Seventeen-year-old Countess of Rothford is young and beautiful but lacks financial resources. As such, her grandmother accepts an offer of marriage for her hand from a wealthy baron. The countess and the baron are not compatible, but she has no money and therefore no choice but to accept his offer.
As her wedding date approaches, the countess becomes more desperate to escape marrying a man she does not love. She sees her chance when she learns that her maid is unhappy about being recruited to the Glittering Court, a finishing school for pretty but low-born young women who are trained and then sent to the new world of Adoria to marry wealthy frontier men. The countess thinks the idea of starting a new life in the new world is exciting and is surprised that her maid would rather live on a farm than take advantage of this opportunity.
The countess pays her maid to secretly leave town and pursue her dreams, and then assumes the maid’s identity of Adelaide Bailey. As Adelaide, she sneaks out of her townhouse and joins Cedric Thorn, the recruiter and owner’s son. Cedric knows she is not the maid he recruited but the noblewoman she worked for, but he goes along with the charade, as he needs the commission that comes with his recruit’s marriage contract. On the way out of town, the carriage is stopped and searched but ultimately allowed to go on. The countess’s grandmother has reported her missing, and there is a search out for her.
Adelaide and the other girls are taken to a country estate to learn how to behave like upper-class women. When Cedric gets Adelaide alone, he confronts her on her deception. She assures him that she is desperate to leave her life in Osfrid. After almost a year of studies, the girls celebrate an end to their studies with a party. Adelaide goes out into the cold night to get some holly plants for decoration and unexpectedly finds Cedric worshiping in an Alanzan ritual. Alanzan worship is illegal and punishable by death. Adelaide confronts Cedric on being a heretic, and he admits that’s reason he needs the commission money: He wants to buy a stake in Westhaven, a new Adorian colony that allows freedom of religion.
Adelaide, who is thankful to Cedric for keeping her secret, has a talent for copying famous works of art. She decides to forge a painting for Cedric to sell in Adoria, providing money to purchase his Westhaven stake in addition to the commission he will get from her bridal contract.
The ocean voyage to Adoria is a long and treacherous one. Adelaide and Cedric secretly spend as much time as they can in the cargo hold of the ship so she can paint. The two grow closer, but Cedric knows that Adelaide cannot be his.
When they get to the Cape Triumph, an Adorian colony, Adelaide is regaled as the top girl in her group, receiving the most beautiful dresses and the most prized invitations to social gatherings. The governor’s son, Warren Doyle, quickly makes an offer for Adelaide’s hand in marriage. Warren has political aspirations, as he is the future Governor of Hadisen, a new colony. Warren is handsome and rich.
The amount he offers for her marriage contract is enough to cover Cedric’s stake, but Adelaide realizes she has romantic feelings for Cedric. Cedric does not like Warren. To further complicate matters, Warren’s mother, Viola, is a noble woman from Osfrid who recognizes Adelaide and threatens to reveal her identity to bounty hunters who haven’t stopped looking for her since she ran away.
While at a dinner party with Warren, he tells Adelaide that he and some other men intend to go out that night and arrest a group of Alanzan heretics who are rumored to be worshiping in the woods. Fearing that Cedric is among the worshipers, Adelaide leaves the party to warn the Alanzans. She finds Cedric, and they escape just as Warren and his men charge into the woods.
On the way back to the Glittering Court house, Cedric and Adelaide take a break to lay under the stars. Cedric explains the Alanzan wedding ceremony, and they kiss. While Cedric has feelings for Adelaide, he knows she isn’t for him so he finds another man, an attorney, Nicholas Adleton, to make an offer for her. Nicholas is an attorney who isn’t wealthy, but he is kind, and Adelaide will have a good life with him.
Before Nicolas can raise the money for Adelaide’s bridal contract, Viola tips off bounty hunters that the countess is among the women at the Glittering Court. The countess can’t be sent back to Osfrid if she is already married, so Viola hopes the fear of being discovered will force Adelaide’s hand to marry her son.
Adelaide feels pressured. She’s in love with Cedric but has agreed to marry Nicholas to avoid marrying Warren. The night before she’s set to marry Nicholas, she secretly meets Cedric and is caught kissing him. Cedric’s father is furious, as the scandal will spread throughout the community and the Glittering Court’s reputation will be tarnished.
Cedric wants to marry Adelaide, but he cannot afford her contract price. To his surprise, Warren offers him the opportunity to mine gold on one of his claims in Hadisen. Cedric would work the claim, keep any gold that is found and pay Warren an owner’s commission. Cedric has two months to pay off the bridal contract debt to his father. If he can’t earn the money in two months, the debt switches to Warren.
Cedric agrees, and he and Adelaide join the wagon train and make the long, difficult trip to Hadisen. On the way to Hadisen, Warren gets into a confrontation with Icori warriors. Icori are a tribe of people who fled Osfrid for Adoria centuries before and hold a tenuous peace with settlers.
When the group reaches Hadisen, Cedric works the claim and fixes up the small shanty on the land while Adelaide works as a governess to a family of settlers. The work is difficult for the two as neither is accustomed to hard, manual labor. When Adelaide finishes with her tutoring and household duties for the day, she joins Cedric, and they work the claim together.
When the bounty hunter arrives in Hadisen on Viola’s tip that the Countess of Rothford is there, Cedric finds an Alanzan magistrate who secretly marries them and promises to keep the secret until after Cedric can pay for Adelaide’s contract. The two are married in an Alanzan ceremony under the stars.
Adelaide and Cedric find a gold deposit at the claim and ask Warren for more equipment and explosives to help with the mining. Warren brings his men to the claim and when the explosives go off too close to Cedric, almost killing him, Adelaide realizes that has been Warren’s plan all along. On Warren’s orders, Cedric is brutally beat up and thrown in the river to drown.
Warren corners Adelaide in the shanty and tries to rape her. He tells her that he intended to make Cedric’s death look like an accident, and after a brief period of mourning, convince Adelaide to marry him instead. Since Adelaide discovered his plan, he will rape and kill her, making their deaths appear to be the work of bandits.
Adelaide stabs Warren in the thigh with a ritual Alanzan dagger. Before she can escape, the bounty hunter, Cedric and one of their neighbors burst into the shanty. Warren, noticing that the dagger is Alanzan, demands Cedric be arrested for being a heretic, and Adelaide for being his accomplice.
Adelaide reveals that she is the Countess of Rothford and both she and Cedric are sent back to Cape Triumph where Cedric will be put on trial. Cedric asks Adelaide to keep their marriage a secret so she will not be accused of being a heretic by association.
During the trial, Warren lies that in an act of desperation to get out of their contract with him, Cedric and Adelaide attacked and tried to kill him. During his testimony, Cedric lies and denies being Alanzan.
Adelaide finds a buyer for her forged painting and uses the money to buy a stake in the Westhaven colony for Cedric. Stakeholders are citizens and are allowed to freely practice their religion in other colonies. With Nicholas’ legal help, she gets the sale backdated so Cedric can claim retroactive protection as a citizen of Westhaven.
Adelaide causes everything to work out, but too late. The trial is over, and Cedric is at the gallows waiting to be hanged. Just before the hanging, an army of Icori invade the colony accusing Warren of aiding colony soldiers in attacking Icori lands. Warren has been trying to stir up discord and draw Osfrid’s army out of the central colonies to make it easier for Hadisen and other colonies to rebel against the crown.
Warren is arrested and sent back to Osfrid for trial for treason. Adelaide and Cedric have a second wedding with family and friends before traveling to Westhaven. After Warren is arrested, Cedric is legally able to sell the Hadisen claim and gold mine for a large sum, paying off Adelaide’s bridal contract with a small fortune left over. Adelaide writes a letter to her grandmother back to Osfrid renouncing her title as countess.