It is spring 1792 and England is enjoying a troubled peace, with her old enemy France still in the grip of the Terror. In harbours and estuaries around the country, the fleet has been left to rot, and thousands of officers and seamen have been thrown unwanted on the beach. Even a frigate captain as famous as Richard Bolitho is forced to swallow his pride and visit the Admiralty daily to plead for a ship. As the clouds of war begin to rise once more over the Channel, he has no choice but to accept an appointment to the Nore, and the thankless task of recruiting for the fleet. For Bolitho, still suffering the after-affects of a fever caught in the Great South Sea, and haunted by the death there of the woman he had loved, even so humble a command is a welcome distraction. With his small flotilla of three topsail cutters he sets out to search the coast for seamen who have fled the harsh discipline of His Majesty's Navy for the more tempting rewards of smuggling. As he is soon to discover, his opponents are no ordinary free traders, but the most brutal gang of smugglers England has known, the Brotherhood – a gang with men of influence behind them and a secret, sinister trade in human misery. Treason is never far distant, murder commonplace, and when a King's ransom is in peril, Bolitho is ordered to proceed 'with all despatch' to recover it. Trapped by the treachery and cunning of an old adversary, and under enemy fire, he needs all the loyalty and courage of his three gallant cutters if he is to fulfil his mission.