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Born in Sin
Twelve years later
"I would sooner geld myself. Drunk. With a dull knife." Sin spoke with a slow, deadly emphasis on each word.
King Henry II stood a few feet away from him without the protection of a bodyguard or other courtier. They were alone in the throne room, and no doubt any other man would be cowering before his monarch. But Sin had never cowered in his life, and Henry knew better than to expect such behavior from him now.
Henry′s face hardened. "I could command it of you."
Sin cocked one arrogant brow and asked, "Then why don′t you?"
Henry smiled at that, and the tension left his body as he closed the distance between them.
Their friendship had been forged years ago, in the dark of night, and at the end of a blade pressed deep against Henry′s throat. Sin had spared the king′s life and since that day, Henry had treasured the only man who had never been awed by his power or authority.
Sin answered to no man, be he king, pope, sultan or beggar. But then, there was nothing in life that awed Sin. Nothing in life that commanded him, or touched him. He was completely alone.
And he preferred it that way.
"I didn′t gain this throne by being a fool, Sin. Should I command you to it, I know precisely what you′d do. You′d turn your back on me and head straight for yon door."
Henry looked sincere. "God′s truth, you are the only man alive I never wish to make my enemy. ′Tis why I ask this as a friend."
Henry laughed. "If I am damned, it is certainly for more serious offenses than this matter." The humor left Henry′s face and he stared straight into Sin′s eyes. "Now then, as a friend, I ask again. Will you marry the Scotswoman?"
Sin didn′t answer. He clenched his teeth so tightly that he could feel the angry tic starting in his jaw.
"Come now, Sin," Henry said with an almost pleading note in his voice. "I need you in this matter. You know the Scots. You are one of them."
"I am not a Scot," Sin snarled. "Not now. Not ever."
Henry ignored his rebuff. "You know how they think, you know their language. You alone are capable of this. Should I send another, those bloodthirsty savages would no doubt cut his throat and send his head back to me."
"And you think they wouldn′t do that to me?"
Henry laughed. "I doubt if the Archangel Michael could cut your throat unless you consented to it."
Truer words had never been spoken. Still, this favor sat ill in Sin′s gut. The last thing on earth he desired was to be shackled to the Scots. He hated everything to do with Scotland and its people, and would sooner rot with pestilence than ever put one piece of his body in Scotland again.
"I promise, my reward will be great," Henry said.
"I have no need of your money or rewards."
Henry nodded. "I know. ′Tis why I trust you so much. You′re the only man I have ever known who is truly above bribery. You are also a man of honor, and I know you would never walk away from a friend who needed you."
Sin met his gaze without flinching. "Henry, as a friend, I ask you not to ask this of me."
"I wish I didn′t have to. I don′t relish the thought of my only true ally so far from me, but I need a man I can trust, one who knows the soul of the Scots people, to lead them. The only other subject who could possibly end this matter is your brother Braden. Since he is now married ... "
Sin ground his teeth together. He had been glad to see his brother wed, but how he wished Braden were a bachelor once more. Braden was the one who knew how to please a woman.
Sin knew war. His home the battlefield, all he had ever trusted in life not to betray him were his sword, his shield and his horse.
And he wasn′t any too sure about his horse.
He knew nothing of women and their softness, and he had no wish to know aught of them.
"If it is of any consolation," Henry added, "she is a fetching wench. You will have no trouble siring a child on her."
Sin narrowed his eyes. He balked at the thought of siring a child, especially one simply for the purpose of passing on titles and lands that meant nothing to him. "I am not a stallion, Henry."
"′Tis not what the rumors that circulate through my court say. I′ve heard you′re quite -- "
"Does this woman know what you have planned?" Sin asked, cutting him off. He didn′t like discussing anything personal. And most especially not with Henry.
"Of course not. She knows nothing of you. ′Tis not her concern. She is my hostage and she will do as she′s told or I will see her executed."
Sin rubbed his hand over his face. He had no doubt Henry would do just that. He also knew who would be asked to fulfill that decree. "Henry, you know how I feel about a wife."
"Aye, I do. But in all honesty, I truly wish to see you wed. I have valued your service, but it has always concerned me that you have nothing in life you value. I have given you lands, wealth and titles, and you spurn them as if they′re poison. All the years I have known you, you have lived with one foot already in the grave."
"And you think a wife would bring me back over the threshold?"
Sin snorted. "Then I shall remind you of that the next time you complain of Eleanor."
Henry laughed so hard he choked. "Were you any other man, you would be dead for such audacity."
"And I would say the same of you."
At least it succeeded in checking Henry′s mirth.
Henry paced a small path in front of Sin and fell quiet. By his face, Sin could tell he was thinking of something long ago.
When the king spoke, his voice was thick with nostalgia. "I remember well the night you held that dagger to my throat. Do you remember what you said?"
"Aye, I offered you my loyalty if you would grant me my freedom."
"Yea, you did. And I need your loyalty now. Philippe is on my heels trying to wrench Normandy and Aquitaine from my hands, my sons are yapping for their own slices of power, and now this Highland clan attacks the few Englishmen I have guarding my northern borders. I cannot continue to be attacked from all sides. Even a raging bull can be brought low by a pack of hungry dogs. And I am tired of it. I need peace before they kill me. Will you help me?"
Inwardly, Sin cringed as he heard the four words he had never been able to deny. Damn his blackened soul for it. It was the one piece of his conscience that hadn′t been destroyed, and Henry knew it.
Sin growled low in his throat. Surely there had to be a means to escape this wretched event. And surely he ...
Sin almost smiled as the thought occurred to him.
′Twas perfect, and as insidious as he himself was.
"Aye, I′ll marry the wench, but only if you can find a priest who will sanction it."
Henry′s face blanched.
Sin smiled evilly. In the last nine years, he had been excommunicated five times. The most recent one carried a papal ban so severe that it should have him roasting out eternity right by the devil′s side.
The pope himself referred to Sin as Satan′s Most Favored Spawn.
Henry would never find a priest who would dare allow Sin to take part in a sacrament.
"You think you have me, don′t you?" Henry asked.
"I think nothing of the sort, Henry. As you said, I know the Scots and know they would accept nothing less than a sanctified marriage. I have merely given you the conditions of our union."
"Very well, then. I accept your terms and intend to hold you to them."
The foregoing is excerpted from Born in Sin by Kinley MacGregor. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced without written permission from HarperCollins Publishers, 10 East 53rd Street, New York, NY 10022Born in Sin. Copyright © by Kinley MacGregor. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.