I LOVE ROMANCE
Who doesn’t like romance?
Whoever it is, I’m not sure I want to spend very much time in his or her company. Romance, whether we’re talking about novels or life, suggests excitement, high drama, and most of all love. What could be better than that?
That description fits my new novel Sins of the Empress perfectly. It is historical fiction based on Catherine the Great of Russia—full of excitement, high drama and love. The opening sentence, in Catherine’s voice, is:
All that I have ever done, I have done for love.
Sins of the Empress isn’t the same type of historical romance I’ve written in the past. I loved creating characters and situations for those novels, but with this book I’m trying something different, something along the lines of Phillipa Gregory’s The Other Boleyn Girl and Allison Weir’s Innocent Traitor—fictionalized stories about real women in history. I’ve found I love writing this kind of fiction, too.
I got to know Catherine through exhaustive research, and from that research emerged a woman who insisted that her story start this way:
All that I have ever done, I have done for love. I have sought love, hungered for it, schemed, and manipulated for it all my life. Some say that I even murdered my husband for love—love of power, they say.
To that I will only answer that if I had murdered him, it would have been for love of Russia, nothing else.
The first time I saw my future husband, Peter III, then known as Karl Peter Ulrich, was in 1739. He was eleven years old and drunk. He kept demanding that he be served glass after glass of wine as we dined with the adults in the home of my mother’s brother Adolf Friedrich. I was ten, known then as Princess Sophia, and I had come with my mother and grandmother to Eutin in the Holstein district of Prussia. My uncle, Prince Adolf, had summoned his family to introduce Peter to us because he had been named the boy’s guardian after the death of Peter’s father, the Duke of Holstein, a cousin. Peter, I was told, was my second cousin.
I watched him from across the table as he blew bubbles in his third glass of wine, making a loud, rude noise with his lips. He took a sip then set the glass down hard, purposely sloshing the contents on the white lace sleeve of Prince Wilhelm, another of my mother’s brothers. The delicate threads of the ruffle drank up the wine and were transformed to a purple hue in the exact moment the prince’s face turned the same color. Peter giggled and raised his glass above his head humming, “muhmuhmuh,” until he got the attention of a steward who came forth ready to fill his glass yet again.
As a result of becoming an alcoholic before he was in his teens, the young Karl Peter Ulrich, a descendant of Peter the Great, suffered stunted growth both emotionally and physically. He was never able to consummate his marriage to Sophia and, indeed, didn’t seem to understand how it was done. By the time of their marriage, Sophia had become Catherine by decree of the throne, and Peter was known as Peter III. Since he was heir to the throne, they were called Their Majesties Grand Duke and Grand Duchess.
Catherine was, from the moment of her marriage, pressured to produce an heir. Peter would never be blamed for being impotent, being a Romanov, and Catherine took all the blame. Seeing that she could be deposed or even killed if she didn’t produce an heir, her loyal servants arranged for her to fall in love with her first lover.
He took my hand and led me out of the garden and into his own apartments where he locked the door. I watched, both excited and frightened as he came toward me and took me in his arms, lifting me off my feet and carrying me to his bed chamber. He lay me down on his bed and kissed me. I didn’t stop him when he loosened my bodice, nor when he freed my breasts and kissed and suckled them. I let him undress me completely and lay naked, waiting for him while he disrobed and while my entire body pulsed with aching anticipation.
I wasn’t certain what I was supposed to do, but when he laid himself on the bed next to me, I rubbed my breasts against his chest, whether instinctively or because my maid had once described it, I’m not certain. He responded by kissing me first on the lips then on my breasts and my stomach and along the insides of my thighs and legs. An involuntary moan escaped my throat when he coupled his kisses with soft licks of his tongue. My moans stopped with a catch of breath when his fingers entered me, moving and enticing and pleasuring me in a way I had never been able to do for myself.
Catherine did produce a male heir as well as another son and a daughter, but they were taken from her by the reigning Empress Elizabeth, and she was rarely allowed to see them except when she risked her life to be near them in secret. Her first lover betrayed her but other lovers followed only to leave her because she was a strong woman with unorthodox ideas such as allowing women to be educated, considering freedom for serfs, and learning complicated ways to manipulate grain markets to add to the coffers of Russia. Life itself was a challenge for her because she was a woman, but she could not allow herself to fail or to allow Russia to fall into ruin at the hands of her inept husband.
I road out of St. Petersburg leading 18,000 guardsmen toward Peterhof and Oranienbaum. The warm day yawned with a lazy, indifferent calm unconcerned with the clouds gathering at sea and the goosestep of the tepid breeze. We had hardly left the edge of the city when we saw horsemen ahead of us. Long before I could discern a face, my instincts informed me that it could be none other than a contingent of Peter’s guards or ambassadors.
My instincts proved right. When we were still at least one-hundred yards apart, I heard the sound of Count Alexander Shuvalov’s voice shouting, “Halt in the name of His Imperial Majesty Peter the Third.”
I kept riding and commanded my troops to follow me. Count Shuvalov, as well as two others who rode with him, drew their swords and waited.
With his sward raised, Shuvalov spoke again. “His Imperial Majesty demands—”
The tension and excitement emanated from Ekaterina, riding behind me, with the drama of Saint Elmo’s Fire. She was about to speak, but she was able to utter only one word, “We,” before I halted her with an upraised hand and at the same time interrupted Shuvalov with my own words.
“The rule of Peter Fedorovich has ended. I have taken the throne.”
Neither the drama nor the excitement of Catherine’s life ends once she seizes the throne. The story continues as she searches for power, for self realization, and most of all for her one great love. Sins of the Empress, the story of Catherine the Great, is the story of a true romantic heroine. What could be better than that?