By the time Darcy had finished these musings he had arrived at his uncle's townhouse in Grosvenor Square. The butler showed him into the study where he found the earl puffing away on a cigar while he paced up and down. His cousin Richard, the earl's second son, was already present, leaning uneasily against the mantelpiece.

The earl rounded on them when the butler closed the door.

"I've summoned you both here to remind you that you need to get married."

The cousins exchanged a glance.

"Darcy you're twenty-eight and an only son. I don't object to you dipping your wick in Berkeley Square," he said stabbing his cigar at him, "but it's time you set up your nursery."

Darcy frowned at the earl's taproom language. How had his uncle known? He thought he had been discreet...

The earl rounded on his son. "Richard, you're thirty. Enough said."

"Why do I need to get married?" persisted Richard.

"Because you're the spare, you dimwit," snarled his father.

"You seem to have forgotten that my brother is already married," retorted Richard.

"He's been married for ten years and has produced four daughters. My granddaughters may marry to preserve our name but they can't inherit the title. So you will marry, and soon."

"Just because he has four daughters doesn't mean he can't have a son - the odds are even every time," complained Richard, displaying a fine understanding of stochastic processes.

"This is not a game of dice," returned the earl. "That is overly simplistic. I've seen this happen before. Some men are incapable of siring sons and I'm getting nervous. Both of you have six months to find a wife. If in that time, you have not found a woman to bear your children, I will find one for you. One of you can marry Anne de Bourgh for a start - that will keep Rosings in the family. Now get out. My mistress is waiting for me."

As the earl's butler ushered them out the front door, Richard vented his spleen.

"Bloody hell," he spewed, as he clanked down the stairs in his spurs, "it's like a game of musical chairs! Whoever hasn't found a wife in six months gets Anne!"

Darcy grunted his agreement. He was so incensed by his uncle's ultimatum that he felt an irrational urge to spite him by offering marriage to the first eligible female he encountered. As he was walking across Grosvenor Square, it occurred to him that this was not such a wild threat. Better if he walked down Bond Street where he might encounter the daughter of a Cit, or even better, a shopkeeper's daughter!

"What has precipitated all this?" Darcy asked savagely as they continued across the square to his own townhouse.

"Mother," replied Richard sadly.

"Why would she do such a thing?"

"She noticed I'm going bald."

"Nonsense," said Darcy. "You've still got a full head of hair."

"If you look closely you'll see there's a bald patch on my crown the size of a shilling."

Darcy discreetly affirmed it was true. "Good Lord!"

"Thank you! I feel so much better!" sneered Richard.

When they reached Darcy's townhouse they were informed that his friend Charles Bingley was waiting in the parlour. Darcy was decidedly not in the mood for socialising, even with his affable friend, but he could hardly kick him out.

Charles stood as soon as Richard and Darcy entered the parlour. He saw with some misgiving that Darcy appeared to be in a black mood.

"Forgive me, Darcy," said Charles, "I have some exciting news and your butler said he expected you imminently."

"Not a problem, Charles," said Darcy, rearranging his features into the customary mask he wore outside his own domicile. "Come into the study. Richard and I were about to have a brandy."

Suitably ensconced in Darcy's den of industry the cousins sipped their brandy while Bingley delivered his news.

"I think I've found a suitable estate. It's in Hertfordshire - so close enough to allow me to manage my investments in London, and permit Caroline to travel back and forward between myself and the Hursts. The house is grand enough to satisfy Caroline, and the rent seems reasonable."

"Excellent, Bingley!" said Darcy who had been encouraging his friend to lease before he made a purchase. "It sounds just the thing!"

"But I'm still not sure," said Bingley. "I am in no position to judge the land or the improvements. I was hoping you might be able to spend a day going over the estate with me before I signed."

Darcy frowned. "I'm sorry Bingley, I'm dealing with a bit of a crisis at the moment."

"That's all right, Darcy," replied Bingley affably. "I didn't wish to impose upon you. I guess I'll have to stand on my own two feet sometime..."

Now Darcy felt guilty.

"Perhaps..." said Darcy.

Bingley leant forward eagerly.

"Can you wait a week?" asked Darcy. "I'd really like to help, but there is something I need to attend to."

"Thank you, thank you, my friend," said Bingley gratefully, grabbing Darcy's hand. "Let me know when you're available and I will arrange it all."

They finished their brandy.

When Bingley got up to go, the colonel, who was committed to a regimental dinner, accompanied him; and Darcy was left to his own musings.

Darcy spent a troubled night. He had retired at ten, as was his habit, and spent an hour staring at the canopy of his bed. When sleep was elusive, he'd removed to the library where he could not find a single book that inspired him to open its covers. He then spent another hour pacing up and down, practising arguments he might employ with Diana to change her mind. Finally, he built up the fire and resorted to the brandy.

On the following morning, his valet found him asleep in a wing chair wearing his banyan. Cautiously moving around the room while he set it in order, Finn finally decided to rouse his unresponsive master by cracking a blind.

Darcy woke with a jerk. "Goodness, what time is it Finn?"

"Ten, sir. I thought you would not wish to miss your fencing practise."

"Damn, the fencing practise! I must look my best!"

Finn knew better than to raise an eyebrow at this.

After Darcy had bathed, Finn had shaved and attired him to a nicety. Dismissing his valet, Darcy retrieved the box he had purchased last week at Rundall and Bridge. Opening it, he stared upon the jewels he had specially commissioned for his love's thirty-fifth birthday. It was a necklace and earring set composed of emeralds and diamonds which had cost him a small fortune. He had chosen the emeralds to complement her beautiful auburn hair. Snapping the case shut, he proceeded down the stairs.

He had sensed Diana's increasing restlessness over the last few months, but attributed it to her approaching birthday. She had obliquely referred to her increasing age several times, and he had assumed that the midpoint of her thirties was some sort of mid-life crisis for her. He could not understand it. She was as beautiful as ever - more so. The portrait in the hall which had been executed upon her marriage to the marquis showed a younger and more rounded face, but the intervening fourteen years had only better defined her cheekbones. She was exquisite, and he had sought to show his appreciation by commissioning jewels worthy of her beauty.

As he was helped into his coat in the vestibule, he slipped the case into a commodious inner pocket; pulling out the notebook which resided there and laying it on the hall table. The jewels were a fitting tribute to their first seven years, and now, he hoped, the beginning of a new phase of their relationship.

Her husband had died over a year ago. Of course, there had been some nasty rumours that her stepson had smothered his father in his sleep, but Darcy did not credit them. It was a sad tale, and the gossips always indulged their fancy for the gothic in such cases. The marquis had only lived a half-life since his accident, and it was a mercy to both him and his heir that he had moved on. Rest in peace. She had worn full mourning in public for a year. No husband could have expected better observance.

He walked briskly towards Berkeley Square, ruing his reaction of yesterday. He had responded like the unseasoned youth he had been seven years ago rather than a man of the world. He should have stayed there until he had persuaded her that she was making a mistake instead of going off to his uncle's. He had ever been punctilious, never missing an appointment. Overly concerned with his duty, he had not given the crisis the attention it merited.

"Damn the duke!" he muttered under his breath as he rounded the corner into Berkeley Square. I was in line first!

If he had known he had a rival, Darcy reasoned, he would have moved faster. He had not wished to impose upon Diana too soon after she came out of mourning. Her birthday had seemed the ideal date to move things forward.

He knew as soon as Leith opened the door that he wasn't going to let him in. "The marchioness is indisposed today, Mr Darcy."

He choked back his indignation. "You know I must see her Leith," said Darcy, calling on all his natural hauteur.

"You know I can't allow that Mr Darcy. I'm sorry," said the bruiser with quiet dignity.

"Then let me in so I can leave her a note."

The butler did not hesitate to accede to Mr Darcy's request - Darcy was generally a man of his word, but sometimes emotions got the better of any man... In such an event he knew he could bustle Darcy out the door in a trice, if need be. He was taller and heavier than the younger man and had considerable experience in the boxing ring to draw on. He knew Darcy didn't spend time at Jackson's boxing saloon - like gentlemen of old, he favoured swords and pistols instead.

Darcy put down his cane and leant over the hall table to inscribe the note. He wanted to propose in person, not in a letter, so after a moment's thought he simply wrote:-

With all my love. Happy Birthday. D

Then he sealed the note, withdrew the box from his coat, and placing the missive atop it, handed it solemnly to the butler before taking his leave.

Frustrated, he walked back to Grosvenor Square, wondering when it would be deemed polite to call again. Arriving back at his townhouse, he locked the door to his study, and buried himself in his business affairs.

He waited for three days for a reply. Finally, a footman brought a parcel to his desk around evening. It was wrapped in brown paper, tied in black ribbon with a sprig of rosemary tucked inside it. Darcy paled when he recognised the shape of the jewellery case.

The ribbon was knotted tightly, and in his impatience to open it he picked up the Venetian stiletto his father had used as a book knife.

Snapping open the case, he saw the letter sitting on top of the parure and quickly broke the seal.

Dear F

Thank you for your kind thoughts on my birthday.

I was married yesterday at St George's by special licence.

Obviously I cannot keep your beautiful gift.

Accept my best wishes for your future happiness

With a woman who is worthy of your heart.


His first wild impulse was to plunge the dagger that lay to hand into his heart, but sanity prevailed, and he flicked the wicked object off his desk with the back of his hand.

He jumped up and started pacing back and forth as the daylight faded.

Once the light had leeched out of the study, he moved stealthily into the dimly lit hall and let himself out of the front door, pulling it closed behind him. He ran down the front steps and sprinted across the square under cover of darkness.

Reaching the footpath on the other side, he slowed to a more acceptable pace as a link boy came up to him. He flicked him a coin, directing him to Berkley Square, and when they entered their destination, dismissed him with another coin.

He walked alone in semi-darkness along the street, his progress lit only by the light escaping from the other townhouses. The marquis' townhouse was shrouded in darkness. Halfway up the steps he perceived the knocker was off the door.

He realised belatedly that he had lost her. This townhouse now belonged to the new marquis, and he would not find her there anymore. She was Bertie Thomas's property now and he must accept that.

A heavy weight settled in his stomach as he wandered off unthinkingly towards St James. Nearing White's, he could not go in, and he passed to the other side of the street to avoid the bow window. At some point he noticed the same link boy was following him at a discreet distance and he acknowledged the futility of it all.

Darcy realised he was quite lost. The street he was in was unfamiliar to him in the darkness. He tossed the boy another coin. One hand released the torch and flew out to snatch it deftly.

A silence stretched between them before the boy ventured, "Grosvenor Square, sir?"

"Yes," he replied hoarsely, in a voice quite unrecognisable as his own.

As promised there is a TimesUPdates Pinterest board including the theme song for this prologue, Love is like oxygen by The Sweet.

2/4/16 I can't believe its been over a year since I started posting Time's Up but at a chapter a week it adds up. Makes you so conscious as an older author that you only have a few stories left in you. Thanks to those who provided constructive reviews, particularly Sgordon who provided the final ingredient.

I am currently preparing Time's Up for publication.

So long, and thanks for all the fish! I mean, of course, reviews.

If you were following the story, stay tuned. I have no current plans for a sequel, but I may yet post some outtakes and other stories, as I am currently doing for Via Luton. One idea is to tell the story of the romance between Anne de Bourgh and Dr Douglas but I'm open to other suggestions,

Cheers, Fred.