This novel is the first of a saga about the fortunes of a retail empire and the machinations of the business elite across three generations. It is the first in six novels about Emma Harte and her family. Subsequent novels are Hold The Dream, To Be The Best, Emma's Secret, Unexpected Blessings and Just Rewards.
The film starts with an octogenarian Emma, rich and powerful beyond her dreams. She is now enjoying and contemplating the empire she has created with her own hands. She is also training her favorite grandchild, Paula McGill Amory, to be her successor in the head of Harte Enterprises.
The second part goes back to her upbringing and presents Emma Harte, born 30 April 1889, who lives in the Yorkshire rural area. Her parents are Jack Harte and his wife Elizabeth, who dies early on in the book, presumably of tuberculosis. Emma is left to take care of her father and siblings, firstborn Winston and the young Frank.
Emma begins working as a maid at Fairley Hall at the age of 14, the manor house where Squire Adam Fairley, his wife Adele and their children Gerald and Edwin live. Olivia Wainright, Adele's widowed sister (who will later be Adam's second wife) pays frequent visits. The house is also inhabited by the wicked butler Murgatroyd, the cook, the housekeeper and another maid.
One day on her way to work, she meets the man who will be her best friend for more than half a century, an Irishman named Shane Patrick Desmond O'Neill, also known as Blackie. O'Neill is a building worker hired by the Squire to do some repairs in Fairley Hall.
After Adele Fairley dies under mysterious circumstances surrounding her alcoholism and psychological problems, Emma and Edwin become friends. They end up making love in a cave up in the moors and she becomes pregnant. He then spurns her for fear of being disinherited or disowned by his father and family.
Emma goes to Leeds to have her baby. Because the book is set in a time when having children out of wedlock is deeply taboo, she tells new friends that she has a husband in the Royal Navy who is away at sea.
Soon after moving to Leeds, she meets the Kallinskis, a Jewish family working in the textile industry. Emma meets the father, Abraham Kallinski, after rescuing him from an incident with anti-semitic boys out in the street. After she defends him, he takes her home and introduces her to his family. David, Abraham's eldest son, falls for Emma almost immediately. In return for the favor Emma has done for Abraham, they give her a job and treat her as family while she's away from home.
Shortly after she leaves for Leeds, there is a fire in Fairley Mill. Emma's father dies from injuries he sustains saving Edwin from the burning building.
Some time later, Blackie reunites with Emma in Leeds and it is he who, in the late stages of her pregnancy, takes her to the house of a beautiful, kind and loving woman named Laura. Laura is looking for a roommate to share the household expenses. Emma and Laura hit it off immediately, and Emma moves in.
After a year of working days in a mill and filling the rest of her time drumming up work cooking and sewing, Emma eventually gathers together enough money to rent a store in the town where she is living with Laura. This store, which Emma labors day and night over, eventually expands and fills two shops, then three, until finally Emma is one day ready to open Harte's - the Emporium.
Just as she's beginning to feel secure, she receives a visit from Gerald Fairley. He's gotten wind of her success and demands to know where Edwin's child is. After a violent confrontation, Emma realizes that she still has not built enough to keep herself and her daughter safe. The incident feeds her ambition and fuels her fantastic rise to success and her ongoing struggle against the Fairleys.