One of these is James Yancey, Lt. Colonel, CSA. Captured by the Union Army after the Battle of the Wilderness, he was sent to the officers’ prison camp at Johnson’s Island in Sandusky Bay, Ohio. Having been forced to abandon his men is a tribulation that eats at him; that does, in fact, color his whole existence with self-blame. Even after he is released, at war’s end, James is haunted by memories of what he considers his own disgrace.
With the South going through Reconstruction, his best option seems to be a move west, to join his two brothers already situated in California. During a brief stop in Charleston, his former home, he locates a girl from childhood plantation days, Emma Palmer, and seeks her hand in marriage.
Emma’s parents had died during the war. Having escaped its deprivations by touring Europe, she has recently returned to live with an aunt. Careless and giddy, she is so overwhelmed by the excitement of the prospect that she accepts. Once James is settled, he will send for her to join him.
In San Francisco, James reconnects with his brothers and buys the Condor Ranch. Meanwhile, Emma packs all her personal belongings and heads west, accompanied by her traveling companion, Molly Buchanan.
While Emma dithers and complains about every small annoyance, Molly, an orphan forced to make her own way, embraces each new adventure with a can-do spirit. The contrast between these two young ladies couldn’t be greater, as James and his brother, Matthew, discover.
James’ sense of unease, almost of entrapment, increases the more time he spends with his betrothed. From their friends’ home through travel to the ranch to scrutiny of the hacienda itself, Emma is a non-stop complainer of magnitude. James is beginning to worry that he’s made a big mistake. Especially since he is more drawn to Molly and her quiet competence than he is to the girl he invited to journey across country.
James is nothing if not an honorable man. Still haunted by the specter of his troops fighting and dying far away from his command, he knows that sole responsibility for Emma rests on his shoulders. Yet he wants only to be with Molly.
To complicate matters further, Rosa Alfaro, the ranch housemaid and resident troublemaker, has decided she wants James. And nothing is going to stand in her way.