Tess Thornhill operates a home for abandoned children in the stews of London. She comes to the town home of Justin, Viscount Sanderfield, to confront him about doubling the rent on her property because his business manager has decided that the renovations with brothel cast-offs makes it most suitable as a rental property for that business. She also accuses him of casting off a former lover whose child is now one of her charges.
Justin has only inherited the title on the death of his older brother and has until recently resided in Greece. In his interest in things classical as well as his club foot, Justin bears a superficial resemblance to Lord Byron, but Justin is restrained, principled, as well as quite taken with the attractive social activist. He visits Tess's children's home where he is taken by the worthiness of her mission as well as the personalities of her charges.
Tess, on the other hand, is impressed with Justin's sincerity and integrity. Because at the advanced age of twenty-five she has never been attracted by a man (not even by Drew Wentworth, the long-time childhood friend who frequently professes his love for her but claims she must be frigid), Tess has believed that she is incapable of love. She is as unable to resist Justin as he is unable to resist her.
Complications in the form of Justin's grandfather who has long resented having a physically impaired grandson, Drew's risky political ambitions, and their own insecurities threaten their future happiness.
This plot outline neglects mention of several subplots; some (such as the one about the widowed Spanish noblewoman) could—and should—have been eliminated without affecting the story at all. Tess and Justin are nice leading characters (you've got to like a heroine who has a near-pornographic mural in her dining room because the children have never seen a meadow), but the sometimes unnecessarily complicated plot and the Big Misunderstanding which keeps them apart for the second half of the book detract from the story's charm. Furthermore, Tess suffers from the classic character flaw of the gothic heroine: charging head-long into a situation she's been warned is dangerous. Generally Tess is portrayed as an intelligent, sensible woman; her actions should reflect this portrayal.
The book touches on several social problems of the era such as the high unemployment among former soldiers. In fact, there's an overall feeling that the author conceived this as a much larger story and was forced to condense it into a small format but was unwilling to omit anything in the process. Some streamlining with an increased focus on the romance would have improved the book.
I've disliked books where the characters seem oblivious to events outside of teas and balls and where plots focus on visits to the dressmakers and hanky-panky in the garden. Fortunately, this is not one of those books