In this heartland of Tara fantasy, the willows still weep, and women hunt long and hard for all that is Rhett in the world: strong, dark, rugged, romantic men to sweep them off their feet, make them burn with desire and marry them in the end.

What they yearn for is an idyllic world: no drugs, no crime, no herpes, no homosexuals, no kinky sex. Just love, sweet love. What they yearn for is Life as a Happy Ending.

Such fantasies brought them to town for the fifth annual Romance Writers of America conference, a wolfpack of 500 women afflicted with Scarlett Fever. Wild with desire for money and fame, armed with pens and note pads, they held forth beneath crystal chandeliers at a suburban hotel here, desperate women out to conjure magic for America's Other Women: about 20 million who read the pulp romances they write, or dream of writing; women who can't pass the rack at the A & P without bingeing on paperback love.

"Women are looking for the ideal relationship," says Sandra Brown, 37, a stunning Arlington, Tex., woman who brags about her husband and two kids as she sips club soda and lime and tallies her 5 million novels in print.

"Our heroines are never promiscuous," she says. "They never bed-hop. And if they've had a lover before, that love never came from the heart like this one. Their hearts and minds have to be won over before their bodies."

Believe it or not, America's postliberation women are still addicted to pulp romance, spending $100 million a year for love-conquers-all schmaltz. But there is new angst in fairy-tale land. Where books once leapt off the shelf a few years back, the market is glutted. Sales have leveled and readers have matured: they won't buy what has already been swooned over.

Alas, one embrace is no longer enough to satisfy the women of the '80s, say editors, writers and agents hunkered down here for the romance writers conference that broke up today with an elegant brunch and pecks on the cheek at the Waverly Hotel.

Alas, gone are the days when "the sweet, little trembling 18-year-old virgin in the typing pool got swept off her feet by the macho conglomerate boss," laughs Carolyn Nichols, a top New York editor who pioneered a more permissive romance line for Bantam titled Loveswept. Her heroines tend to be "spunky, spicy" women who stand up and fight back before they give in.

But such spunk is hardly enough to wipe the sneer off the face of critics like feminist Germaine Greer: "Women who read these (books) are cherishing the chains of bondage." And one California professor of literature labels them downright "dangerous," as addictive as drugs, hooking women on hope and sexual stereotype.

What a steady diet of pulp romance does is help women escape reality, argues Gayle Greene of Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. "It hurts them, because as long as you keep escaping, you won't address the situation you have to escape from.

"What's scary about the books is that women need the escape. What does it say about their lives? Wouldn't they be better off if they tried to change the situation," not pig out on fairy tales. "Reading is terrific, and these women devour novels, but they shouldn't numb your mind . . . They're junk food. They're not nourishing, even if they give you a kick."

Romance authors still fight for respect, but they don't take such broadsides lying down as they gracefully age their heroines (average age, 28) and fine tune the formula romance for the women of the '80s.

"What's a nice girl like you doing in a market like this?" a TV interviewer once asked Kathleen Gilles Seidel, a hot Washington, D.C., romance writer with five books out for Harlequin.

"Being read," she said. "If you have something to say, you go where the readers are."

At first she wrestled with putting her real name on the books. She was ashamed, contemplated a pen name. After all, she had a PhD in English from Johns Hopkins. What if her colleagues found out? Then the checks started rolling in. She stopped blushing, stood tall and fought back to defend her escapist fiction.

"There's nothing wrong with escape," she says. "Reality can be exhausting. Our readers want to be entertained. They're the women of America and they're tired. They work, they take care of kids, they drive carpools. They deserve a break."

"Heroines in my books aren't looking for a man to fulfil their lives," says Nora Roberts, 34, a hot author from Keedysville, Md. She boasts more than 10 million books in print and a six-figure income. "My women are already successful. They're not looking for a prince."

She prefers throwing two independent, feisty characters together and letting the chains of love enslave them both. "My women are not wimps. They work out real problems through a plausible fantasy." She abhors the notion of some macho man in search of a sweet young thing to rescue. "If a man at 35 is looking for someone to take care of, he should buy a dog."

Does this mean that torrid sex is on the horizon? Not exactly. When Sandra Brown allowed one unmarried heroine to live with a man, she got letters from fans begging her never to do it again. "We like our heroines to be virgins, unless they've been married," wrote one.

Readers prefer romantic love, but they don't mind a healthy dose of sex, as long as scenes are tastefully described. Nora Roberts only allows her characters to have sex after "they get to know each other. You've got to keep up the sexual tension throughout the book. They never hop into bed as two strangers. They wait until the reader can say, 'Yes, they can go to bed because they belong together.' "

That usually happens about halfway through the book. So what happens then? Well, it takes the rest of the book before they realize they belong together happily ever after.

It's just the kind of read that Jean Loftis, 46, lives for. She drove down from Greenville, S.C., to meet the women who make her day. Her husband Donnie does well enough as an entrepreneur to allow her to read three romance novels a day, 365 days a year, on their rolling ponderosa. She spends $2,500 a year on pulp. After packing husband and son off to work, she likes to read one in the morning.

"Then I'll fix lunch and if there's nothing really pressing, I'll read another one. Then I cook supper, and if Donnie's out in the woodshop working, I'll read another one." She never takes them to bed. "Once you get started, you want to finish them, and I know I can't stay up all night reading."

Over the years, she has managed to read, collect and catalogue some 7,000 romances. Donnie Loftis turned one room into wall-to-wall shelves. They're filled. Basement and attic groan under the weight of boxes of paperbacks. All are tame, though, compared with, say, Jackie Collins.

"I encourage it," says her husband, a trim, distinguished-looking man. "I enjoy my hunting and fishing and she enjoys her books."

He took her deer hunting last year, but fellow hunters objected when the shoot dragged and she whipped out a paperback romance. Never again. "It was distracting," recalls Donnie Loftis. So Jean Loftis confines her reading to the clubhouse.

Beyond the bar, there were even a few husbands who write romances with their wives. Some even get bylines, though editors say a man's solo name on a romance is the "kiss of death." Women seem to be able to tell if a romance is written by a man: the sex seems more mechanical.

And authors like Judith H. Simpson (a k a Rosalind Foxx and Sara Logan) sighed about the hazards of notoriety. When she adopts her persona of literary tart, Rosalind Foxx, with long gowns, plunging neckline and puffy sleeves for book signings, she frequently gets propositioned.

"I'll teach you some things you can use for your next book," said one man, a closet romance reader. She demured. "My husband has taught me everything I know and I prefer to keep it that way, thank you," she replied.

As for her son, he dons dark sunglasses on shopping forays with her to a mall back home in Charlotte, N.C. He refuses to tell friends what his mother does for a living. "It's just not cool to have your mother writing sexy books," he complains.

"He's scandalized by my book jackets," she laughs. "So he wears disguises when we go out."

To cope with such ups and downs, there were a host of seminars: "Intrigue and Adventure: Here to Stay or Yesterday's Fad?" Others on how to break into the business, what's hot and what's not, how to move from pulp to mainstream, if that's your pleasure, tax planning and one called "Burnout, Paranoia and Depression."

"Do you sometimes feel like you can't stand the thought of writing another romance?" one begged. "How can you avoid writing the same book all over again?" Another posed the question, "Does Sex Still Sell?"

Yes, yes, yes.

"But there's nothing dirty about the books at all," says Jean Loftis. "Otherwise, I wouldn't read 'em."

"Our sex is pretty sex," says Elizabeth Graham, a mother of four, up from Pensacola, Fla., to hunt a publisher. "We never use four-letter words."

Indeed, writing torrid without the real words is hard work, and a table of writers and editors giggled last night over white wine as dinner was cleared, and they began searching for new, homogenized ways to describe acrobatics d'amour and contemplate why romance still seduces 40 percent of the paperback market.

"It's the female counterpart to Rambo," allowed Sallie Neall, chief romance buyer for B. Dalton. "Women's overriding fantasy is romance. For men, it's sex and violence, not necessarily in that order."

"There's no sadness in these books," said Nichols. "They're about nice people who you'd really like to know. Everyone's okay. There's none of the nastiness of real life."