In the aftermath of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake, Ettie Brogan dragged herself from the ruins to kneel beside her dying mother. Heartbroken, she assures her that she will take care of herself and be a good girl, and Ettie, alone in a world that overnight has become a chaotic, fearful place, set out to do just that. As a kitchen maid in the home of wealthy Sean O'Hara she soon endeared herself to O'Hara's cook, Bridget O'Connell. Bridget had just said goodbye to Sarah, a perfect employee until a Wells Fargo driver had his way with her, and Ettie appeared at just the right moment.
Ettie begins a wonderful new life in the O'Hara household, and soon falls under the spell of Jimmy, O'Hara's cheeky coachman. These three servants form an enduring bond of love and friendship, but as Ettie blossoms into a beautiful young woman, naive and innocent, she learns to her cost that even those in high places, such as friends of the President, cannot always be trusted. Bridget, in an effort to preserve their way of life, takes things into her own hands and can only sit by and watch as her plans go terribly awry.
And Ettie learns that even for the rich, life is not always perfect; she sees the mistress of the house deal with tragedy by resorting to the comfort found in little brown vials; Katie, O'Hara's beloved eldest daughter, is disowned because she falls in love with a man of unsuitable heritage; and two sons are expelled from a prestigious Boston school for lewd behavior. Then the household is rocked to its foundations by the arrival of O'Hara's sister, Agatha, an embittered spinster and sworn foe of Bridget O'Connell. Theresa, Katie’s sister, welcomes Agatha as an ally and learns from her aunt’s twisted views of the world.
A tragedy briefly unites this household until dark secrets are revealed and once again tear it apart, and a stronger, wiser Ettie is forced to make a life-changing decision.