Widow Annie Fuller has managed to purchase a large house in which she uses to take in borders. She also makes extra money as Madam Sibyl, proud of the fact that unlike those who listed themselves as mediums or fortunetellers, she specializes in business advice, having learned the act of investment from her father. When her favorite client and friend, Mr. Voss, mysteriously dies, and she learns that his now lost will includes monies for her which she needs to pay off a debt, she determines to find out the truth behind her ex-clients precipitous demise.
The storys secondary character, Nate Dawson, enters the picture as the Voss family lawyer. Annie and Nate work well together, and their mutual physical attraction is clear. But both must contend with Nates perceived need to provide protection for Annie, whether desired by her or not. From his view, he also must try to curb his growing attraction for her because "it was absurd even to think of developing a friendship with a woman, and he was in no financial position to think of anything else." Nellies decision to go "under cover" by passing herself off as a new servant into the Voss household, therefore, is never revealed to Nate. Yet, this adventuresome act affords her insights into the households dysfunctional relationships, and the hard work and isolation of a servant, which is wonderfully described in great detail.
Class status plays a large part in the story. Annie chaffs at the limits of her free movement, lamenting her impractical and awkward female attire and need to conduct herself in ways that would command respect. The employment and often abuse of the citys Chinese population is detailed, as is the mistreatment of Irish servant girls whose class status offers no protection from male predation and assumptions about their sexual availability.
Locke describes some San Francisco places, such as the Cliff House Inn, as it was in the late 1870s, and the Golden Gate Park, which, however, is presented as though it was completed, a feat not fully accomplished until thousands of trees had converted the area into the park as it is known today. Find information as well into the difficulties in establishing of a small west coast business, in this case wholesale furniture.
Historical Notes not provided.