Who will be the next Earl? When Patrick, Earl of Aylesford is killed in a riding accident, they have to wait for his child to be born. If it's a boy he will inherit. If not the title goes to Lord Patrick's brother Martin, but he is in America, sent to Canada to avoid gambling and other debts, but he left there, and has not been heard of for some time. The next heir is cousin Etienne, blamed by some for Patrick's death. Then Martin's wife Elodie and young son Charles appear, saying Martin is dead.
Patrick's widow Margaret, her sister Helena, who is due to make her come-out in the following year, and his mother the redoubtable Dowager, react in various ways. Patrick's mother, the Dowager, is avaricious. Her father was a wealthy Lancashire coal mine owner and shipping magnate, but his son is no businessman, and one of his grandsons is piling up debts in London. The firm is in trouble.
Etienne, meanwhile, having been spying for the Government in Napoleonic France, is back at home and helping his sister Diane to introduce her daughter Sylvie to Society, while her son Bernard, refusing ro return to Cambridge, falsely claims to be betrothed to Helena. Helena is too embarrassed to tell Etienne the truth, and he is furious with both her and Bernard.
Set against Bath, the Leicestershire countryside, and London in the Season, They gradually resolve the mysteries and find the correct heir.