Romance novels never end this way.

The heroine--fair-skinned and framed by black ringlets, consumed by love's passion--never goes out like this.

The hero--strong-jawed, fair-haired, mysterious and conquering--never gets away so easily.

In romance novels, love conquers all and the hero is ultimately tamed, domesticated by the heroine. On the last page, he, strong and understanding, will pull her into his arms, gaze deeply into her dark eyes and kiss her lips ever so lightly. And she will shiver. And all around them, the wind will sing promises and the sun will slip between the sheets of the horizon and the sky.

And they--the beautiful ones--will live happily ever after.

We, the readers, flip the last page and close the book, satisfied. Then we turn over, switch off the lamp and dream sweet dreams as the beautiful people ride off on his black stallion.

But that is fantasy. We know that, but we want it anyway.

Nancy Richards-Akers, a heroine herself with long black hair, wrote her romance novels this way--16 of them. All happy endings, except the one that was written in real life a week and a half ago when she was shot twice in the back of the head by her estranged husband.

Their two youngest children watched as Jeremy R. Akers, a lawyer, former Marine and decorated Vietnam veteran, pumped bullets into his wife as she sat in a red Jeep outside their house on Reservoir Road in Northwest Washington. He drove to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, called a friend to make known his wish to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery, and then put a gun in his mouth.

Now, they are dead--the beautiful ones. The readers, who still want fantasy, go looking for them in her books--not wanting the truth to be true or reality to be real.

The Call 911 Operator: What's wrong?

Zeb: My mother was shot.

Operator: Shot?

Zeb: Yes, sir.

Operator: With a gun?

Zeb: Yes. [begins to sob]

Operator: Okay. Where was she shot at? Take it easy. We'll bring you some help.

Zeb: Okay. . . .

Operator: All right, I'm sending you some help okay? Whoever shot her, are they still there?

Zeb: No.

The Storyteller

Details of all that happened between Jeremy Ray Akers, 57, and Nancy Linda Richards-Akers, 45, are dead with them. Friends say now they can only speculate about the truth.

Mary Kilchenstein, a fellow romance novelist who writes under the name of Mary Kirk, says: "She moved out. She was afraid of him and now she is dead and that is what can be said. It doesn't get any worse. She was one of smartest, brightest, wittiest people I've ever known. We're really pretty devastated."

Richards-Akers was the third romance novelist to be slain in a murder-suicide by a husband in the last three years. Pamela Macaluso was killed in 1997; Ann Wassall in 1996.

"This is not an uncommon tragedy," says Kilchenstein. "It happens too much. . . . I don't know why this happened. None of us know why it happens, except to the extent that men shoot women all too often."

Richards-Akers, once a political speech writer who worked on Capitol Hill, began writing romance novels in the early 1980s. They included "Philadelphia Folly," "A Season Abroad," "The Devil's Wager," "Miss Wickham's Betrothal" and her latest, "So Wild a Kiss." In 1997 her "Wild Irish Skies" was named one of the top 10 romance novels of the year by The Washington Post.

Friends say Richards-Akers was the sort of woman who did whatever she put her mind to. What she did not know, they say she learned. She taught herself to write, and after she was finally published she taught others, arranging for new writers to meet her agent. She was a good mother, savvy, well bred--the kind of woman who would never have a tea party with paper plates.

"Nancy would suggest we use our china," says Kathleen Gilles Seidel, a romance novelist and former chairman of the Washington Romance Writers group. "She would adopt this outrageously fake accent--sometimes snooty accent, sometimes Irish peasant. She knew how to do things but also knew it wasn't essential."

Richards-Akers, who came from a "proper" family in New York where her stepfather was a doctor, gave to the poor, taking her children with her as she delivered boiled eggs to the homeless. Most of all, friends say, she was a storyteller.

She also knew how to promote her books. She posted her photos on the Internet and once told an interviewer that writing was like breathing to her and that she could be found somewhere in her books.

"All my fiction is inspired by real life," she wrote. "Nancy will never cease to marvel at the wonder of working at home to spin romantic tales of faraway places, forgotten times, heroic men and courageous, self-aware heroines."

She told in a recent interview that she might have gone on writing political speeches "if it hadn't been for my son asking me, 'Mommy, what are you going to be when you grow up?' "

She was passionate about Ireland and was known for her accuracy in creating historical romances.

"A lot of people ask me if I'd like to write 'real' historicals, and sure, that would be a challenge . . . but I do love historical romance and especially as a genre for Irish historicals because history can be depressing and dreary, dark, cold, dank, unliberated and hopeless. But romance allows me to find the happy ending, to modify reality just enough to give it hope."

Too Few Clues

It might be too simplistic to try to find her in the pages of her books. And it probably would be too simplistic to look for her husband there as well.

Still the reader looks for a man, perhaps a brooding sort, perhaps a valiant sort, perhaps the hero chased by some demon that in the end would be contained.

Seidel, who has written 11 romance novels of her own, says that it would be too easy for someone who never read Richards-Akers's books to pick one up now and try to find him in a character.

"There is in many romance novels something called the alpha male, who is distant and mysterious and a very conventional character type, and he is ultimately tamed by the heroine. I assume Nancy may have used that character type. . . . I think if--and this is a big if--if she uses the alpha male character, the tall, dark, handsome, mysterious man who looks like he is smoldering and has a quick temper, and you read that book and say, 'Ohmigod, this must be her husband,' you are wrong. This is what 75 percent of what historical romances are like."

Seidel says that it may be impossible to find parallels between Richards-Akers's real life and those she wrote about.

"In romances, love solves the problem. It is never violence. Violence is never the answer. Love is always the answer, and so it's hard to look at whatever drove Jeremy Akers to do this."

The Man Behind the Medals

Jeremy Akers, a Marine Corps captain from a small town in Alabama, and Nancy Richards-Akers, a boarding school graduate who grew up in Scarsdale, N.Y., met more than 20 years ago on Capitol Hill.

Akers was working for a committee examining the assassination of President Kennedy. A friend introduced him to Nancy, who was working on another political committee. They fell madly in love--a lopsided kind of love--according to a friend. They dated on and off for several years.

"I always thought it was a very, very strange coupling. Nancy up until the end was very much in love with Jeremy and thought Jeremy was the greatest thing in the world," says Tom Turchan, a longtime friend of Jeremy's who now lives in Florida. "Nancy seemed to always be thinking of Jeremy as wonderful even when they were dating and he dated other people. Nancy would think he was wonderful and eventually, they would get back together."

The wedding on Aug. 11, 1977, was a surprise to many of Akers's friends. "It was typical Jeremy. He calls me up and says, 'Come to Grace Episcopal tonight at 7:30.' I said, 'I'm not coming until you tell me what is going on.' He said, 'Turchan, I'm telling you to be there.' He said, 'I'm getting married.' I got on the phone and called the guys in New York and Baltimore. . . . He had forgotten to tell anybody. Everybody else on Nancy's side knew about it and very few people on Jeremy's side knew about it."

Turchan says, "Nancy came from the other side of the tracks, and I think he was attracted to that. All of his girlfriends over the years had family money, too. He tended to gravitate to that."

Lydia Lee, a romance novelist who knew Nancy, says that Jeremy represented something exciting to her. "Jeremy was this macho man. . . . He was a refreshing change for her. . . . He was educated, but I think Nancy was just wanting to have something more like the alpha man."

Jeremy Akers was blond, blue-eyed and a warrior. "Jeremy was strong physically," says John E. Oxendine, a former roommate. "He had some strong opinions, too. He wouldn't take a lot of stuff from anybody. He had a short fuse.

"I won't say he was a Napoleon type, but nobody would want to mess with him. The ladies liked him. He was possessive of his girlfriends. What's mine is mine and what's yours is yours. . . . If an ex-girlfriend ended up dating one of us guys, he would grill us to the nth degree. Even in those days, he was possessive. Here it is 30 years later manifesting itself in this tragedy."

Despite the many people they both knew as they traveled in the circles of the real-rich and the fake-rich, much of the lives of Jeremy and Nancy remain a mystery to their longtime friends. Even after years of lunches, teas, parties, writing circles, many of her close friends do not have the slightest idea where she was from.

"Nancy was private," one writer says. Private about her past, private about what she was going through. They did know that she doted on her three children--Finny, 21, Zeb, 11, and Isabelle, 9; as her lawyer said at her wake, "Your mother's love was unconditional."

Many of Akers's friends--even those he knew for years--can say only that he was from northern Alabama. "He seemed like he was part of the Southern aristocracy," says Oxendine. "Whether it was true or not didn't matter."

He was born in 1942 in Sheffield, Ala. He went to the University of Alabama, fought in the Vietnam War as a Marine, received numerous medals including a Purple Heart with a gold star--meaning he was wounded twice in separate incidents--a Silver Star for valor, and an Air Medal Star for missions flown. He graduated from the University of Virginia law school in 1972.

When he returned home after the war, the country was not kind to him.

"He was the war machine," says Oxendine. "He had been wounded and he comes back from putting his life on the line and people are talking about peace. That causes problems."

"I don't think he was comfortable being from Alabama," Turchan says. "He much more wanted to be the U-Va. lawyer, the decorated Marine Corps officer. I don't think he was who he wanted to be or was where he wanted to be, and I think that grated on him."

Akers, Turchan says, was happiest when he was working for the Justice Department. But in his later years he was struggling as an environmental lawyer who basically did research for the firms that were actually working on the cases.

"I think he wanted to be a good guy putting the bad guy away," says Turchan, who called Akers a great and loyal friend. "And recently, he wasn't doing that. He was floundering around professionally and obviously in his marriage.

"Jeremy had a lot of old-fashioned beliefs about honor. That tended to complicate things that happened. I think he got screwed up. It's sad somebody didn't tell me what was going on. I would have gone up there and talked to him. A lot of us are upset about the fact we didn't have a chance to be there for him."

Turchan says he saw Akers during the past year. Akers never mentioned that he and his wife were separated, that she'd moved into an apartment with a male friend.

In retrospect, Turchan says, "I think the whole thing was planned, not necessarily for that night. I'm sure he thought about it numerous times. This whole thing with Nancy living with someone else. His children seeing that. The dishonor of his wife leaving him."

The Separation

While Jeremy's career seemed to be spiraling out of his control, Nancy's was taking off.

"When she reached the goal she was trying to get, that is when the physical abuse began," says Barbara Cummings, a romance novelist. "The mental and emotional abuse was there from the beginning. He didn't want her to succeed. He didn't really talk to us. He didn't want to be involved with the writers' group."

Akers was a man who friends say was without fear. Richards-Akers was a woman who friends said lived with fear.

In electronic mail to a friend, Richards-Akers wrote that she moved out of the house to save her life and her children's lives.

"If I had not left, they might have witnessed my death," she wrote.

She later wrote: "He is violent, possessive, terrorist control-freak, and although I am out of the immediate path of his wrath he has spared nothing in his efforts to punish me financially and emotionally."

Alan B. Soschin, her lawyer, says, "I have a sense here that my client may have underestimated the emotional instability of her husband. . . . She was willing to try to work on the divorce. There was no reason for this to have happened."

She filed for legal separation on Feb. 18. The filing says that Nancy and Jeremy had lived "separate and apart" since Aug. 1, 1998. The complaint claims cruel conduct, unpredictable and random acts of verbal abuse, taunting, insults, physical intimidation and death threats. Soschin says she moved out of the house. "You can assume it was not voluntary. She was thrown out or she left and he did not agree."

Akers's counterclaim denies that he abused her and charges that she abused him. He also alleges that he was abandoned and that she had engaged in "marital misconduct" while sharing a "one-bedroom apartment . . . [with] a male unrelated to Plaintiff."

The Bodyguard

Nancy seemed to have found love again when she met James Lemke, who she said wrote children's poetry and became her protector.

"I think his main goal was to help protect her," Kilchenstein says. "He absolutely believed she was in danger and absolutely wanted her safe and was determined to keep her from being dead any way he could.

"The first time she introduced him to me, she introduced him as her bodyguard. This isn't like she was having some midlife crisis," Kilchenstein says. "She was not somebody who ran around having affairs. She was scared."

Jim answers the telephone at the apartment they shared a few blocks from her house on Reservoir Road. He is distraught. "She was a great woman," he says.

The day Richards-Akers died, she spent that afternoon at a flea market selling the last product of her imagination--painted evening bags.

Seidel saw a posting on the Internet about the bags.

"I e-mailed her and said, 'Gee, can I come see them?' She said that Saturday afternoon she would be at an outdoor crafts fair. She said, 'If you can't stop by, let's have lunch next week.'

"She needed money. Writing is an erratic source of income. She had two kids in private schools and a kid in college. I don't have the details, but I had a sense that her husband was not very generous financially at all."

Selling evening bags was a new enterprise. "They were gorgeous and I wanted to help her. She certainly was successful, but she needed money," says Seidel.

"I don't believe it. I haven't had a chance to answer Nancy's e-mail. That's because I've been so busy. . . . So tomorrow I'll answer the e-mail and set up lunch. . . . In my heart of hearts, I think I can just run upstairs and e-mail her and set up lunch. It hasn't sunk in yet."

The Denouement?

So the reader again picks up one of her books. Flips the pages, searching. Is this Jeremy when she writes in her latest novel "Wild Irish Skies:"

"Death didn't affright Rian O'Byrne. He believed in neither Heaven nor Hell and had no dread of the afterlife, if there truly was such a realm. He'd been a rogue who'd cared for no one and nothing. He had been neither good nor heroic. Indeed, he'd never done anything if there hadn't been some pleasure or amusement for him, yet that did not stop him from fancying that when it was time to shed his mortal bonds he would journey in that chariot over the waves to Tir na n-Og."

And was Nancy the damsel whose life needed to be spared by midnight?

But who would believe that story--that she was a character in her fantasies and that the man who was neither good nor heroic would be her husband?

Still a reader looks further, and finds another passage.

"Ye're my wife and my place is with ye." Malcolm bent one knee on the bed, leaned forward, and with his arms on either side of Isobel, moved close enough to look her hard in the eye. "And ye'd best stop defying me. . . . "

"Indeed, I think ye burn for me with as hot and reckless a yearning as I burn for ye."

Perhaps it is him. Probably it's not.

CAPTION: Jeremy Akers was the macho man of Nancy Richards-Akers's dreams, until their own romance soured.