After the tragic death of her husband, Aven Norgaard is beckoned to give up her life in Norway to become a housekeeper in the rugged hills of nineteenth-century Appalachia. Upon arrival, she finds herself in the home of her late husband’s cousins—three brothers who make a living by brewing hard cider on their three-hundred-acre farm. Yet even as a stranger in a foreign land, Aven has hope to build a new life in this tight-knit family.
But her unassuming beauty disrupts the bond between the brothers. The youngest two both desire her hand, and Aven is caught in the middle, unsure where—and whether—to offer her affection. While Haakon is bold and passionate, it is Thor who casts the greatest spell upon her. Though Deaf, mute, and dependent on hard drink to cope with his silent pain, Thor possesses a sobering strength.
As autumn ushers in the apple harvest, the rift between Thor and Haakon deepens and Aven faces a choice that risks hearts. Will two brothers’ longing for her quiet spirit tear apart a family? Can she find a tender belonging in this remote, rugged, and unfamiliar world?
A haunting tale of struggle and redemption, Sons of Blackbird Mountain is a portrait of grace in a world where the broken may find new life through the healing mercy of love.
“Beloved author Joanne Bischof doesn’t disappoint with her latest beautifully written, heartrending tale . . . a quick favorite for historical romance readers.” —Elizabeth Byler Younts, author of The Solace of Water
“Bischof (The Lady and the Lionheart) transports readers to late 19th-century Appalachian Virginia in this moving historical romance . . . With fine historical details and stark prose that fits the story, Bischof skillfully weaves a tale of love and redemption in rough Appalachia.” —Publishers Weekly
“Christy- and Carol Award-winning author Bischof (The Lady and the Lionheart) creates endearing characters and a heartwarming story line in this unforgettable novel about the power of family, love, and the true meaning of home. Fans of Kristy Cambron, Julie Klassen, and Susan Meissner will love this one.” —Library Journal
“Sons of Blackbird Mountain is a quiet gem of a historical romance. Refreshingly real and honest in its depiction of flawed but lovable individuals, it introduces characters readers will want to meet again.” —CBA Market magazine
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Blackbird Mountain, Virginia August 27, 1890
AVEN PEERED DOWN AT THE LETTER AGAIN, noted the address written in Aunt Dorothe's hand, then looked back to the wooden sign that was staked into the ground. The location matched, but with the Virginia summer sun overhead and the shores of Norway but a memory, she was suddenly having a hard time putting one foot in front of the other.
A humble lane loomed — both ahead and behind. Yet if she were to walk on, it would be away from the woodlands she'd spent the morning traversing and into the shade of countless orchard trees. Apple, judging by the fruit dangling from the gnarled branches. A sweet tang hung in the hot air. Aven drew in a slow breath, bent nearer to the sign, and fingered the rough-hewn letters.
Aye, then. 'Twas the place. The land where Dorothe's great-nephews roamed. Free and wild the boys were, or so the stories declared. Aven minded not. Having lived within the workhouse, she'd had to watch from afar as many of the orphans there faded away. The change in circumstance now — in freedom — had her eager to find the house. The family. Most especially, the children.
At a beating on the path, she looked up to see a hound bounding near. The dog's tail wagged as the animal sniffed around Aven's shoes. The banging tail struck her leg, and Aven reached down to pet the glossy brown head that lifted in greeting.
The dog gave a few licks, then trotted back along the path as if to show her the way. As it surely knew more of these rolling woodlands than she, Aven clutched up her travel-worn carpetbag. She walked on, brushing dust from her black mourning gown as she did. A dress no longer needed since the two years of mourning had ended before she'd even set foot on this place called Blackbird Mountain. When a stick crunched up ahead, she shielded her eyes. Heavy were the shadows in the grove as afternoon pushed into evening, brighter still the sun that pierced through.
Another twig snapped and a man stepped into the lane, not half a dozen rows up. Aven could tell neither his manner nor age as he knelt with his back to her, stacking metal buckets. The dog circled him contentedly.
Feeling like a trespasser, Aven strode near enough to call a hello. The man didn't turn. It wasn't until her shadow fell beside him that he glanced her way. Slowly, he rose and, using a thick hand, pushed back unkempt hair that was as dark as the earth beneath his boots. It hung just past his shoulders where it twisted haphazardly, no cord to bind it in sight.
His lips parted. Eyes an unsettling mix of sorrow and surprise. A look so astute that it distracted even from the pleasing lines of his face. He spoke no greeting. Offered nothing more than that silent, disarming appeal as if the world were an unfair place for them both.
Aven struggled for her voice. "G'day, sir. Might you ... might you be able to tell me where Dorothe Norgaard could be found?" Though Aven had been a Norgaard for four years now, the Norwegian name never sounded quite right in her Irish brogue.
The man glanced to the carpetbag she white-knuckled, then to her dusty shoes and up. He ran the back of his hand against his cropped beard. More uneasy, Aven adjusted her grip on the leather handle, reminding herself that she had read the sign right.
The Norgaard farm. This had to be it.
She'd traveled too far and too long to be in the wrong spot.
Seeming displeased, the man shoved back the sleeve cuffs of his plaid shirt, and finally he thumbed over his shoulder.
Apparently the lad hadn't the gift of the gab.
And why she was thinking of him as a lad was beyond her. The man seemed more grown than she at her one and twenty. Looking nearly as sturdy as the tree behind him, he had more than a few stones on her as well.
His gaze freeing her own, he angled away and thumbed farther up the lane again.
Aye. She should be moving on ... that way, it seemed. She gave a quiet thank-you and he nodded, his brown-eyed gaze on her as she passed by. 'Twas but a few steps ahead that Aven halted. This man had the same brow as her Benn. One bearing the noble angles of Norse blood. Though the stranger's hair was a far cry from Benn's pale locks, she saw something in his manner. That same strapping stance and pensive look.
"Might you be one of the Norgaards?" She hoped her accent wasn't too thick for him. It seemed Americans had a hard time with her dialect.
With two buckets apart from the rest, he stacked them. The gaze that landed back to her was apprehensive. He had a wildness about him, and combined with his silence, her unease only grew. But then he nodded. Aven smiled a little. No stranger, but family.
"I'm Aven. Widow to Benn."
The man nodded again as if having known as much.
Perhaps this was an uncle to the children. But why Dorothe didn't mention an uncle ...
"So ..." Aven pointed past him, and when a strand of rust-colored hair whipped into her face, she twisted it away. "I'm to walk this way?"
He dipped his head once more, which had her smiling again.
"I thank you, Mr. Norgaard." Clutching the handle of her carpetbag tightly, she continued down the lane, feeling his eyes on her. Strange bloke.
She walked on another few moments, then she spotted a large red house up ahead. Faded and weather-beaten, it looked more like a giant barn than a home, but with its porch swing and laundry line, 'twas clearly the latter.
Aven glanced back to see she was being followed. From a fair distance, she'd give him that. But it still had her eyeing the man with every few trees they passed until the orchard opened up into a vast yard. Thick, twisted branches giving way to sheds and outbuildings. Two of the structures were massive, a distant one was charred, and around many sat stacks upon stacks of wooden crates and more metal buckets than she'd ever seen in one farmyard.
Her companion stopped and folded his arms over his chest. Hesitantly, Aven continued up the path the same moment a second man emerged from the house. Though as tall as the first, this one's strength was wiry. His hair was a few shades lighter but just as long, judging by the way it was pulled back and bound. Heavy boots stomped down the steps.
Another Norgaard? She glanced around for a sight of the children — but saw nary a toy about, and the clothing pinned to the line was by no means pint sized. Aven regarded the stranger on the porch and resisted the urge to touch her mother's delicate chain around her neck, as she often did when nervous.
"Hello, sir." She stepped closer and extended a hand, which seemed very small when wrapped in his own. "I'm Aven. I was married to Benn." That seemed odd to blurt out, but she didn't know how many of these introductions were to take place.
"Ah." He studied her a moment. "A pleasure to finally meet you, ma'am." He cleared his throat and gave his name. Jorgan.
She knew that name from Aunt Dorothe's many letters. But Jorgan was to be a wee lad. And this man was no such thing. Aven scrutinized him. Dorothe had certainly not portrayed the sons as men. Before she could make sense of that, another one stepped from the house. Though the third brother's charms had been described in great detail, his great-aunt's praises didn't do justice for who could only be a very grown-up Haakon. The young man's brilliant blue eyes took her in, and though he was clean shaven, his brawn dashed any lingering notion of the Norgaard offspring being children. Even as panic rose, Jorgan spoke.
"And this is Haakon. He's the youngest."
Pear in hand, Haakon cut a slice and used the flat of the knife to raise it to his mouth. Nothing but mischief in that striking face. "We've been wonderin' if you'd show up."
Aven swallowed hard. How had she been so mistaken? She searched her memory of Dorothe's letters. Time and again the Norgaard males had been depicted as anything but adults. Boys, Dorothe had called them. Going on to hint at their adventures and mischief, their rowdy ways and their need to be guided. Even chastised. Most often in Haakon's case. The same Haakon who was smiling down at Aven as if he hadn't seen the inside of a woodshed for a good long while.
Hands now trembling, Aven clutched them together, and her attempt at a fervent response came out a mere whisper. "Pleasure to meet you, sirs. You are the ... the brothers? The sons?"
Sons of whom, she couldn't remember. Dorothe wrote little of the boys' deceased parents. Yet dashed was the image of three children needing Aven to help care for them. Mother them. Aye, Aunt Dorothe had been misleading indeed. Growing stronger was the need to speak with the woman and make some sense of this.
"Yes'm. I'm the oldest," Jorgan said. "Best just to call us by our first names or you'll be sayin' 'Mr. Norgaard' an awful lot. It seems you met Thor. He's in the middle." He pointed past Aven to where the dark-haired man still stood a few paces back. The one who looked strong as an ox and who had yet to take his focus off of her.
Thorald. As was written in the letters. Amid pen and paper, it seemed he held a tender spot in his great-aunt's heart, but not for a hundred quid would Aven have put the name and person together. "Aye," she said hesitantly. "We've ... met."
Jorgan smirked. "Sorry. Thor, he don't talk much."
So she'd learned.
Jorgan glanced past her, then around as if searching for words.
"Did you walk here from the train station?"
"Aye." And her aching feet were recalling every mile from town.
"I'm sorry we weren't there to fetch you. And I'm sorry about Benn."
"Thank you," Aven said softly. She lowered her luggage to the ground, unsure of what to say in this instance. Her husband — their cousin — gone.
And now she was here in America.
The dog sniffed at her shoes and Haakon snapped his fingers. "Grete!"
The dog retreated to his side.
Aven looked around. With three men near she was more than ready to see another woman. "Might you tell me where I can find Aunt Dorothe?"
Jorgan glanced at the brother beside him before rubbing the back of his neck, then it was to her he spoke, eyes drawn up beneath troubled brows. "You didn't get my letter, I take it."
She shook her head.
He cupped his opposite arm just above the elbow. "She's ... I'm afraid Dorothe's ... gone. Two months now."
"Where did she go?" Aven's skin flushed. Mourning dress feeling much too heavy and tight.
"To — to heaven."
"Most likely." Haakon slipped another slice of pear in his mouth.
Aven's stomach dipped. Head rushing with a light heat that made the earth tip on its side. "She's ... deceased?"
Jorgan ducked his head sympathetically. "I'm sorry to have to tell you like this. I wrote you soon as it happened, thinking I might be able to reach you." He studied her from her windblown hair to her scuffed shoes. "I can see I was too late."
She needed to sit down but there was nothing other than the dirt, and that she lowered herself to, caring for neither dress nor stockings. Suddenly feeling very small, she blinked up at the clear, blue sky that was a blatant reminder of just how far she was from Norway. Even Ireland. She was here in Virginia. A place called Blackbird Mountain. And there was no Aunt Dorothe.
Though the woman wasn't family by blood and though their letters had formed but a modest friendship, Benn's great-aunt had become all Aven had left of family.
"What do I do?" she whispered to herself.
The man — Jorgan — moved beside her. He knelt in the dirt, touching work-roughened fingers to the ground between them. "Miss?"
Aven drew in a shaky breath and looked up at his face. "What do I do?" she asked again.
"You ... you just put your arm on mine." He moved to help her. "Come inside. Miss Ida, our housekeeper, will get you something to eat."
Jorgan led her up a few steps, then across a wide porch. Brows tipped up in confusion, the youngest brother held the door open. Jorgan led her into the kitchen where he pulled out a chair at the table and helped her into it. From the pantry stepped a woman with skin as dark as cinnamon sticks. With a gentle smile the woman brought Aven a cup of coffee and a slice of spiced bread. Aven touched neither. Instead, she clasped her hands between her knees to keep them from shaking.
She vaguely heard the woman speak. "She's mighty pale."
Then Haakon's voice. "She's Irish."
Aven sat without moving.
"I mean to say she's taking a turn, Haakon. 'Bout to faint." The cool knuckles of the woman's hand pressed to the side of Aven's temple, and Aven nearly closed her eyes.
Jorgan spoke in a hushed tone. "She didn't know of Dorothe's passing."
With the scrape of a chair, he sat. The woman handed him a cup of coffee. From the corner of her eye, Aven saw Thor leave.
"Are you alright?" Jorgan asked gently.
She nodded, but even the simple motion felt untrue. Despair stung her throat, parching it more than the walk up this mountain. She turned the tin cup in her hand, the sight of the steamy brew tightening her stomach.
"You're still welcome here," Jorgan said, sounding sincere.
"But we don't have anywhere to put her," Haakon countered, none too quietly.
Aven glanced around. Dusk was settling. "Would there ... would there be other family around?"
"No, ma'am." Haakon's blue eyes — stunning as they were — lessened in charm as they skimmed the length of her. "Just us."
No one moved. All still as the steamy air. A throb pulsing in her chest, Aven placed a hand there. She drew in a deep breath through aching lungs. 'Twas no time to despair. Yet the very tremor rose as a flood. Her vision blurred, and someone spoke words she didn't hear.
The porch creaked, followed by heavy steps. A moment later someone lowered a glass of water in front of her. She peered up to see Thor set it in place. Water dripped down the side of the glass as if it had just been filled from a spring. When she didn't reach for it, he nudged it closer, then dried his hand on the side of his pants.
A small sip sent cool water down her throat as well as a whisper of gratitude to the man who had fetched it.
With a slight limp the housekeeper stepped near and placed a tender hand on Aven's own. The woman's face was soft with concern. A sensitivity that pressed the ache of tears to Aven's eyes. The woman bid the men to leave them for a few minutes. When they strode out, the housekeeper squeezed her hand again.
Aven closed her eyes and sent up a prayer, nay, a plea, that this day was a dream.
"Now, don't you fret none. We gonna see that you's just fine. Better'n fine. I promise ya. I been keepin' house here for nigh unto thirty years. The boys used to call me Mammy, but now's they grown, they call me Miss Ida. I'll take good care of you." A few stray coils of gray hair framed her glistening forehead, and the eyes studying Aven were filled with such kindness that Aven felt safety edge around the uncertainties.
"You don't need to be afraid of nothin'. The Norgaards are all good boys. Raised 'em up meself, and they's as loyal a lot as comes."
Slowly, Aven nodded.
"Now." Miss Ida motioned deeper into the house, one that seemed to groan with the same emptiness that hollowed Aven from within.
Yet this house was far, far away from the life she'd known, and perhaps this time — in this place — there might be safety and rest. Even a home. Had Dorothe not written of that very thing? The scripture she'd shared had coaxed Aven away from the shadows of the past and onto the gangway of that ship.
"The Lord also will be a refuge for the oppressed, a refuge in times of trouble."
With a ginger grip Miss Ida led them both to stand. She plucked up the carpetbag as if it weighed nothing at all for her spindly frame. "If there's one thing I know about Haakon, it's that he don't always know what he's ramblin' on about." Ida gave a friendly squeeze to Aven's arm and winked. "Let's find a spot to put ya."CHAPTER 2
THOR WATCHED FROM THE PORCH AS IDA led Aven into the great room. He stepped inside and followed just close enough to see the way the young redhead skirted around the faded sofa, then an end table laden with books. Her feet slowing, she stared up at the massive antlers above the fireplace. Eyes wide, she lowered them to the firewood flanking the brick hearth on both sides.
Though the logs were neatly stacked, the curtains that had once framed the window just above were no more — having been used to make clothing during the war. Her attention skimmed to the guns that rested on a side table, then to the boxes of ammunition slung open, freshly rummaged through. His own doing there.
She peered back at him as if knowing all along where he was. It was the same wary look she kept sending his way.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Sons of Blackbird Mountain"
Copyright © 2018 Joanne Bischof.
Excerpted by permission of Thomas Nelson.
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