Set in 1810 in New Orleans and environs in Louisiana, this is the story of Catherine Mayfield, a wellborn young woman with a bit of a reckless side. Maneuvered into attending an infamous “quadroon ball” where the light brown women of color were displayed for men to acquire as their mistresses, Catherine becomes the object of Rafael Navarro’s desire. Rumored to be a pirate, Lafitte’s “right hand,” Navarro is a compelling and dark figure. He and Catherine’s companion, Marcus, have a history and eventually lock rapiers. Once Marcus is defeated, Rafe who thinks Catherine is Marcus’s mistress, abducts her and takes her to his home where he rapes her. When he realizes she is a virgin and not one of the quadroons, he offers her marriage. By that time, the whole town considers her a ruined woman (which she is) and she has little choice but to accept his offer.
Following a hasty wedding, Rafe escorts Catherine to his secluded plantation Alhambra, located up river where mysteries and a rising slave discontent abound as Catherine tries to make the best of a bad situation, all the while Marcus is lurking in the background.