five days ago and booked passage on the earliest steamer bound for New York. If it had been either of her other siblings—Consuelo or Harry Junior—in this situation, Thelma would have offered what help she could, but as her twin, Gloria held Thelma’s allegiance the strongest. It was how it had always been: one supporting the other. 

There was only one consideration weighing on Thelma’s mind which made it difficult for her to focus on what she would find in America. 

“Shall I come, too?” David had asked days ago at Fort Belvedere. Dismal weather had driven Thelma, David and their guests indoors, an afternoon of weeding David’s gardens mercifully replaced by card games and needlepoint round the drawing room fire. David laid his embroidery hoop to one side, the half-finished rose pointing sightlessly at the ceiling.

Across the room, Wallis Simpson, perusing the contents of the bar cart, turned.

“Don’t be silly,” she said. From a club chair in the corner, Wallis’s husband Ernest folded down the corner of a newspaper. There was a momentary silence as Wallis’s long fingers trailed delicately along the crystal tops of several heavy decanters before she selected one.

“You can’t possibly think it’s a good idea for him to get caught up in this mess,” she said, glancing at Thelma as she poured a neat scotch. “You’ve seen the papers. Can you imagine the sort of froth they’d work themselves into if the Prince of Wales stuck his oar in? I don’t mean to offend you, Thelma,” she said, “but it’s just not seemly for him to get involved, don’t you agree?”

David’s brows knitted together as Wallis handed him the whiskey. “I feel so terrible about it all,” he said. “Gloria’s a decent sort. She doesn’t deserve all this…surely there’s something I can do?” He looked up at Thelma, his spaniel eyes imploring.

Wallis sat down. “You can let Thelma go to support her sister,” she said. “Gloria needs her family, sir, not the distraction of a royal sideshow.”

“Wally’s quite right, sir,” said Ernest, resting his newspaper on his lap. “You’d be hindering more than you’d help. Couldn’t fix me up one of those as well, could you, darling?”

David exhaled, but didn’t look convinced. “Perhaps,” he said, as Wallis returned to the cart. “I wouldn’t want to add any more controversy to this ghastly business, but I hate the thought of you going on your own.”

Thelma sat beside him, smiling at the thought of what David’s advisors would say if he so much as commented on the Vanderbilt trial, let alone sailed to America.

“They have a point,” she said, taking his hand in hers. “I don’t think there’s much for you to do. But thank you for wanting to help.”

He smiled, worry carved into the lines of his face. “Of course,” he said, and kissed Thelma on the cheek. He picked up his needlepoint, lifting the embroidery hoop to inspect the stitching more closely. “Just don’t stay away from me too long. I don’t think I could stand it.”

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Perching herself on the armrest of Ernest’s chair, Wallis caught Thelma’s eye. She smiled, red lips curling in a wide, reassuring grin.

Thelma had been involved with Edward, Prince of Wales— David to those who loved him—for nearly four years now, but she’d never quite shaken the sense of insecurity that came with being part of his life. David’s charm, his naivete and, critically, his wandering eye, made him easily distracted; and while Thelma had few qualms about him seeing other women while he traveled abroad on official tours, she couldn’t help feeling that this time—these six weeks apart—might prove problematic. Though David had been sorry enough saying goodbye to her at the Fort, there had been something imperceptibly different in his kiss: it had felt a few degrees colder, somehow. The change had been subtle, but enough to make Thelma question whether she ought to shorten her trip. Taking a seat at an empty table in the tearoom, Thelma recalled the luncheon she’d had with Wallis yesterday in London, unsure if the meal had quieted or amplified her worries.

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  • Salon Proust at The Ritz Paris.

    Photo Credit: Ritz Paris

They had met at the Ritz Hotel. She couldn’t count the number of times she’d come here on David’s arm, to dance in the ballroom or dine in a private suite with one of his brothers. Yesterday, it had been just her and Wallis at a quiet table in the back of the Winter Garden. Given the chilly mist that had settled over London, the restaurant was near to full, diners in cream-colored chairs seeking refuge from the fog. The room was dominated by a baroque fountain, its gilt glamour reflected in the gold scrollwork that ran along the walls and the ceiling. 

“You seem distracted today, Thelma—is it nerves? I always go a little queer before traveling. The effort of it all,” said Wallis, handing the menu back to the attending waiter. In her typical fashion, Wallis was the best-dressed woman in the room: she wore a butter-yellow afternoon dress expertly tailored to her slim figure, its high neckline accentuated by an amber and gold brooch nestled in the hollow of her throat. Her hair was pinned into immaculate curls, which, along with her burgundy lips, drew attention away from her square jaw. Seated next to a marble column, Wallis looked at home, her own modest charm magnified by the striking beauty of the room around her. 

Thelma pulled a cigarette case and lighter from her handbag. “I don’t know,” she said. “I hate to leave David. He can get so melancholy…” 

Wallis lifted her teacup, dismissing Thelma’s concerns with a sweep of her hand. “He’s a man—they don’t stay blue for long. We’ll allow him one afternoon to moon over you before finding some suitable distraction.” 

“That’s my concern,” said Thelma. “I don’t mind distractions so long as they don’t become permanent. I’ll be gone such a long time—what if someone turns his head?” 

Wallis looked at Thelma, frowning. “I can’t pretend it’s not a possibility,” she said. “He will be awfully lonely without you.” 

Thelma positioned the lighter so the flame caught the end of her cigarette, her heart sinking. “Well,” she said, feigning a confidence she didn’t truly feel, “nothing to be done for it now, I suppose. I’ll have to rely on you to look after him for me while I’m gone.” 

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There was a moment in which Thelma worried she had said the wrong thing—but then Wallis smiled. “Of course,” she said, setting her cup back in its saucer. She reached a hand across the table and patted Thelma’s arm. “You can count on me. Now, before I forget, would you mind picking up a few odds and ends for me while you’re in New York? Some things are so difficult to find here…” 

Much as she adored Wallis, Thelma knew she was a cruel choice of chaperone: her brash demeanor was off-putting to many of their friends, so much so that David would likely have no fun at all while Thelma was away. She smiled as she thought of them, David and his guard dog, before chiding herself. That was unkind: if Wallis kept Thelma topmost in his mind, Thelma would have plenty of reasons to thank her. She didn’t truly believe David would follow through on his dreams of marriage, she did, at the back of her mind, wonder. 

Thelma looked around the tearoom, filling properly now that they were out of the harbor. She never dreamed of being made queen if he did propose—consort, perhaps, maybe a duchess of some kind—though, as she was already a viscountess through her marriage to Duke, perhaps she was being greedy. Still, she could only imagine what her mother would say. “Marry money,” she’d told Thelma and Gloria from the time they were young. “Marry money and you’ll never want for a thing in your lives.” 

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It was advice that Thelma struggled with. She had rejected it, espoused it—embraced it, even, though the notion sat heavily on her at times. It was this idea, or some form of it, which had led to her marriage to Junior; to Duke and her title as Lady Furness; and finally, to her relationship with David. Thelma leaned back in her seat, feeling the thrum of the ship as it passed through the English Channel. 

It was the foundation on which, for better or worse, Thelma Morgan had built her life.

Want to keep reading? Pre-order The Woman Before Wallis: A Novel of Windsors, Vanderbilts, and Royal Scandal for download on July 21.

Buy The Woman Before Wallis at Amazon

The Woman Before Wallis

By Bryn Turnbull

As Thelma prepares to set sail for New York City, she is bogged down by questions of her lover's faith and loyalty. Though she may not yet know how her story ends, we do. Download The Woman Before Wallis and discover all of the love, loss and romance our heroine has in store.

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Published on 6 Jul 2020