The Charm School (Calhoun Chronicles Series #1)

The Charm School (Calhoun Chronicles Series #1)

by Susan Wiggs

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An awkward misfit in an accomplished Boston family, Isadora Peabody yearns to escape her social isolation and sneaks aboard the Silver Swan, bound for Rio, leaving it all behind.

Ryan Calhoun, too, had a good family name. But he'd purposely walked away from everything it afforded him. Driven by his quest to right an old wrong, the fiery, temperamental sea captain barely registers the meek young woman who comes aboard his ship.

To the Swan's motley crew, the tides of attraction clearly flow between the two. Teaching her the charms of a lady, they hope to build the confidence she needs to attract not only their lonely captain's attention, but his heart, as well. For everyone knows the greatest charms are not those of the formal lady, but rather the possibilities of a new world built on love.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780778325048
Publisher: MIRA Books
Publication date: 04/29/2008
Series: Calhoun Chronicles Series , #1
Edition description: Original
Pages: 416
Sales rank: 191,037
Product dimensions: 4.22(w) x 6.61(h) x 1.09(d)

About the Author

Susan Wiggs is the author of many beloved bestsellers, including the popular Lakeshore Chronicles series. She has won many awards for her work, including a RITA from Romance Writers of America. Visit her website at

Read an Excerpt

The real offense, as she ultimately perceived, was her having a mind of her own at all.

—Henry James,
The Portrait of a Lady

Boston, October 1851

Being invisible did have its advantages. Isadora Dudley Peabody knew no one would notice her, not even if the gleaming ballroom floor decided to open up and swallow her. It wouldn't happen, of course. Disappearing in the middle of a crowded room was bold indeed, and Isadora didn't have a bold bone in her body.

Her mind was a different matter altogether.

She surrendered the urge to disappear, relegating it to the land of impossible things—a vast continent in Isadora's world. Impossible things…a smile that was not forced, a compliment that was not barbed, a dream that was not punctured by the cruel thorn of disappointment.

She pressed herself back in a half-domed alcove window. A sneeze tickled her nose. Whipping out a handkerchief, she stifled it. But still she heard the gossip. The old biddies. Couldn't they find someone else to talk about?

"She's the black sheep of the family in more ways than one," whispered a scandalized voice. "She is so different from the rest of the Peabodys. So dark and ill-favored, while her brothers and sisters are all fair as mayflowers."

"Even her father's fortune failed to buy her a husband," came the reply.

"It'll take more than money—"

Isadora let the held-back sneeze erupt. Then, her hiding place betrayed, she left the alcove. The startled speakers—two of her mother's friends—made a great show of fluttering their fans and clearing their throats.

Adjusting her spectacles, Isadora pretended she hadn't heard. It shouldn't hurt so much. By now she should be used to the humiliation. But she wasn't, God help her, she wasn't. Particularly not tonight at a party to honor her younger sister's engagement. Celebrating Arabella's good fortune only served to magnify Isadora's disgraceful state.

Her corset itched. A rash had broken out between her breasts where the whalebone busk pressed against her sternum. It took a great deal of self-control to keep her hands demurely folded in front of her as she waited in agony for some reluctant, grimly smiling gentleman to come calling for a dance.

Except that they seldom came. No young man wanted to partner an ungainly, whey-faced spinster who was too shy to carry on a normal conversation—and too bored with banal social chatter to try very hard.

And so she stood against the block-painted wall, garnering no more attention than her mother's japanned highboy.

The sounds of laughter, conversation and clinking glasses added a charming undertone to the music played by the twelve-piece ensemble. Unnoticed, she glanced across the central foyer toward her father's business study.

Escape beckoned.

In the darkened study, perhaps Isadora could compose herself and—heaven preserve her—wedge a hand down into her corset for a much-needed scratch.

She started toward the entranceway of the ballroom and paused beneath the carved federal walnut arch. She was almost there. She had only to slip across the foyer and down the corridor, and no one would be the wiser. No one would miss her.

Isadora fixed her mind on escape, skirting a group of her brothers' Harvard friends. She scurried past a knot of her father's cronies from the Somerset Club and was nearly thwarted by a gaggle of giggling debutantes. Moving into the foyer, she had to squeeze past a gilt cherub mirror and a graceful Boston fern in a pot with four legs.

One step, then another. Invisible. She was invisible; she could fly like a bird, slither like a snake. She pictured herself lithe and graceful, fleet of foot, causing no more stir than a breeze as she disappeared into nothingness, into freedom—

Deep in one of her fantasies, she forgot about her bow, which stuck out like a duck tail festooned with trailing ribbons.

She heard a scraping sound and turned in time to see that a ribbon had tangled around one of the legs of the fern pot. Time seemed to slow, and she saw the whole sequence as if through a wall of water. She reached for the curling ribbon a second too late. It went taut, upending the large plant. The alabaster pot shattered against the marble floor.

The abrupt movement and the explosion of sound caused everyone to freeze for precisely three seconds. Then all gazes turned to Isadora. The Harvard men. Her mother's friends. Gentlemen of commerce and ladies of society. Trapped by their stares, she stood as motionless—and as doomed—as a prisoner before a firing squad.

"Oh, Dora." As usual, Isadora's elder sister Lucinda took charge. "What a catastrophe, and right in the middle of Arabella's party, too. Here, let me untangle you." A moment later a housemaid appeared with a broom and dust shovel. A moment after that, the ensemble started playing again.

The recovery took only seconds, but to Isadora it spanned an eternity as long as her spinsterhood. Within that eternity, she heard the censorious murmurs, the titters of amusement and the throat-clearings of disapproval that had dogged her entire painful adolescence. Dear heaven, she had to get away from here.

But how did one escape from one's own life?

"Thank you, Lucinda," she said dutifully. "How clumsy of me."

Lucinda didn't deny it, but with brisk movements she brushed off Isadora and smiled up at her. "No harm done, dearest. It will take more than a dropped plant to ruin the evening. All is well."

She meant it, she really did, Isadora realized without rancor. Lucinda, the eldest of the Peabody offspring, was as blond and willowy as Botticelli's Venus. She'd married the richest mill owner in Framingham, moved to a brick-and-marble palace in the green hills, and every other year in the spring, like a prize brood mare, she brought forth a perfect pink-and-white baby.

Isadora forced herself to return her sister's smile. What an odd picture they must make, she thought. Lucinda, who had the looks of a Dresden china doll and Isadora, who looked as if she had an appetite for Dresden German sausage.

Her moment of infamy over, Isadora finally escaped to the study. It was the classic counting-room of a Boston merchant, appointed with finely carved furniture, books bound in tooled leather, and a goodly supply of spirits and tobacco. Breathing in the familiar smells with a sigh of relief, she shut her eyes and nearly melted against the walnut paneling.

"Heave to, girl, you look a bit tangled in your rigging," said a friendly voice. "Something foul-hook you?"

She opened her eyes to see a gentleman sitting in a Rutherford wing chair, an enameled snuffbox in one hand and a cup of cider-and-cream punch in the other.

"Mr. Easterbrook." Isadora came to attention. "How do you do?"

She imagined she could hearAbel Easterbrook's joints creak with rheumatism as he levered himself up and bowed, but his smile, framed by silver side-whiskers, radiated warmth. "I'm in fine trim, Miss Isadora." He seated himself heavily against the coffee-colored leather. "Fine trim, indeed. And yourself?"

I'm still madly in love with your son. Horrified at the thought, she bit back the words. One social blunder per hour should suffice even her.

"Though I've committed foul murder—" she gestured ruefully at the open door, indicating the Boston fern being carried off to the dust bin "—I am quite well, thank you, though the autumn weather has given me a case of the grippe. Did your ship arrive?" She knew Mr. Easterbrook's largest bark was expected in and that he was anxious about it.

He lifted his cup. "She did indeed. Found a berth at harbor tonight, and she's set to discharge cargo tomorrow. Broke records, she did." He dropped his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. "The Silver Swan grossed ninety thousand dollars in 190 days."

Isadora gasped, genuinely impressed, for matters of business interested her. "Heavens be, that is quite an achievement."

"I daresay it is. I have the new skipper to thank." Easter-brook toyed with the chain of the money scales on the gateleg table by his chair. Isadora liked Abel Easterbrook because he treated her more like a business associate than a young—or not so very young—lady. She liked him because he had fathered Chad Easterbrook, the most perfect man ever created. Neither of which she would admit on pain of death.

"A new captain?" she inquired politely.

"He's a brash Southerner. A Virginia gent, name of Calhoun. Had such impressive sailing credentials that I hired him on the spot. I judge a man by the cut of his jib, and Calhoun seemed well clewed up."

She smiled, picturing a grizzled old ship captain. Only a man as conservative as Abel would call his employee "brash."

He took out a handkerchief and buffed his snuffbox until it shone. It was painted with the Easterbrook shipping emblem—a silver swan on a field of blue. "He's still aboard the Swan tonight, settling the sailors' bills. Hope to have a new sailing plan from him before the week is out. Next run is to Rio de Janeiro."

"Congratulations," said Isadora. "You've had a marvelous success."

Abel Easterbrook beamed. "Quite so." He lifted his cup in salute. "To you, Miss Isadora. Thank you for keeping an old salt company. And to my speedy new skipper, Mr. Ryan Calhoun."

He barely had time to take a sip when a footman came in and discreetly handed him a note. Abel excused himself and left the study, grumbling about a business that couldn't run without him.

Isadora hung back, savoring her solitude, and mulled over Mr. Easterbrook's news. Ryan Calhoun. A brash Virginia gent. Isadora wasn't brash in the least, though sometimes she wished she were.

She used the moment of privacy to adjust her corset, wishing she knew a curse word or two to describe the whale-bone-and-buckram prison. On impulse, she picked up a dagger-shaped letter opener from the desk. Unable to resist the urge, she inserted the letter opener down the bodice of her gown to scratch at the rash that had formed there.

As she eased her discomfort, she chanced to look into the oval mirror hanging on the wall behind her father's desk.

Peering over the thick lenses of her rimless spectacles, she saw herself for exactly what she was. Her hair was the color of a mud puddle. Her eyes lacked the pure clear blue so prized by her parents and so evident in her siblings. She had none of the gifts of laughter and beauty her brothers and sisters possessed in such abundance. Instead, she wore a sullen expression, and her nose was red from the sniffles.

If the Peabodys were a family that believed in magic—and being proper Bostonians they most certainly were not—they would call Isadora a changeling child: dark where the others were fair, pallid where the others were fashionably pale, round where the others were angular, tall where the others were petite.

The unforgiving mirror reflected a discontented creature in matronly black bombazine stretched over a bone-crushing corset.At her mother's insistence, she wore her hair in a Psyche knot, for the Grecian mode—a topknot with streamers of cascading tendrils—was considered the height of fashion. The problem was, her long, unruly hair stuck out in all directions, and the delicate tendrils resembled fat sausage curls. She made the very picture of youth drying up like a fig on the shelf. The image filled her with such an immense self-loathing and shame that she wanted to do something desperate.

But what? What? Could she not even think of an imaginative way to banish her own misery?

Enough, she told herself, giving her bodice a last good scratch with the letter opener. As she did so, the door to the study blew open, and a fresh wave of revelers poured into the foyer. They brought with them the crisp smell of autumn and gales of cultured conversation.

Too late, Isadora realized the guests could see straight into the office. She froze, the letter opener still stuck halfway down the front of her. Loud male laughter boomed from the foyer. "Good God, Izzie," said her brother Quentin, standing amid a group of his friends from Harvard. "Is this your imitation of fair Juliet?"

Too mortified to speak, she managed to extract the letter opener. It dropped with a thud on the carpet. Swept up on a wave of hilarity, Quentin and his friends headed for the ballroom.

Isadora stared down at the dagger on the floor. She wanted to die. She really wanted to die. But then she saw him—the one person who could lift her out of her wretched melancholy.

Chad Easterbrook.

With long, fluid strides he followed Quentin's group to the ballroom, heading for the refreshment table to help himself to frothy cider punch. Immediately, several ladies in pastel gowns managed to sidle near him. Praying her faux pas had not been observed by Chad, Isadora returned to the ballroom.

Chad Easterbrook. His name sang through her mind. His image lived in her heart. His smile haunted her dreams. He moved with effortless grace, black hair gleaming, tailored clothes artlessly stylish. When she looked at Chad, she saw all that she wanted personified in one extraordinary package of charm, wit and sophistication. He wasn't merely handsome to look at; the quality went deeper than that. People wanted to be near him. It was as if their lives became brighter, warmer, more colorful simply by virtue of knowing him. His ideal male beauty was the sort the Pre-Raphaelite painters strove to depict. His charm held the romantic appeal of a drawing room suitor; he beguiled his listeners with low-voiced witticisms and languorous laughter.

Isadora pushed her spectacles down her nose and stared, wanting him with such fierceness that her itching busk flared into a fiery ache. If only…she thought. If only he could look into her soul and see all she had to offer him.

But it was hard for a man to look into a woman's soul when he had to see past bombazine and buckram and worst of all, a painful shell of bashfulness. The few times he'd deigned to speak to her, he'd asked her to relay a message to Arabella, whose hand in marriage he'd narrowly lost to Robert Hallow-ell III.

Still, she wished things could be different, that for once she could be the pretty one, the popular one—to see what it was like. To dance one time with Chad Easterbrook, to feel his arms around her, to know the intimacy of a private smile.

He and his cronies alternated between spirited bursts of laughter and dramatic whispers of conspiracy. Then, one by one, each young man paired himself off with a lady for the next dance. The tune was "Sail We Away" set to an irresistible rhythm and new enough to pique the interest of even the most blasé socialite.

Incredibly, Chad Easterbrook emerged from the group with no partner. He set down his crystal cup of punch and started walking toward Isadora. She watched, enraptured, as he crossed the room. She forgot to breathe as he stopped and bowed in gallant fashion, lamplight flicking blue tones in his hair.

"I don't suppose, Miss Peabody," he said in his melodic voice, "you'd consider doing me an enormous favor."

She glanced over her shoulder and spied nothing but her father's moose head hunting trophy from Maine. Her face aflame, she turned back to Chad. "Me?" she said, her voice breaking.

With a patient smile, he nodded.

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Charm School (Calhoun Chronicles Series #1) 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 57 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
What a heartwarming story! The characters are very real and I fell in love with Ryan right away. Everyone has a little of Isadora in them and it is so easy to connect and relate with her. I loved the chemistry between them. A great love story overall and it will definitely go into my permanent collection!
Love2readKL More than 1 year ago
I really liked this book. I usualy do not read romantic novels but after reading this book I wated to read all of the Calhourn Trilogy. So far I read the Horsmans daughter also.
Rom-Fan89 More than 1 year ago
I orignally read this book back in the beginning of 2008 and just fell for the Calhoun Series. Isadore is one the most rememorable characters that I've read about. The Silver Swan Crew are unforgetable.
Cullen_Chick_ More than 1 year ago
The characters are so easy to fall in love with. The plot was original. And I will defedintaly be reading more of Susan Wiggs books!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I absolutely loved this book from beginning to end! I totally identified with the character and was so happy to follow her transformation from an "ugly ducking" to a "swan". When the author describes Isadora's hell she's been living in you feel the pain and I wanted to stand up for her! I totally want to go to Rio now!! Buy this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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lina_em on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
ugly duckling. though the main guy wasn't that hot. i mean, he's a ginger and he wear garish outfits. but i love the story.
jjmachshev on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
This is a reissue of a 1999 release.What a wonderful story about love and transformation Susan Wiggs has penned in ¿The Charm School¿. It combines the lure of ¿Pygmalion¿ with the fairy tale of ¿The Ugly Duckling¿ and even throws in a dash of anti-slavery activism. And it all comes together beautifully in a story that validates hopes and dreams of love and freedom.Isadora is the ugly duckling. In her family of slim, pale blondes, she¿s a full-figured, tall brunette; and in 1850s Boston high-society she was the fish out of water. Too well-educated, unwilling to merely smile and keep silent, Dora spent her teen years folding in on herself like an old accordion. Humiliation and embarrassment finally drive her to escape the only way she can¿she decides to hire herself out as a linguist on a family friend¿s trading ship.Ryan, on the other hand, is beautiful, sexy, and full of charm. He grew up the privileged son of a southern plantation owner. It wasn¿t until his childhood friend, Journey, was forced to live apart from his wife and children that Ryan came face-to-face with the true ugliness of slavery. In that moment, his life changed. His purpose became to free Journey and his family, whatever the cost. Now he¿s only one voyage away from his goal.Although not a fan of American pre-Civil War novels, I did enjoy this well-written novel. Ms Wiggs¿ skillfully included many sailing and historical facts that I found very interesting. She balanced the seriousness of her subjects with bouts of humor; the hero and heroine first make love while under the influence of marijuana!! I¿m pretty sure I can honestly say it¿s the first time I¿ve seen pot used as a plot device!The author¿s writing is vivid and descriptive. I easily imagined myself caged with the heroine in Boston and learning freedom onboard the ship and exploring Rio de Janeiro. The passion between the lead characters was believable and paced realistically. While I may never become a rabid fan of novels from this era, Susan Wiggs ¿The Charm School¿ has certainly made me a fan of this author.
roxiereads on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I really enjoyed this book. I reminds me of an old Bette Davis movie classic - young unattractive woman blossoms while out from under her family's thumb (including the time in South America!). I enjoyed the character development. I hated the ending. It seemed like the deadline loomed for finishing the book and I found the ending to be silly, implausible, etc. I hate to give things away. By all means, read this book, and I hope you find the ending more satisfying than I did. (This is a romance, so our hero and heroine do find a way...)
AuthorMarion on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
An engaging tale of a proper Boston young miss who becomes transformed while on a sea journey to find herself. I found this approach to the historical romance genre refreshing. However, I would caution against letting impressionable young ladies reading this. While the sensuality falls short of page after page of explicit details, there is enough to give one pause. First is the fact that our heroine becomes 'one of the guys' aboard ship after she is hired as translator. One would need to be pretty naive to believe that a band of rough and tumble sailors along with their captain could work side by side with a young woman and not make any advances (or pounces). When Isadora finally finds the courage to explore her own attraction to Captain Ryan it is under the influence of smoking hemp. Again, not the way a young woman would want to have her first sexual encounter. The remainder of the story, however, is a quick read and is sure to please the reader who likes stories of the high seas. Captain Ryan's redeeming qualities lie in his efforts to free the slave family of his journeyman, his devotion to his mother, and ultimately his love for Isadora.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
There is not too much mystery. It is a sweet romance that is engaging.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book has alot a 4 or five stars...(shocked) i skipped pages to rush threw...they say it was funny ..not my kind of funny..not a lisa keypless or julia quinn..there were not much of love scenes or was lacking. If u like a clean read with no humor than u will love this book..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I liked this book and will read the next in this series!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved this book! I fell in love with the characters and didn't want the story to end. It is a wonderfully sweet and heart-warming romance. Definitely a must read!
Kiko1021 More than 1 year ago
This was unlike any of the romance novels I've read. The emotional connection between Ryan and Isadora was well-developed and believable, but what blew me away was the attention to detail and setting. From the decks of a merchant ship to a waterfall in the jungles of Brazil to the domesticated houses of Beacon Hill, I was able to buy into every detail without missing a beat. With such a richly drawn backdrop, how could these two misfit souls fail to find true love and conquer the evils of slavery? I would recommend this funny and poignant book to anybody!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down, I took my whole day off work and sat down and read this entire book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Momof3boysKA More than 1 year ago
What a wonderful different story! I am a big fan of historical romance I love the feeling of going back in time. Most of the books I've read follow a certain formula. Which I enjoy, but this book took me completely by surprise. Isadora is someone I think most people can relate to. I love it when Ryan call's her Isadorable! Such a sweet story. My library has the whole Calhoun bundle I can't wait to move on to the next story! Happy reading
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
starmist68 More than 1 year ago
oh i just loved this book i hated to see it end...can you please make a sequil,i know it said u were about ryans brother but i really would like to read more on them ,,,, i couldnt put it down... hahahah i read it in 1 day i so wish it was longer .... but it truly was one of the best books ive read in a very long time :)