Early in 1805, England and France are at war, but little is happening. Napoleon has a huge army encamped in the heights above Boulogne. An armada of landing craft waits in the port and other nearby harbors to embark them to cross the English Channel. The invasion cannot be accomplished because the Royal Navy controls the crossing and could blow the invasion craft out of the water if they sailed. The French fleet is trapped by the British in various major ports. Stalemate is the situation. It will remain so unless the French can assemble enough ships to sweep the British fleet aside, or give up their invasion plans and turn the war in other directions.
Captain Sir Richard Giles, Viscount Ashton, starts the year at his home, Dipton Hall, recovering from wounds sustained in his latest battle. A neighboring estate becomes available as a result of the owner being convicted of smuggling and attempted murder. Giles and Daphne, his wife, decide to purchase the place, but before he can find out much about his acquisition, he must return to his frigate. Daphne is left to handle the problems of taking possession of the property as well as attending to a myriad of tasks involved in managing the estate and being a leader of society. To complicate matters, Daphne discovers that she has acquired a hoard of smuggled goods with the property they had bought.
Breaking up the smuggling ring has produced a shortage of the luxury goods so needed by the gentry. Daphne must find a way to distribute the needed material which she obtained by buying the new estate while not being seen to be sinking into the lower social ranks of those who engage in trade.Aided by her sister-in-law’s financé, she accomplishes this brilliantly, averting social disasters while helping to pay for His Majesty’s Navy. Aided by various men of her acquaintance, including the mysterious Mr. Justice Amery, she starts a viable contra-smuggling enterprise to provide luxury goods.
Meanwhile, Giles’s primary mission is coming to nothing. Nevertheless, he does have various naval adventures that will harm the French cause and help the British, including destroying a French fort and rescuing a large number of British naval prisoners. Returning to England with the prisoners he has liberated gives him an opportunity to visit Dipton just in time to participate in destroying the existing smuggling venture along the canal.
Giles must return to sea. His departure means that he will miss many of the social activities which Daphne has arranged to cement their position as the leading landowners in the area. However, he is lucky enough to capture a French frigate with orders that might have a serious impact on breaking the stalemate. His duty takes him away to Ireland to try to frustrate those plans.
All the while, Daphne is wrestling with the problems of running their various estates, taking a leading place in local society, setting up the counter-smuggling enterprise, continuing her match-making attempts and playing with her baby son even while pregnancy means that there will soon be another child to add to her activities,
Giles and Daphne are reunited in the end after Giles returns home after an unprecedented defeat of French forces, and Daphne returns too after a disastrous attempt to persuade some leading gentlemen in another town of the virtues of only purchasing goods on which the excises have been paid. However, they cannot settle into a comfortable routine as country aristocrats. Giles still has his duty, and the war is still stalemated.