1793: Lord Charles Wormwood’s father informs him, with war looming, he is to be a soldier. Thwarted, the Earl decides to send him to sea, in a ship under the command of his Uncle, Captain Harry Hamilton. He outlines how he will ensure his nephew’s progress, regardless of his ignorance of life at sea. He will take a short cruise aboard the sloop HMS Childers, followed by a rigged examination, which will see him promoted to lieutenant.
A peaceful cruise turns nasty. The French open fire, exposing Wormwood to danger – not that her knows it. He is helped by Kissock, who’ll become his servant and ignorance provides his salvation. With no idea why, Wormwood’s is hailed as a hero. Fame brings him in to Admiral Braeburn, also making him deeply attractive to Kate, the man’s blowsy daughter, a rampant nymphomaniac of ruthless determination.
Braeburn promises to advance the career of the man Kate is set on marrying. First, Midshipman Wormwood must pass for lieutenant, questions and answers provided in advance by Uncle Harry and the officers to test him arranged. But Horatio Nelson has stepped in to take the place of one indisposed. Ignorant of both the sea, as well as of sailing a ship, Wormwood, by sheer luck, passes.
Through Braeburn he’s made Flag Lieutenant to Admiral Dangerfield. Reconnected with the officers of HMS Childers, he must help press merchant sailors into the King's Navy, a risky business, which ends in disaster, blame only avoided by a classic Wormwood solution in which another carries the can. He must see to his duties as Flag Lieutenant to a weak weathervane. Dangerfield is full of swagger, determined to meet and thump the enemy: not if Charles Wormwood can help it. Battle means danger, so someone else should undertake the risk, as long as his admiral gets the credit.
Meet the enemy they do and it turns, for Dangerfield, into a career damning fiasco. Fighting spirit gone, the task becomes the taking of prizes, which will line Dangerfield’s pocket. In Genoa, a complete break with Dangerfield sees Charles decanted in to a sloop commanded by a drunkard. The perennial pest Pettigrew is aboard, once more getting Wormwood into a situation of great peril, which is the last thing he wants. But he’s supposed to be a hero and fate again shines on him once more!
In command, Wormwood must carry on the mission given to his now dead superior, find an anchorage for the fleet blockading Toulon and discern the state of feeling in Corsica? Landing in Ajaccio he meets the dazzling Pozzo di Borgo who feeds him a seriously rich meal, informing Charles that while Corsica is against France, the most important local family is of doubtful allegiance. Leaving in darkness, he is lost, coshed and rendered unconscious, waking to find he’s being ministered to by a striking young beauty until a grating voice intervenes. Her older brother introduces himself as Captain of Artillery, Napoleone Buonaparte. Concussed and full of di Borgo’s dinner, Wormwood vomits all over the brother’s uniform coat.
He’s become involved with the numerous family, most tellingly two sisters: the severe Maria Anna, more importantly, the stunning Maria Paola, instantly the object of his carnal intentions. This will lead Charles into dangerous waters as he finds himself romantically entangled with both the Maria’s, one happily, the other unfortunately. This draws him into saving the lives of Napoleone and a brother, disloyal to Corsica, also seen as traitors to France and about to be guillotined. He and Kissock, with the aid of another Buonaparte, manage to prise the pair from their fate.
What to do with the family, more importantly the sisters, to both of whom Wormwood has become entangled. The solution? Take them to France, even if one is a serving enemy soldier. What difference, Wormwood reasons, can one small, pompous artillery captain make to the war?