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In 1867 Nicola Douglas attends a London lecture given by Miss Maria Rye, the founder of the Female Middle Class Emigration Society, which inspires her to change her life. With no family, but a good education, she boards a ship to Australia with high hopes of a fresh start in a new country as a governess. But Sydney is full of young women with similar hopes and equally poor prospects. When Nicola is at her lowest ebb, a benefactor appears, Mr Belfroy, whose past has made him sympathetic to women struggling to survive. She also meets Frances West, an activist from a privileged background, and her attractive but distant brother, Nathaniel. However hard she tries to resist, Nicola's attraction to Nathaniel West grows. She is soon also introduced to a visiting American, Hilton Warner. In Warner, Nicola sees a true gentleman, and she basks in the American's interest, which only angers Nathaniel West. As both men shower her with attention, Nicola reaches a crisis. She came to Australia never expecting to be anything other than a governess. Yet, the prospect of finding love, and being married, shows how empty her life has been since her parents' death. Her achievements at the Governess Home are vital to her. Can she have both? Will a husband allow her to continue her noble course? To marry Warner would mean a new life in America, but marrying Nathaniel carries its own problems. Would he return to his old roguish ways? To reject both of them would relegate her to spinsterhood, if she were to make this choice, would her career ever be enough to sustain her?