If we're friends on Facebook, you might have seen me post about this one. I've got eleven chapters pre-written, and I'm making this
my National Novel Writing Month project, so I hope to keep that momentum going *fingers crossed* I hate starting a new story when I have two
WIPS that I haven't updated in a while, but they're just not talking to me and it's driving me crazy. I'm going to keep trying, though.

Huge thank yous to anakinsmom, Thats-So-Alex, LizziePaige, and LadyLoonie for all their help and feedback, and to my wonderful beta annaharding
for always helping me out with my random questions at all times of the day and night.

Under The Willows

Chapter One


They say silence is golden, and it's true—silence is golden. Few things beat the lull of activity and noise after a hectic day, peace and quiet as the sun rises, or the calm after a raging storm. So, yeah. Silence is great.

Unless you have kids. In that case, it's just suspicious.

Pressing my ear up against the wood, I bite my lip and debate the pros and cons of opening the door to chance a peek inside. On one hand, we might be late if we don't at least start getting ready soon. On the other, I know my little guys need the sleep after their tough day yesterday. It would be better to let them snooze for a little while longer; assuming they're asleep like I hope and not doing something they shouldn't be, anyway. The paint is barely dry on the wall where my youngest sharpied it last week.

Residual ire leaks into my bloodstream as I remember my sons' faces yesterday when they realized their dad wasn't coming. Again.

I'm used to being let down by my ex. It kills me that our boys have to experience it, too.

The faint sound of my cell bringing down the hall makes the decision on whether to go in, or not, for me.

Momma calling lights up the screen as I hurry into the room just in time to see it ring off, the on-screen message changing to 1 missed call. "Shit."

Glancing at the clock while I call her back, I realize it's barely four a.m., her time. "Mom? Is everything okay?"

Her voice is thick with sleep but I can hear the smile in her bright, cheery voice. "Today's the day! Are you all packed and ready to go?"

Looking around at what used to be a cozy living room, but is now effectively just a storage space stacked high with boxes, I sigh. I'm going to miss this place. The pretty bay window overlooking the park, the brick fireplace where I've hung our stockings every Christmas for six years, and the little garden we share with Jude where my bigger boys learned to ride their bikes. "Everything is packed up. I've marked the boxes to ship, our neighbor is taking some stuff, and we donated the rest."

There's some shuffling on the other end of the line, then my dad's muffled voice becomes clearer as Mom puts me on speaker. Smiling, I ask, "Sorry, did we wake you? It's super early."

Gruff as ever, Dad mumbles, "Never too early for my girl. Are you on your way home yet?"

"Not for another six hours, Dad. The flight leaves at three-thirty. It's only just nine here." I smile wider. "But you knew that."

"Right. But you've got all your paperwork in order, your luggage…"

"Yes, Dad." My eyes roll themselves, but my grin is a fond one. Of my two parents, Dad is the organized, always-prepared one. Mom is more of a fly-by-the-seat-of-her-pants sort of woman. I'm a steady mix of the two, I'd say. My sons, however—they're all Nana.

"What time are you leaving for the airport?"

"At about ten, I think. We'll have breakfast with Jude and then she's giving us a ride to Gatwick."

The airport is around an hour and a half away from Eastbourne, where I've been living since I moved here nine years ago to study. It's right down on the south-east coast of England and I'm only a little surprised to say I'm really going to miss the seaside town and the friends I've made here—particularly Jude. I'll be swapping one seaside for another, but still. My life has been here for almost a decade. This hasn't been an easy decision.

"I bet she's going to miss you all," Mom murmurs, reading my mind and putting a lump in my throat.

"We'll miss her, too. Lo's already made her promise to Facetime him every weekend."

Mom and Dad both laugh. They're completely unsurprised, as was I when Jude told me last week. As far as my boys are concerned, Jude is a part of their family. She's 'Nanny Jude' despite the total lack of common DNA between them.

Speaking of…

"I think that's her at the door now. I'll call when we're at the airport, okay?"

"Okay, honey. Give our boys smooches from their nana."

"And their papa!"

"Will do," I laugh. "Love you both. Go back to sleep."

Chaos will be landing in approximately fourteen hours.

As I set my cell on the top of the large box housing my clothes and acting as interim coffee table, Jude steps into the room. Her sad smile makes my heart ache. "Oh, Jude…you're going to set me off already!"

When I first crossed the Atlantic, I never intended to stay this long. I wanted to explore, spread my wings, but I always planned to return to my hometown back in Florida.

There are a lot of things about my time here that have been unexpected. Changing my degree part-way through the first year, making friends who turned into family, meeting Jude, both of my pregnancies…I didn't plan any of it, but I wouldn't change it for the world.

I wish I could pack up my life here and ship it to Florida. Or, if not all of it, at least Jude. She took me in when my living situation on-campus didn't work out, our chance meeting a pure stroke of luck. Her tenant had split unexpectedly to travel and I was in desperate need of somewhere to stay once my temporary lease was up at the end of the week. I was in the coffee shop when she put up the notice for a place to rent and jumped on it.

In the time since, she's become family. She cheered for me when I graduated, helped me get a job in my dream industry, and was there to witness my boys coming into the world. She's way more than just a landlady or a friend.

"Sorry, sorry," she laughs, wiping under her eyes. "No boo-hooing. We agreed, didn't we?"

"We did," I confirm, pleased when footsteps down the hall precede the imminent arrival of one of my boys. Jude and I both laugh when we see my youngest. I put him to bed last night in a pajama top and shorts; only the latter remain. He's scratching his bare tummy as he yawns big and wide, his dark eyes glistening.

Arlo Maxwell Swan is one of the three best things to ever happen to me. He has both his father's dark blond hair and his so-dark-brown-they're-black eyes. Apart from the coloring, he's a Swan through-and-through. Feature-wise, Arlo is the spitting image of my older brother as a kid.

"Good morning, baby." I catch him as he barrels into my arms. Okay, so the clinginess from yesterday is continuing into today. I'm not complaining about the cuddles, but it reignites my anger at my ex. Every time he misses time with our sons, I spend the next couple of days with the boys attached to me. It's just one of many things that shows me how much his lack of effort hurts them. The momma bear in me rears her head, but I don't have time for that now. My boys need me calm and unflappable today more than ever.

Everything in their little lives is about to change and I'm the only thing that will be consistent.

"Mornin', Momma."

"Did you sleep well?"

I get a shrug. "I guess."

"How about a cuddle for Nanny Jude, hmm?"

"Oh!" Only now noticing her, my son wriggles free of my arms to run into Jude's. Her arthritis put a stop to her picking him up shortly after his second birthday and a major growth spurt, so he settles for wrapping his arms around her skirt-clad legs instead.

Running her liver-spotted hand through his messy bedhead, Jude asks if he still wants to go for breakfast.

"Where are we goin'?"

"Wherever you want to go, love. We could get some pancakes—"

"Not McDonalds," he growls, frowning at his feet. The kid breaks my heart. His father doesn't deserve any of our boys, but Arlo still hopes. He still trusts that he'll show even though he's seen him a total of maybe five times in the last year.

I spent an hour crying on Jude's shoulder after tucking Arlo into my bed last night, so she's well aware of what went on. The look on her face as she glances over at me tells me she's figured out that breakfast at Arlo's favorite restaurant was the latest broken promise from his deadbeat father.

She was also my shoulder to cry on six months ago after I approached him about moving to Florida and he told me to 'do whatever.' I expected a fight, some kind of resistance. He shrugged. He did the same when the boys were born and we were asked whose surname they would take. So, sure he'd never stick around, I made them Swans. I wasn't totally wrong. He's around, but he's never been a consistent part of their lives.

Carefully crouching, Jude presses a kiss to Arlo's hair and cups his face between her hands. "Why don't we have a little snack now, and get breakfast at the airport, instead? We can watch the planes take off while we eat."

Arlo's face brightens. "Can we eat at the funky place?"

Snorting, I ask, "Garfunkels?"

"Yesss! That one! Can we, Momma?"

Right now, I'd do anything to keep the burgeoning smile on Arlo's face. Today is going to be hard enough as it is even without my ex's no-show hanging over our heads. "Garfunkels it is."

The bright smile my son gifts me makes the whole world a brighter place. As he tears toward my room to change into the travel-friendly clothes we picked out, and I head down the hall to wake his brothers, I wonder for the millionth time why everyone but their own father adores them.

~ oOo ~

The lead-up to today has been fraught with so many emotions.

I've been nervous, hopeful, worried, excited, but above all, I can't stifle the fear that my boys will hate me for taking them away from everything they know. They were born here; this is their life. They have their Nanny Jude, their father—when he bothers to show—their friends at school and nursery, the only home they've ever known…

And I'm dragging them halfway across the world.

I'm lucky to have parents and siblings who've made the effort to travel out and see us whenever possible. We've been out to see them, too, but not since Arlo was a baby. He probably won't remember the house I grew up in where he took his first steps, or the pool in the backyard where he and his brothers played with Papa Charlie until they were all sun-kissed and waterlogged.

The screensaver on my laptop is a photo from that trip, ten-month-old Arlo chewing on his fist on my knee as I crouched, bare feet buried in the sand, and gazed out at the Atlantic ocean. His brothers are there, too, running along the shoreline. Mom took the picture and sent it to me in a frame two weeks after I returned home. I hung it in the entryway and it's been there ever since, right up until I boxed it up to ship back to the States with the rest of our worldly possessions. The ones we didn't donate or sell, that is.

Nearly four years on, I snap another photo of Arlo on someone's knee. This time, it's his Nanny Jude hugging him around the middle as he stares down at his feet. They're still. He's never still. Except when he's sad or asleep, and he's definitely awake. He's been whining almost non-stop since he finished eating and realized there was no more stalling.

My stomach twists as Jude strokes tears from his red cheeks before giving his brothers the same treatment. Jaxson Lane and Finley Lux, the boys who made me a momma. Now six, they're not babies anymore, however much I hate to admit it.

Am I making the right decision?

I have to believe I am. I have to trust my instincts. This move will be good for us. It was always my plan to return home, except I never expected this place to feel like home, too.

There's a bong before a perky woman's voice announces via the overhead speakers that it's time for us to board. Arlo's little face scrunches up before he buries it in Jude's knit cardigan. I'll miss those, too; they're always brightly colored and soft as the fluffiest marshmallows. Jaxson and Finley lean against her, their heads all ducked together in a little huddle.


"No, Momma. It's not time yet," Jaxson whines, his voice muffled.

Jude runs a hand down his back. "Now, now. We talked about this, didn't we?"

Pulling away, he nods and sucks in a deep, shuddering breath. His strength slays me, because I feel anything but strong right now.

"Good boy. And you remember what we agreed?"

"Uh-huh," Arlo interrupts. "I'm gonna call you on Sundays so we can play Go Fish, and we've gotta send you at least one postcard a month with a picture of our faces on it."

Tears well in my eyes. Jude was the one who started up the boys' postcard obsession. After Mom and Dad's visit two Christmases ago, Jaxson, Finley, and Arlo missed them dreadfully. Jude mentioned an app one of her bingo friends used to keep in touch with her grandchildren and I figured anything would be better than the boys repeatedly asking when Nana and Papa were coming back, so we gave it a shot. Every month since, we've chosen their favorite picture from that month and mailed it to my parents in the form of a personalized postcard.

It's a sad sort of irony that Jude was the one who found the app and now she'll be the recipient of the cards.

"Give me a kiss, sweethearts. It's time to go on your adventure on the airplane."

Arlo's hang-dog expression kills me as he reluctantly slides off Jude's lap and lopes over to me, dragging his Spiderman backpack behind him. Jaxson and Finley each kiss one of her cheeks before trailing after Arlo.

"You guys ready?"

The only response I receive is a shrug from Finley, so I blink away tears and manage a weak, shaky smile for Jude, who's abandoned her seat to pull me into a hug. "Take care of yourself, sweetheart. And our boys. I'm going to miss having you right next door."

"We're going to miss having you right next door," I admit, squeezing her as hard as I dare. I didn't think this would be so hard. "I'll call you tomorrow, it'll be late when we land—"

"You think I'll be able to sleep without knowing my favorite people have arrived safe and sound?" Pulling back to pat my cheek, Jude laughs softly. "Text or call me when you land, please. I'll be waiting to hear from you."

"All right." My voice quivers. "C'mon, boys. Let's go find our seats."

I force my feet to carry me toward the check-in desk, then hand over our documentation. At the time of booking our flights, I thought it was a good thing that Jude bought the cheapest available plane ticket so she could come through to the gate with us, rather than having to leave us before we checked our bags. Now, as the grinning airport employee hands back our tickets and passports and wishes us a good flight, I realize we were only delaying the inevitable. I can't help but glance back over my shoulder at Jude.

A rueful smile curls my lips when I find her spot empty, the back of her cardigan visible as she marches away.

She told me she wouldn't be able to watch us leave.

Sucking in a deep breath, I squeeze Arlo's hand and peer down at him and his brothers as they gaze sadly up at me. "Are you ready?"

*Guess so," Finley says as Jaxson and Arlo shrug.

Once we've found our seats on the plane—the boys in the little row of three by the window while I'm on the aisle seat in the center—I shoot a text to Mom telling her we're on the plane, then one to Jude thanking her for everything she's done for me, for us. She must have been on her phone already because her typical, all-caps response lights the screen before I can switch it to airplane mode.


With my cell tucked into my hoodie pocket and my boys safe and sound, I lean back in the seat and pray I haven't made a monumental mistake packing up our home in England to return to my hometown thousands of miles west in Jackson Bay, Florida.