The Calhoun Chronicles
The Charm School (Calhoun Chronicles #1) – RWA Favorite Book of the Year
Mira (May 2008)
Published in 2001 and 1999
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 thingsâ€¦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.
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 …