One misty night the inhabitants of a Victorian mansion in North London were awakened by an insistent knocking at the front door. Writer Sally Beauman stumbled downstairs and was surprised to discover her literary agent, Pat Kavanagh, standing on the front steps. "Get up, get up, it's all over!" shouted Kavanagh as Beauman and her live-in love, actor Alan Howard, ushered the agent in. The exultant Kavanagh then told the befuddled author that the U.S. rights to her novel Destiny had just been sold for $1 million and change.

Those brash shoppers at Bantam Books had coughed up the biggest advance ever for a first novel. Moreover, they didn't seem to care that at the time (18 months ago) Beauman had finished only half of her sultry saga about an aristocratic jewelry tycoon, his Alabama-bred wife and his stable of prostitutes, including one who wears diamonds in places nice girls don't. "Everyone was going crazy reading it," recalls Bantam's editorial director, Stephen Rubin. "This is a woman who not only understands the elements of a blockbuster, but she can write as well. There is elegance in Destiny, along with intelligence, energy and sex."

The combination already appears irresistible to readers. A week before its official publication date, Destiny debuted on the New York Times bestseller list at No. 6. Naturally the movie rights have been snapped up, and a miniseries is in the works.

Such a sweet destiny for Beauman, now 42, was hardly preordained. Sally Kinsey-Miles, as she was christened in Devon, is the only child of an RAF officer and his wife. They enrolled their daughter in convent school and taught her a style of manners that would have made Jane Austen proud. "How you behave to other people was terribly important," says Sally. "To this day I find it very difficult to be rude to somebody, even when I'm hopping mad. But I am freed from that constraint when I am writing."

During her years at Cambridge University, Beauman found liberation through acting. She graduated in 1966, the same year she married a fellow Cantabrigian, Christopher Beauman. The two of them moved to New York, where Sally worked as a gofer at New York magazine and eventually began writing articles. Three years later the Beaumans returned to England, and Sally wrote for several magazines. In 1970 she interviewed Alan Howard, then a rising star at the Royal Shakespeare Company.

A year later Beauman bumped into Howard at a restaurant, and this time the relationship became more than professional. Beauman left her husband, Howard left his wife, and after three years of living together, they became the parents of James Howard, now 12. Marriage, however, has never tempted them. "I don't like it as a ceremony," says Sally. "I feel it lacks magic."

Working out of her home, Beauman wrote a history of the Royal Shakespeare Company. Then, on a whim, she began spinning out romance novels for Harlequin under the pen name Vanessa James. "I thought it would be a rather good way of subsidizing the nonfiction books I wanted to do," says Beauman, who nonetheless got sidetracked by the opus that became Destiny. Some 400 pages later her agent took a peek and, as Beauman puts it, "the world went mad."

Despite all the fuss, Beauman managed to finish her novel in 10 months. Blessed with a vivid imagination, she is contemplating a second blockbuster. For the moment, however, she has put all writing aside to promote her million-dollar baby in America, Australia and the U.K. As Destiny rolls on, nothing seems to mar its progress—not even the news that Tiffany politely declined an offer from Bantam to participate in a promotional tie-in. Tiffany customers, explains a spokesperson, wear their diamonds differently from Beauman's glitter gal.

  • Contributors:
  • Laura Sanderson Healy.