Bess Stoughton, waiting woman to the well-connected Lady Allingbourne, has discovered that her father is arranging for her to marry an elderly neighbour. Normally obedient Bess rebels and wrests from her father a year's grace to find a husband more to her liking.
Edmund Wyard, a taciturn and scarred veteran of England's campaign in Ireland, is attempting to ignore the pressure from his family to find a suitable wife as he prepares to join the Earl of Leicester's army in the Netherlands.
Although Bess and Edmund are drawn to each other, they are aware that they can have nothing more than friendship. Bess knows that Edmund's wealth and family connections place him beyond her reach. And Edmund, with his well-honed sense of duty, has never considered that he could follow his own wishes.
With England on the brink of war and fear of Catholic plots extending even into Lady Allingbourne's household, time is running out for both of them.
'If I were a man,' Bess snapped, colour flooding her cheeks, 'if I had your freedom and advantages, I would do exactly as I pleased. I would never accept a bride who had been bundled up for me by my mother.' She glared at him, 'Now, if you will excuse me.'
She swept away towards the group of singers at the end of the gallery, her back straight and her head held high.
Wyard wanted to stop her, to explain it was never so easy. He watched her go, wondering why he had never imagined he could truly do as he wished.