SHE WON HER FIRST LITERARY honor, as Romantic Times' Best New Historical Author of the Year, in 1985, two years after her husband, Mike, died in an accident. "I stood at the podium at a ceremony in New York," Judith McNaught recalls, "and it was the loneliest night of my life. I discovered what women who've gone before me have known for centuries: Success without someone to share it with is hollow indeed." She pauses, then adds, "On the other hand, it beats the heck out of failure."

McNaught, 52, always leavens her romance with practicality, and it has proved to be a spectacularly winning blend. As the author of 11 romance novels, six historical and five set in present times, she writes of burning desires and star-crossed passions, but her heroines do more than moon and swoon. "My characters confront adversity with positive action," she says. "I think we women underrate ourselves when it comes to our courage and strength." Her last seven novels (including her favorite, 1993's Perfect, in which an illiterate orphan's life is transformed by reading) have been New York Times bestsellers, and Remember When, the just-published story of a marriage of convenience that becomes more, is selling briskly.

Granted, it is not just her heroines' pluck that draws her public. "Her characters seem real," says Kathe Robin, senior reviewer at Romantic Times magazine. Well, real-ish, since every one of them gets her man. "A romance novel should leave readers joyous," says McNaught. "My books all have happy endings."

She knows from experience how elusive those are. The oldest of three children of an appliance-store franchiser and a housewife, Judy Spaeth grew up all over the country, majored in business at Northwestern University and was a divorced mom to two—Whitney, now 29 and a teacher, and Clay, 27, an accounts manager—by the time she hit 25. ("We were young. It didn't work out," McNaught says of her marriage to a St. Louis dentist.) While working as an assistant director on a TV-commercial film crew in St. Louis in 1974, she met Mike McNaught, a divorced father of five and an advertising director at General Motors. "He was a brilliant, witty Irishman," McNaught says. "We had something special."

The pair married later that year and moved with Whitney and Clay to a Detroit suburb, where McNaught devoted herself to homemaking and slowly went crazy. "I reorganized drawers, alphabetized canned goods and checked Consumer Reports before I bought shampoo," she says. "The only thing I was doing that I liked was reading. I bought my first romance novel—Kathleen Woodiwiss's The Flame and the Flower—by accident, and I loved it."

With Mike's encouragement she decided to try writing a novel herself. Whitney, My Love, & Regency-period romance, was "filled with the love and joy I'd found in my marriage," she says, but publishers were unmoved. She tried modern romance next, and on a January night in 1982, she and Mike celebrated the sale of Tender Triumph with champagne. It was one of the last moments of unalloyed happiness she would know for years. The next month her sister Debbie died of an allergic reaction to medication; in June 1983, Mike, a hunter, was killed while cleaning his guns. "He was teasing me about buying a new kitchen table with my royalty check from Tender Triumph," McNaught says. "The gun went off. He was hit just below the collarbone and died in my arms, without a word or a whimper."

The next day, the cover art for Triumph came in the mail. "I didn't care about that or anything else," McNaught says. "I didn't know a human being could hold so much grief without shattering into a billion pieces. People told me how strong I was, and I wondered how they could be so blind."

She and her children moved to Dallas, close to friends, and after two years lost to mourning, she began writing again. Whitney, My Love had finally been published in 1985, and "I would have felt like a failure if I'd given up writing for good," she says.

Today, McNaught lives surrounded by the fruits of her success. She is putting the finishing touches on a waterfront mansion near Galveston. With her children grown and a three-year marriage to engineer Don Smith over since 1993 ("We parted as friends," she says), she will occupy the lavish, white-columned house alone. "Having already had one glorious marriage, perhaps I ought to count myself lucky and stop while I'm ahead," she says. Then she smiles, and you can almost see her dreaming up happy endings.

KIM HUBBARD
DEBBIE MARKLEY in Houston

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  • Debbie Markley.