09/21/1998 at 01:00 AM EDT
Tall and slender, with high cheekbones and dark, alluring eyes, Sandra Brown radiates all the glamor of the windswept heroines in the popular romance novels that were once her bread and butter. But now she's writing grittier books—suspenseful dramas with decidedly unromantic characters, like sadistic killers. "I think people are surprised when they meet me," she says in a demure southern drawl, "that I am such a straight, ladylike woman."
Ladylike, but by no means sedate. In the last 17 years, Brown has published no fewer than 60 novels, 36 of them bestsellers. Fifty million copies of her books are in print, in 30 languages. Her two latest, Unspeakable, a thriller set in East Texas, and Fat Tuesday, the tale of reptilian New Orleans defense attorney Pinkie Duvall, are current bestsellers.
That prodigious output has enabled the 50-year-old author to savor the kind of success most writers only dream about. She and her husband, Michael, 52, who heads his own video production company, recently built their dream house, a spectacular 15,000-square-foot, four-bedroom contemporary on 20 wooded acres in Arlington, Texas, near Fort Worth. She adores the tan-stucco homestead, which includes high-tech climate control and security systems, a 15-seat screening room and plenty of space out back for their prized pets: three longhorn steer. "When you're here, it's like being in the country," she says, pointing to several lace bark elms, imported from South Carolina and, at 10 tons apiece, put in place by a huge crane. Still, Brown says hers is not entirely a storybook existence, though she confesses, sipping coffee on the sofa in her barn-size den, "to someone on the outside looking in, it may appear that way."
Most days Brown dresses in jeans and sneakers before driving her 1997 black BMW 740 sedan to her office, where she labors at the computer for up to eight hours a day. Also on her mind is her mother, Martha, who died in early August. Diagnosed last year with a brain tumor, she had been living in a guest house on the Browns' property with round-the-clock nurses.
But Brown has learned to count her blessings. "I certainly have been enormously fortunate," she says. Happily married for 30 years, she totes Michael along on her book tours. Their son Ryan, 23, recently scored the role of Bill Lewis on the soap opera Guiding Light. And daughter Rachel, 25, until recently a marketing rep at Guess? jeans, is engaged to Ted Johnson, 25, a middle linebacker for football's New England Patriots who just signed a five-year, $25 million contract extension. The two first met when Brown invited Johnson to dinner after hearing he was a fan. "And I just—whoops!—happened to be here," jokes Rachel. "I always tease him and say he loved my mother first."
Then again, what's not to love? Back at Richland High School in Fort Worth, where she was a member of both the student council and the Dixie Belles dance team, Brown was voted most talented junior and senior. The eldest of five daughters born to Jimmie Cox, now 70, a former editorial writer for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and his wife, Martha, a counselor for emotionally disturbed children, Brown recalls devouring Nancy Drew mysteries as a young girl, and later, everything from Harold Robbins to Tennessee Williams. "In terms of mood and setting," says Brown, "he was my favorite." But her childhood dream was to be a professional dancer. "I wanted to be Juliet Prowse," she says. In 1967, she met Michael at a song-and-dance audition at the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park during her summer break from Texas Christian University (she never graduated). They wed in 1968.
After Michael landed a job in 1975 as news anchor at the ABC affiliate in Dallas, Brown presented the weather part-time at the same station. But four years later, she was laid off. Left at home to care for their two small children, she grew restless. "I needed a creative outlet," she recalls. "But all the ladies in my neighborhood would play bridge—and that was not me."
Instead, Brown bribed her kids to leave her alone each morning by promising visits to the neighborhood park—and began writing her first romance novel, Love's Encore. By the time it was published in 1981, she had finished two more. Brown, who today employs a full groundskeeping staff as well as a uniformed maid, still marvels at her former self. "But when I was growing up," she recalls, "I always said, 'I'm going to have an unusual life'—I've always thought that."
Michael Haederle in Arlington