It all began with a straw hat. A large, broad-brimmed hat, dyed in an elusive mixture of colours to produce a distinctive shade of pale gold, it was presented to Emily Pearson by her long-time friend and employer Mabel Arkwright, milliner and modiste, whose establishment under the name of The Bandbox was situated in a discreet corner of the West End of London. And it was to her employer - known to her clientele as Madam Arkwright - that Emily owed not only the gift of The Golden Straw, as it had been named, but eventually the business itself, for her friend had more and more come to rely upon her as time went by. After Mabel Arkwright's death, Emily, exhausted by the extra work that had fallen upon her shoulders and exasperated by Dr Steve Montane, her late employer's young and plain-spoken physician, took herself off to the South of France to stay at an hotel previously and warmly recommended by Mrs Arkwright. It was now 1880, and many fashionable guests were staying at the hotel in Nice, among them Paul Anderson Steerman. It was from the balcony of his room that he first noticed The Golden Straw, worn by Emily as she arrived from England. But although it was the hat that first held his attention, his admiring gaze quickly turned to Emily herself, and throughout the time of his stay he paid her unceasing attention. But Paul Anderson Steerman was not all he seemed to be, and he was to bring nothing but disgrace and tragedy to Emily, for the traumatic months following her return to England were but a prelude to a series of events that would influence the destiny not only of her children but her grandchildren too, as the new century dawned, the First World War came and went and still she was alive to reflect on all that had resulted from the gift of the hat.