When her years-long romance with Michael, husband of Julia Lovatís best friend, Anna, comes to the inevitable close, Julia is shattered. Save the commissioned embroidery work and a small craft shop in London, Michael has become the center of Julia Ďs world.
Clutching the small book on embroidery that was his parting gift, Julia retreats to Cornwall. Her cousin, Alison, has just become a widow. Hoping to comfort Alison, Julia struggles with her own desperation, the guilt of years of deception and an uncertain future, turning to the designs in the book for escape.
It is in the pages of this book, circa 1625, that the heartbroken Julia discovers the tiny, pinched handwriting of Catherine Anne Tregenna, a young woman snatched from the Cornwall coast by Muslim raiders, the shores of England vulnerable to renegade slave-traders who return their precious cargo to Morocco to a thriving slave market.
While Catís first entries bemoan her unpromising status in life and approaching marriage to her cousin, Robert Bolitho, the diary suddenly changes in tenor as Cat and others are stolen from a church where a Puritanical preacher is shouting a sermon of fire and brimstone. Within hours, the captives are in bondage in the hold of the Corsairsí ship, the flame-haired Cat as terrified as her neighbors as they consider the future in a foreign land, should they survive this journey.
There are set-tos with other ships along the way, Cat called upon to stitch up the captain when he is grievously wounded. While tending this fearsome man, Cat begins a dialog with him, her independent nature uncowed even by such daunting circumstances. Later, in Morocco, Cat faces the slave auction and a place unlike anything her imagination might have invented. Catís fate is unknown, as Julia discovers when the tale ends abruptly.
Not only does Julia become obsessed with Catís story, but suddenly Michael appears in Cornwall, claiming he gave Julia the book by mistake. As he demands its return - and goes to any lengths to retrieve it - Julia intuits the true value of the book in her possession. On a mission of her own, Julia plunges into the past, traveling to Morocco, where she finds far more than expected. Michael follows, determined to wrest his property from Julia.
The premise of such a tale - Corsican pirates off the coast of England, a beautiful female captive and love in an exotic locale - would seem preposterous had it not happened. Actually, England suffered such raiding parties for two centuries, grounding the story in historical fact.
It is the blending of two worlds centuries apart that Johnson has mined for her unusual novel. The stuff of nightmares or dreams, this is a tale based in truth. Even more surprising, the author finds her own treasure in Morocco, adding a particular spice to her novel.