When Maryanne Paynter is ten, her beloved mother dies and she is taken by her great uncle to live with the Reverend Mr Cudlipp at Beckford. Her life is unexceptional until, a little before her twenty-first birthday, Viscount Danbury takes her to Castle Cedars, the country estate of the Duke of Wiltshire where she is taken to see the Dowager Duchess, a frail, bedridden old lady who is apparently anxious to make her acquaintance. Furious with the way she is treated Maryanne runs from the house, only to fall into the arms of a mysterious man walking through the woods who seems unusually interested in the occupants of Castle Cedars. She is unsure whether he is a gypsy, a poacher or an escaped prisoner of war, for the war with Napoleon has just ended with the dictator’s defeat and imprisonment of the island of Elba.
Later, she learns that her mother was the daughter of the fifth Duke of Wiltshire, who disowned her when she married a man of whom they disapproved. But now the old man is dead and the dowager is anxious to bring Maryanne back into the family. Instead of returning to the rectory, she is to live with Viscount Danbury and his son, Mark, and spoiled daughter, Caroline.
It is the beginning of a new and bewildering life, not made easier by old scandals and the occasional reappearance of the intriguing man she met in the wood, who seems to have a string of pseudonyms and disguises. There is mystery and danger, a proposal and more scandal and Maryanne, in the thick of it, does not know whom to trust. Mark or the man who calls himself variously le Choucas, Jack Daw or Adam St Pierre?