The Charm School (Calhoun Chronicles Series #1)

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Plain, awkward, and painfully shy, Isadora Peabody doesn't fit in anywhere--not with her elegant family, not in Boston society, and certainly not on board the "Silver Swan", a boat bound for exotic Rio de Janeiro with the fiery captain Ryan Calhoun at the helm. Yet somehow Ryan's motley crew makes a place for her--while Ryan himself soon comes to appreciate a great deal more than just her sound business sense.
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Plain, awkward, and painfully shy, Isadora Peabody doesn't fit in anywhere--not with her elegant family, not in Boston society, and certainly not on board the "Silver Swan", a boat bound for exotic Rio de Janeiro with the fiery captain Ryan Calhoun at the helm. Yet somehow Ryan's motley crew makes a place for her--while Ryan himself soon comes to appreciate a great deal more than just her sound business sense.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A cargo-hauling clipper ship would seem an unlikely place for a Boston spinster to acquire social polish, but the insecure Isadora Peabody, who wangles passage aboard the Silver Swan and sets sail for Rio, is not the confident, self-assured woman who returns to set society (and the unworthy object of her former affections) firmly on its ear. A crew of rough, lovable seamen, a single-minded captain who is caught up short by love, and a heroine who finally learns to believe in herself draw readers into this lively, funny story. While a love scene in which the hero gets the heroine high on hemp may tarnish this story for some, the ugly-duckling aspects of the plot and the concern with slavery issues will appeal to fans across the board. Wiggs (The Drifter, Mira: Harlequin, 1998) is a popular, RITA-winning author and lives in the Pacific Northwest.--KR Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781551668550
  • Publisher: Mira
  • Publication date: 3/28/2001
  • Series: Calhoun Chronicles Series, #1
  • Format: Mass Market Paperback
  • Pages: 408
  • Product dimensions: 4.14 (w) x 6.76 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet 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
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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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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 50 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 50 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted December 16, 2009

    Loved it

    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!

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 2, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Very good read

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Read Before the Reprint and Absolutely Loved it!!!!!!!

    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.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 9, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    One of the best books i have ever read.

    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!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 10, 2009


    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!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 4, 2014


    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..

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 10, 2012


    I liked this book and will read the next in this series!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2012


    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!

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  • Posted May 8, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    An extremely charming book

    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!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 3, 2012

    Awesome book!

    I could not put this book down, I took my whole day off work and sat down and read this entire book!

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  • Posted December 22, 2011

    Oh wow!

    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

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  • Posted October 22, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    you must read this book!!!!!!

    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 :)

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  • Posted December 31, 2010


    this book blew me away i couldnt put it down i loooved it

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 25, 2010


    this novel is by far one of my all time favorites. i can read it over and over and it still feels as if i am reading it for the first time. it captures a romantic's soul in more ways than one. you will laugh, you will feel outrage and suspense, and be drawn in to the charactes. two thumbs up and five incredible stars.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2007

    Charmingly great!!!

    I loved this book a lot. The way the author used the ugly duckingly story to tie in with the real story was magnificent. When Ryan comes back for her it is so cute. I can't believe she punched her old crush. Well a better stop before I tell you the whole story.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 25, 2005


    This magnificently written book is a cherioused keepsake to me. I've REREAD this book numerous times, each of which I am equally enraptured. I plan to be a writer someday soon and when that day comes I hope that I can compare, even in the slightest bit to this awe-worthy novel. Isadora is a sweet, intelligent, passionate woman. Ryan is a raw lusty man, who undoubtly could sweep any woman of any age off her feet. I refuse to dishonor Wiggs by calling Isadora and Ryan character, because she had made then more than that in this wonderfully dreamed fabrication. I bow to her in awe and the deepest admiration my body can hold, though the task of containing the ever expanding amazing can be quite the task. A true master at her skill, I give Wiggs INFINITE stars on this wonderous acheivement.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 24, 2005

    Feel Good!

    This is a favorite of mine, a real keeper. If there wasn't a very passionate scene in it I'd have my 12 year old read it! What a great self-esteem builder.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2004

    a cinderella story

    another delightful read from susan wiggs. i found this story about a boston socialite who was indeed an ugly duckling and a ships captain/gentlemen who was an ugly duckling of the heart find their true selves in life. i also liked the way the story dealt with slavery and the reactions of the people involved. i was looking for a happy ending and not only did i get it, but i also got a feeling of rightness. the best part of the book to me was the end, when the prince, laughingly masked as a pirate, enters the ballroom and snatches his princess, who has just punched out the bad guy, away to paradise. can't wait for another read like this one.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 1, 2003

    Wonderful Story!

    This was the first romance story i chose to read. I don't know why but my friend had told me all about it. She told me of the summary to this story and it had intrested me so i had decided to ask her to let me borrow it. I myself am large and am a outcast like Isadora always hiding, but i love reading how she changed among the voyage on the ship. I sometimes sit around thinking about the story as if it were being Isadora. I loved the story so much i went out and bought it for my self. What made me love the story the most i would say was how you placed the setting for the first time they made love.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 25, 2000

    Delightful and Entertaining

    The Charm School is truly a delightful book. I confess to feeling sorry I had to leave Captain Ryan Calhoun and the exotic warmth of Rio behind when I finished. The attention to details, such as the popular music of the time, the clothing, seafaring expressions and knowledge, the laws regarding runaway slaves, and the smoking of hemp in the 1800s, makes it apparent that Ms. Wiggs did a great deal of research for her novel. Further, the integration of Isadora's story with that of The Ugly Duckling is both clever and charming. Ms. Wigg's elevating her novels in this fashion is greatly appreciated by this reader.

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