1790 and England is on the cusp of war with Revolutionary France. The night-time Channel is the scene of intense smuggling activity and the passage of spies from one coast to another. Lieutenant James Hayter has achieved his heart's desire -- his first independent command, His Majesty's 'Hawk' cutter, 10 guns.
She is swift enough to out sail even the fastest of the French contraband runners and she is Hayter's pride and joy. But his happiness is tempered by the knowledge that his former captain and friend, William Rennie, has been left on the beach after the failure of the Rabhet expedition the previous year. But it is not long before spymaster Sir Robert Greer disturbs Rennie's imposed retirement with a sinister and irrefutable offer that will see Rennie hastening to join his former subordinate in Portsmouth. Together they will have to tackle one of the most sensitive and dangerous missions of the phoney war, to intercept a contraband runner, the cutter 'Lark' and capture her captain, a disgraced Navy lieutenant. But as with all matters orchestrated by Greer, the mission is about a lot more than capturing a few barrels of brandy and a wanted criminal. In fact, it is soon evident that the very security of the nation depends on Rennie and Hayter's success.