Sarah Thornton, unmarried and pregnant, is about to board a train heading west when she realizes her valise, the last of her belongings, has been stolen. The valise had her ticket in it and now it looks like she's going to be stranded by a conductor who only cares that she doesn't have a ticket or the money to pay for one. Stephen Halliday and his pregnant wife Claire take pity on Sarah and come to her aid, getting her on the train and allowing her to use their berth to rest while they go to the dining car. As Sarah sleeps, the train wrecks and Stephen and Claire are killed.
When Sarah awakens, she is in a hospital, her leg broken and her son born. It soon becomes apparent that she has been mistaken for Claire Halliday. When Stephen's brother Nicholas comes to the hospital to take the "sister-in-law" he has never met and his brother's newborn "heir" home to the family estate, he won't let Sarah get in a word edgewise, refusing to listen to her few halting attempts to explain that she isn't Claire. She decides she'll wait until she gets to his home and explain to his mother.
But when she arrives, Leda Halliday's grief and her statements that without Claire and the baby she wouldn't know what she would do make it painfully hard for Sarah to confess her true identity. Complicating matters is the hard truth that with her leg broken, Sarah can't work to support her newborn son, for whom she would do anything.
So, in order to protect her son and get her strength back, Sarah allows the deception to continue. She promises herself that as soon as her leg is healed she'll reveal the truth and pay the Hallidays' back for all they have done for her. She soon comes to love gentle Leda, while Nicholas attracts her despite his curt and distrustful behavior.
Nicholas, in the meantime, copes with the desire and confusion his sister-in-law raises in him. When Stephen wrote and said he had married, Nicholas immediately had his bride investigated by Pinkerton detectives. What he learned leads him to believe that Claire is a gold-digger, out for the wealth generated by the Halliday Ironworks. Yet the somber, gentle woman he hungers for is at odds with the woman in the report, who escaped the tenements of New York by working as a seamstress in a theater and living under the protection of at least three men before "latching onto" Stephen.
Cheryl St. John deserves a lot of credit for making what might have been an extremely distasteful deception work. Not only is Sarah's motivation understandable, but she doesn't like what she's doing any more than I did. It's clearly a case of needs must when the devil drives, of having to decide between two terrible possibilities. Frankly, in her position, I imagine I'd have done the same thing.
I also enjoyed the 19th century feel to the story. Sarah is no 1990s miss dressed up in corsets and bustles; she's a woman of her time and milieu. And while Nicholas is an enlightened industrialist, he's also a man of the 1860s. When a mill worker is injured, Sarah admires him for paying for a doctor to see to the worker's injuries, but doesn't think twice when the worker is not paid for the time he is out. No one thinks this is terrible; there's no anachronistic concern about workers compensation. The attitude is hard, but it's also accurate and I admire Cheryl St. John for weaving this thread into her story.
The only problem I had with this book was with the romance. Somehow it never moved me. Nicholas is suspicious of Sarah the whole time she lives in his house; how could he fall in love with her, unless it was simply because she's beautiful? As for Sarah, Nicholas treats her as if he expects to find the family silver tucked in her pockets at every moment, yet she ends up head over heels for him. And I don't know why, except that he's sexy and virile. Good grounds for an infatuation, but lifelong love?
Still, the characterization is smart and I believed this story took place in 1869. Other readers may find the romance more moving than I did. The Mistaken Widow is a pleasant read and a good example of how to make a risky idea work.