When Gervase Howard is just in her mid-teens, her working-class mother dies and leaves her an orphan. She goes to live with her aunt and uncle, who are in service to a wealthy, noble family, the Wingates, outside of London. Gervase at first helps her aunt, the head cook, then gradually learns many other aspects of running a large household and becomes the assistant to the housekeeper. She is drawn to the eldest son of the Wingate family, Davis, and gradually her adolescent fascination grows into something deeper--but just as hopeless, because the two are separated not just by class standing but also by Davis's love for Roberta. When he announces their engagement and asks Gervase to join them in their new home as Roberta's maid, Gervase leaves Wingates for another position--as companion to Florence Nightingale, a young woman who feels the call of God on her life, but has no idea what he wants her to do. When the Crimean War breaks out, that mystery is quickly solved when Florence is asked to create a corps of nurses and lead them to the Crimea to care for British soldiers who are dying from disease and poor medical care. There, Gervase crosses paths with Davis once more and this time senses some real warmth and affection from him--but since he's a married man, she discourages it. When she returns to England, Gervase receives word that Davis has been seriously injured in a fall and lies in a coma. She accepts the Wingates' call to come and care for him. As he slowly regains consciousness and the ability to communicate, he reveals to Gervase that his "accident" was actually attempted murder, and that his life--and hers--are still in danger.