A romance novelist fatally shot by her estranged husband had told friends that he beat her and that she feared for her life and the safety of her two youngest children.

Nancy Richards-Akers wrote several notes to friends and fellow authors in New Hampshire, North Carolina and Colorado detailing how her husband, Jeremy, allegedly abused her.

"I could not take it any longer, and told my husband I wanted a divorce," she wrote in January. "He threatened to kill me . . . and practiced a few times in front of the children. He broke my nose . . . and I suffered black eyes."

Richards-Akers, 45, was shot twice in the back of the head Saturday night. The couple's 11-year-old son, Zeb, witnessed the shooting and called 911. The boy told police that his mother had been shot while sitting in her red Jeep and that he didn't know the whereabouts of his father, according to a tape of the emergency call obtained by The Washington Post.

Akers, 57, an environmental lawyer, former Marine captain and decorated Vietnam War veteran who graduated from the University of Virginia law school, then went to the grassy area near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, put a shotgun barrel into his mouth and fired as U.S. Park Police approached him.

A memorial service for the couple is scheduled for 7:30 tonight at Our Lady of Victory Church in Northwest Washington. Zeb and Isabel, 10, attend the school. The couple also had a 21-year-old son, Finny.

"I'm still in shock, just aghast," said Nancie Marzulla, a Washington lawyer who had known the Akers family for 15 years.

The murder-suicide ended what friends said was a tumultuous two-decade marriage that soured during the last several years. It got so bad, according to friends, that Richards-Akers moved out of their house and into a nearby apartment and filed for divorce, custody and child support. Akers stayed in the home, in the 4600 block of Reservoir Road in Northwest Washington, and kept the children.

"It broke your heart," said romance writer Debra Martin Gonzales, who spent time with Richards-Akers in October during a book-signing in North Carolina. "You felt like you should do something, but what could you do?"

D.C. police were called to the home at least once during the last six months, according to 2nd District Cmdr. Shannon Cockett. When officers arrived, Richards-Akers pleaded with them to help her take the children from the home, Cockett said.

"We advised her that was not the proper thing to do and that she should go through the courts," Cockett said. "There were a number of officers who said they knew there was a domestic problem."

At least one neighbor said Akers told him that he kept a small arsenal in the house. Police found no guns in the house after the shooting, according to homicide Lt. Russell Knieser. The two weapons used in the murder-suicide were found next to Akers's body.

"The friends we talked to did not know he had guns in the house," Knieser said. Other friends have told The Post, however, that Akers was a gun collector.

Marzulla said the couple struggled financially, which crippled an already strained relationship. "Nancy told me the reason they had the answering machine on was to avoid creditors," Marzulla said. "I know they were behind on their bills."

She also said the couple had no health insurance on their three children.

Marzulla and her husband met Jeremy Akers when the two worked at the Justice Department. The couples became close friends and spent Thanksgiving and the Fourth of July together. Although Marzulla said she knew they were having marital problems, she was unaware of any physical abuse.

But Richards-Akers was fearful.

"My children remain in the house with him," she wrote another friend. "If I had not left, they might have witnessed my death."

CAPTION: Nancy Richards-Akers was a romance writer who was killed by her husband. On the tape of a 911 call, her 11-year-old son said he witnessed the shooting.