By day, I'm a domestic violence prosecutor. By night, I read romance to restore my faith in love, relationships, and humanity in general.
I am a history buff (I was a history major, actually), and I have a thing for sailboats. Ships, barques, brigs, schooners, ketches, cutters, sloops, and yawls, I love 'em all. Elizabeth Essex is a romance novelist with an MA in Nautical Archaeology, so she had me at "hello." I was predisposed to like this book a lot, and it did not disappoint.
Sally Kent is the only girl in a family of naval men, and so when her fifteen year old brother dodges his commission to become a midshipman on the Royal Navy's Audacious during the Napoleonic Wars, Sally-in-drag takes his place to preserve the family honor. (If you have trouble believing a woman could join Admiral Nelson's Royal Navy and successfully disguise her gender in order to serve along men, read about Hannah Snell, who is probably the best-known among several female sailors and soldiers of the era.) Upon reporting to her ship, Sally learns she will be serving under Lt. David Colyear, 'Col', a family friend who Sally has admired since he visited her home with her older brother years prior. Col soon sees through her disguise, but (conveniently) not before the Audacious has already set sail, when it would be inconvenient to return to port to put Sally ashore. Despite his misgivings, Col keeps Sally's secret because to do otherwise would shame her family, but she quickly proves her worth as a sailor, literally "showing the ropes" to the other new midshipmen with whom she serves.
Sally's masquerade sets up the romantic tension in the novel, because she and Col cannot act on their mutual attraction without giving up her secret. Because everyone on the ship believes Sally is a man, every lingering look, every casual touch, every minute alone together is dangerous, not because Sally is a single girl who may be ruined (though she is), but because an affair between men, and especially between and officer and a subordinate, is forbidden. Thus, in an interesting reversal from the romance genre norm, Col's reputation is as much at risk of ruin as Sally's, and the consequences of discovery would be even more significant for him, because the potential damage to his career could not be fixed by a hasty marriage.