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Authors: Lucinda Gray

The Gilded Cage

 

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Special Thanks to Melissa Albert

 

PROLOGUE

I
HEFT THE GUN
to my shoulder, feeling its familiar weight and the heat of the metal through my dress. Sighting along the barrel, I curl my finger around the trigger. The world shrinks around my target as I breathe in.

Exhaling, I squeeze.

An explosion of sound, and the tin can twenty yards away topples from its perch.

“Told you so, George,” I mutter, letting the stock fall to rest on a fence post. The horses in the field alongside me swish their tails, slapping insects from their flanks. The gunshot stilled the relentless cicada hum for a moment; with a hot ticking, it begins again. I reach a hand up to wipe the sweat from my neck.

A shimmering heat haze rises along the rutted track leading from our farm to town, and as I reload the muzzle, squinting at the remaining row of cans, a plume of dust swirls up and takes shape. It's a moment before I recognize the motion as that of an approaching rider.

I smile, making a dash at my hair and dress, slapping the worst of the grime from my skirts. I hadn't thought to see Connor today. But even as I smooth my hair, I realize that it isn't him. The horse is the same shade of chestnut as Connor's mare, but the rider has none of his ease in the saddle.

My stomach turns over. I remember the last time George and I welcomed a stranger to our farm: a doctor who charged too much, who told us nothing could be done. I fight back a rising tide of dread. If George has been hurt … But no, if anything's happened, the news wouldn't come from town.

I hold the rifle in both hands, across my body so the rider can see it. He's wearing a jacket and breeches of pale gray, reddened with dust and nicer by far than what my brother wears on Sundays. His hair is pale under his hat, and the beginnings of an unpromising mustache grace his lip. The jacket, store-bought by the look of it, slumps damply about his slight form, and a slender leather case rests over the front of the saddle. If he's armed, I can't see his gun.

As he approaches, he throws up a hand. “Young lady! Hold your fire!” Grinning at me, he reins in the horse with a dusty flourish.

I tip the gun so that its muzzle points to the ground and move toward the steaming horse. “You're far from town,” I say to the stranger.

He dismounts, his leather shoes hitting the packed earth with a thump. I'm no longer afraid, just curious—this fellow couldn't best a city girl in a fight, much less a farm girl with a rifle. Bowing slightly, he offers his hand. His nails are perfect, clean crescents.

“Good afternoon, miss. I apologize for arriving with no prior notice, but I wasn't sure how to announce myself ahead of time.” He gestures around, as if to underscore the lack of a postbox. “My name is Herman DeLaney. I'm a solicitor with Cryer and Thompson, and I've come to you from New York City.”

He says this with a satisfied air that I'd take more seriously from a larger man.

“I'm Katherine Randolph,” I say. “And I come from right here.” I hold my dirt- and oil-smeared hand out partway, waiting to see whether he'll take it. After a moment's hesitation, he does.

As I tie his mount to the hitching post, he runs his eyes over our house. I see it as he does: sun-bleached boards, dilapidated but well kept. A sagging porch, though freshly swept. And lovely painted flowers winding up from the house's baseboards—our flower beds haven't thrived in the heat, but my brother's artistic talents produce blooms far lovelier than anything I could have grown.

I call the man's attention back from the flowering boards. “Mr. DeLaney, I must ask. For what purpose have you traveled all the way from New York?”

He turns toward me, a slight smile flickering about his mouth. “Is George Randolph at home?”

“My brother has gone to look at a stallion in Paulstown.” I remember that this man is not from these parts, and amend myself. “That's ten miles away. He should be back by evening. You're welcome, of course, to return tomorrow.”

The man just smiles and removes his hat, wiping his forehead with a cornflower-blue handkerchief he produces from inside his dusty coat.

“If it's all right with you, Miss Randolph, I believe I'll wait.” He sits back on the hitching post with a sigh. “I have something very important to discuss with Mr. Randolph.”

“Something so important that it can't wait one day?”

He leans forward, his toes just touching the ground. “Indeed.” He taps his leather case with a manicured finger. “Pardon me for being forward, but I believe I am about to change your fortunes.”

I feel a confused thrill at his words. What could this beanpole of a city man be carrying that would support his claim? “My brother won't return until well after sundown, sir—and it's far too hot to be left in anticipation.”

He laughs at my words, settling himself more comfortably on his post. “Perhaps you're right. You
are
a Randolph, after all. Let's start with this: Have you ever wished to see England?”

 

CHAPTER 1

“A
RMS UP, DEAR.

I lift my arms over my head.

“Good,” says Cousin Grace. “You'll make no move more sudden than that, and it seems your bosom will stay in place.”

I don't see how my bosom has any choice. It and the rest of me are bound fast in a mercilessly tight concoction of cream satin. I keep catching glances of myself in the mirror, and each time the girl I see looks a little less like me. My black curls are pinned up in an elaborate style that leaves my neck bare. I'd almost forgotten the mole in the hollow of my left clavicle. Shimmering white gloves wrap my arms to the elbow, reflecting the glow of the strand of pearls that clings to my throat. Katherine the farm girl is in there somewhere, beneath the finery—I see her in the obstinate jawline, a touch too wide, in the dark gray eyes that can't hide their boredom. Grace surveys my bare arms with satisfaction—though the taut lines of my muscles are still visible, they're slackening from disuse. There are no buckets to heave up from the well here, and someone else chops the firewood.

What would Connor think if he could see me now?

“Arms back down,” Grace murmurs as Elsie, our dressing maid, fusses with another hairpin. If I don't turn my head too quickly, her work might just survive the evening ahead.

Grace suddenly shrieks, and Stella scurries out from under her skirts, yapping. “I don't understand, Katherine dear, why you insist on keeping that mutt in your room!”

“Because I love her with all my heart.”
And because you can trust animals
, I think but don't say. There's nothing fake about a dog. “Besides, she's very fond of you,” I add sweetly.

“Well, the feeling is one-sided. She's got hairs all over my dress.”

Elsie flutters over to tend to my cousin's skirts, and I manage a crouch, tickling Stella under her chin. She was a gift from George the day after we arrived in England, and I adore her—she's the only one here even less polished than I am.

I walk to the window and tug aside the thick brocade curtain. The estate sprawls out in the dimming February twilight, a wintry tapestry of browns and faded greens. Over its horizon, to the south, is the quarry that once supplied stone to build the house and many others in the area. It fell into disuse some ten years ago, according to George. At the bottom of the smooth lawns, the lake lies black and still, and the trees beyond carpet the valley in a great swath. The forest of Walthingham, planted two hundred years ago, covers several hundred acres. I hold a hand to the chilly glass, listening to the evening song drifting from the aviary.

There's movement at the forest's edge, something darting from trunk to trunk.

“Someone's in the trees,” I say, pointing to the spot.

Grace comes to my side, but when I look again the thing has gone. “I can't see anything,” she says.

“I'm sure.…”

“Just a deer,” she says. “They come sometimes to the lake to drink.”

“I think it was a man,” I say, staring until my eyes blur and sting, and I have to blink.

In the glass, Grace's reflection flinches. Then two shapes emerge from the trees on the long driveway leading to the house—carriages. “Your guests!” says Grace, her voice light. “We haven't long.”

My
guests. Cold seeps into my fingertips from the windowpane, and my ghostly, black-eyed reflection stares back at me mockingly. I turn away.

Grace looks me up and down. “Don't furrow your brow. You'll perform just perfectly.”

I don't want to perform at all, thank you very much
, I think. I'm not a traveling show.

Grace must mistake my strained smile for nerves. “You've done wonderfully over the past four weeks, Katherine. You'll be a sensation!”

Has it been only four weeks since we arrived here? America, and Connor, seem to belong to another lifetime. I feel a swell of guilt, not for being here, but for starting to forget.

“Thank you,” I say. “For everything you've done for me.”

Grace stands up and adjusts her skirts. She is wearing lace as well, but it is dyed a rich scarlet, and cut higher to her neck. Though she asks me to treat her like a sister, she is technically the same generation as my father—his cousin, in fact. She acts very much like a maiden aunt, steering me patiently through the convoluted channels of English society.

“I have enjoyed every moment,” she says. “Now, I must go speak with Mrs. Whiting. Just relax and enjoy the night—we've been over everything that's important. Come along, Elsie.”

She sweeps from the room, followed by the serving girl, and I'm alone.

Everything that's important.
She means the rules, I suppose, the ones she's spent a month drilling into me. The rules for eating, the rules for dancing, the rules for talking. The way to dress, to curtsy, to be an English “lady” rather than a girl from a farm in Virginia. The rules for snaring a husband, that's what they add up to.

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