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Romance novelist maintains normal lifestyle

Virginia Henley will be at the Tyrone Borders Books to sign her works tonight.

After work, the queen of steamy romance novels loves to get behind her husband on his motorcycle and cruise to Woody's Waterfront on St. Pete Beach for a grouper sandwich. Then perhaps a pint of light beer at the Harp and Thistle. Quieter nights might find this couple of 43 years walking the beach as their schnauzer Lilli frolics in the surf.

Most people agree that there is nothing about Broadwater resident Virginia Henley's demeanor to let on that she has written 16 novels with more than 4-million books in print in 10 languages; or that she is the person USA Today has called "a must-read for those who love steamy historical romances."

"I don't even think of her as a big celebrity _ she's so nice and friendly. We talk like regular old people," said neighbor Arlene Janetzke. "She was just here Sunday for our 25th wedding anniversary."

Virginia and her husband, Arthur, a retired architect, moved to St. Petersburg about 10 years ago.

"We lived in Toronto . . . and I had pneumonia and I just couldn't get feeling better," Virginia Henley remembered. "We went to this travel agent and said, "Fly us anywhere warm!' And they flew us to St. Pete Beach, and we loved it. Before we went home, we bought a little house."

For a while, the Henleys were part-time residents, but they now have their green cards and hope to become U.S. citizens in two years when the mandatory five-year waiting period ends.

"St. Petersburg is the closest to paradise we're ever going to get," Henley said. "We love it here. We never want to see a snow shovel again. I went to the Caribbean Islands (recently on a working vacation). What a waste of time! It's not prettier than where we live."

Henley, 63, was born in Bolton, England. Her family emigrated to Ontario when she was a teenager. Teased about her accent, she quickly lost it. She notes that had the Beatles gotten here a little sooner, her accent would have been all the rage.

Two careers took charge of her life before she sat down to write.

As a young woman and new wife she worked as a secretary for a Labatt's brewery where, in addition to typing, she got to be on a beer taster's panel every morning. Then her two boys came along and she became a full-time mother and homemaker.

She said she always knew she wanted to write romance.

"I started with reading The Wolf and the Dove by Kathleen Woodiwiss. She and Rosemary Rogers were the big writers back in those days," Henley said. "I had both their pictures on my refrigerator door and I thought, "Someday, my picture is going to be up with these other women. I'm going to do it.' "

At age 40, Henley found herself in a house full of men. Her boys were teenagers, and her recently widowed father had come to live with them.

"It was me and these four men and the TV was on sports all the time. I had to have something for me. That's when the writing started. It was an escape for me."

Henley spread out her steno pads on a coffee table and began her first book, The Irish Gypsy. (This title has since been reprinted and renamed Enticed by Island Books.)

It took her a year to finish and four years to get someone to take a look at the manuscript. She got the name of a romance editor from reading another author's book dedication. While that editor had left, her successor agreed to read the manuscript.

Henley soon found herself with a book contract at Avon _ the publishing house of her two idols, Woodiwiss and Rogers.

Henley has since moved to Dell Publishing and no longer has trouble getting her calls returned.

Although she has probably earned somewhere in the seven-digit realm (contract privacy prevents her from disclosing income), she still starts every book on those same green writing tablets.

"I write everything longhand, and then when it's ready I move it to the computer," she said. "I just learned e-mail, but I am being kicked and dragged into the modern age."

Two elements always exist in a Henley love story: well-researched history and torrid love scenes.

"I weave a tapestry of history combined with hot sensuality _ it's like magic, it's like a one-two punch," Henley said. "And it satisfies the reader, and satisfying the reader is what it's all about."

Events such as tonight's book signing at Borders are her favorite part of her job.

"You meet the readers and they say such lovely things to you about your writing. . . . I've been in a bookstore (other than book signings) when people are buying my book, and it's really the biggest thrill in the whole world. And you're so tempted to run up to them and say, "That's my book!' "

Denise Morris, wife of the owner of Wilson's books, helped Henley find books on several occasions never knowing she was recommending romance novels to one of the genre's leading ladies. "She was so down to earth," said Morris, a fan of romance novels. "She was just this nice lady in regular shorts, cruising the store for books."