BEHIND THE WHITE COLUMNS and wrought-iron gates of her mansion near Galveston, best-selling author Judith McNaught has momentarily come out of self-imposed seclusion—having been consumed for months with writing her forthcoming novel, Night Whispers—to discuss the enduring appeal of romance. Settling into a Louis Quatorze—style chair, the elegant blonde could easily be mistaken for one of her heroines, and her palatial home, with its chandeliers and white marble floors, its sweeping waterfront views and staircase worthy of Rhett’s ascent to the bedroom with Scarlett in his arms, could be the backdrop for one of her wildly popular romance novels. In these gauzy, soft-focus surroundings, there is no mention of men’s failings or love’s disappointments; instead, fantasy, with its endless possibilities, lives on—and has made the 54-year-old McNaught a fortune, with more than 20 million copies of her novels in print in the U.S. alone and nine New York Times best-sellers to her name. Indeed, her books’ popularity has led some to consider her an authority of sorts; a male reporter once asked her, “Ms. McNaught, what is love?” She responded with the kind of élan that has made her legendary among her fans. “I said, ‘If you don’t know already,’” she recalls with a regal laugh, “‘I don’t have enough time today to teach you.’”

To those who aren’t loyal readers of romance novels, McNaught’s name is probably not a familiar one, although she has outsold other celebrated Texas writers, such as Cormac McCarthy and Mary Willis Walker, by the millions. Such relative anonymity comes with the territory, since McNaught inhabits a largely ignored, often scorned niche of the publishing world that happens to be flourishing in Texas. The romance novel, with typically formulaic plots and florid prose, has long been reviled by literary critics, feminists, and moralists alike, mocked as much for its beefcake book covers as for its torrid scenes of passion. But as the publishing industry downsizes and fiction editors wring their hands over declining readership, no one is scoffing at the genre’s success: With revenues of $1 billion a year, the romance novel accounts for 49 percent of paperback sales, outselling the mystery, suspense, and science-fiction categories combined. No longer merely a relic of less liberated times, it has become a mainstay of the publishing business, with readers buying 182 million romance novels a year.

Just as romance novels have lent vitality to the publishing industry, Texas has become the new lifeblood of the genre as novelists have moved away from the urban glitz-and-glamour themes of the eighties to the simpler, down-home stories of the nineties. Editors, taking note of the particular allure of the Texas-based romance, are introducing new series this summer, such as Texas Brides, and reviving old ones like Texas Men (a briskly selling 1996 line about hunky Texans seeking love in a personals magazine of the same name). Explains Debbie Macomber, the Washington State—based author of Harlequin’s best-selling new Heart of Texas series: “It’s a well-known fact in the industry right now that if you put ‘Texas’ in the title, your book will sell.”

In books like To Tame a Texan’s Heart, by Amarillo’s Jodi Thomas, and Texas Destiny, by Plano’s Lorraine Heath, there are no freeways clogged with traffic, no lackluster sunsets, and no men who would prefer watching the Cowboys to roping steers themselves. Instead, this is a land populated by willful beauties and the rugged, broad-shouldered men who love them: brash wildcatters and roguish wranglers, ranch hands who wear faded blue jeans and the sweet smell of hay, and sheriffs who smile admiringly at the heroines from beneath the brim of a Stetson. Texas romances have both urban and rural settings, but tales of small-town life, such as Macomber’s Heart of Texas series, a six-book saga about the fictional Hill Country town of Promise, are more common. In the first installment, Lonesome Cowboy, local wallflower Savannah Weston struggles to keep the Yellow Rose Ranch going after her brother, a “ne’er-do-well charmer,” makes off with the family inheritance; she finally blooms under the attentions of Laredo Smith, a drifter with a mysterious past and a talent for breaking wild horses. Typical of the urban romance is McNaught’s latest novel, the 1996 best-seller Remember When, which tells the story of Houston magazine editor Diana Foster, a recently jilted oil heiress whose evening at a River Oaks charity ball eventually lands her in the arms of stableboy-turned-billionaire Cole Harrison. “To me, there’s nothing romantic about the smell of a stable,” says McNaught, “but give me an oil tycoon and a scene at the Petroleum Club, and I’m hooked.”

“The idea of Texas has always been seductive,” says Harlequin editor Birgit Davis-Todd, the editor of the Texas Men series, “but it wasn’t until fairly recently that we realized what a huge selling point it was, particularly abroad. We’ve been astounded by these series’ popularity.” One would expect erotic imprints like Silhouette’s Desire line and Harlequin’s Temptation series to be big sellers, but even “sweet romances” are hot now: The Heart of Texas series, which features little more than meaningful glances and the occasional chaste embrace, has generated up to two hundred fan letters a day. In a genre that inspires extraordinary loyalty, such outpourings are not uncommon. “At my grandmother’s funeral in Oilton, Oklahoma, a woman was waiting outside the cemetery for me with a copy of every book I had ever written,” says best-selling San Antonio romance writer Pamela Morsi. “I actually ended up signing books on the hood of my grandmother’s hearse.”

 Some might argue that Texas looms large in romance novels simply because several hundred romance writers live here—among them some of the biggest names in the field, such as McNaught, Arlington’s Sandra Brown (Texas! Sage), Cedar Hill’s Laura Kinsale (Flowers From the Storm), and Morsi (Sealed With a Kiss). Even Susan Combs, a conservative Republican candidate for agriculture commissioner, was recently revealed to have penned the steamy 1990 novel A Perfect Match, a story about a high-level civil servant and her amorous bodyguard. But Texas’ unlikely bounty of romance writers doesn’t fully account for its visibility in the genre; instead, its prominence speaks to the still-seductive power of the mythic West and the men such a place breeds. From the unforgiving landscape of Giant to the monied milieu of Dallas, the state has long been home to the epic drama and men of equal stature, from Jett Rink to  J.R. Ewing—making it a natural locale for romance. “This is not the land of the weak or the timid,” explains fiftyish Houston romance writer Rita Clay Estrada (Conveniently Yours). “Texas is larger than life, and so are our men—they’re stubborn, independent, proud. The challenge for our heroines here is trying to tame them.”

Estrada is partially responsible for Texas’ status as a hotbed of romance; she and several other novelists founded Romance Writers of America, now an eight-thousand-member organization, in Houston twenty years ago. (The industry’s gold statuette for excellence—the RITA, “Romance Is Treasured Always”—is named after Estrada, whose name has the same magical ring to romance novelists’ ears that “Oscar” or “Tony” has to denizens of Hollywood or Broadway.) At the time, the genre was almost entirely dominated by English bodice-rippers set in drawing rooms or on windswept moors, where timid heroines sighed and fluttered their eyelashes before being ravished against their will. “Our British sisters liked lots of hitting and slapping,” says Estrada, “but we wanted heroines we could relate to.” Frustrated by publishers’ lack of enthusiasm for American manuscripts—many of which were contemporary stories that ended with the promise of fidelity—Estrada helped coordinate the first Romance Writers of America conference in 1981. Roughly 150 novelists were expected to attend the Houston gathering, but more than 800 people came, including editors, agents, and a fleet of reporters from around the country. It was the beginning of a new era; editors soon began publishing American writers en masse, and later that year, Publishers Weekly ran a forty-page special report announcing the “return of romance.”

Gone were the glowering heroes and eroticized rape scenes; in were headstrong heroines and, not far behind them, soaring book sales. During the eighties romance boom that followed, Texas produced a bevy of popular romance writers, most notably Sandra Brown, now 50 and the author of 36 New York Times best-sellers. Having moved up to mainstream fiction in recent years, Brown declined to be interviewed for this article. Nevertheless, Unspeakable—which debuted at number six on the Times’ best-seller list when it was released in June—is set in the fictional East Texas town of Blewer and relies on many of the conventions of the romance (“Again and again she read her name on his lips,” rhapsodizes a nine-page love scene between its deaf heroine and a mysterious drifter, “knowing when he whispered it softly with intense feeling, knowing when he mindlessly called it out in passion”). Brown has said that she left the genre because she felt hemmed in by its conventions: Secondary characters are rarely developed, as the focus must remain on the unfolding love story, and the hero’s point of view is seldom as well defined as the heroine’s. There is also a distaste for anything deemed amoral, from foul language to promiscuity. The Bridges of Madison County and The Horse Whisperer are not considered romance novels because they celebrate adultery, and neither is Gone With the Wind, since it is missing the most important ingredient: a happy ending. “In a mystery, you always know that the crime will be solved,” says Houston romance novelist Jolie Kramer, who uses the pen name Jo Leigh (Single Sheriff Seeks …), “and in a romance, you always know that the hero and heroine will end up happily ever after.”

With such strict parameters and thousands of romances having already been published, many romance writers now lament that “everything has already been done”—one reason why some of them regularly convene to develop new story lines. (At a recent romance writers plot group in Sugar Land, the 43-year-old Kramer described her current dilemma. “All right, when my book begins, it’s nighttime and the wind is howling,” she told the gathering. “But how do I get my characters alone, away, and knee-deep in alligators?”) Most of them meet monthly with their Romance Writers of America chapter—of which there are three in Houston alone and fourteen statewide, from El Paso to Tyler—to discuss new strategies for breaking into the business or fresh ways of describing old archetypes. A cowboy and a horse whisperer were the featured guests at one Austin chapter meeting this summer, where a roomful of romance writers listened to the decidedly unromantic details of life on the range, from living off of canned sausages to castrating bulls. (Mindful of their readership, the writers took careful notes on the speakers’ handsome spurs and saddles.) “Now you ladies may not have known this,” explained the horse whisperer, a tanned man in snug Wranglers and leather chaps who had dressed the part of the romantic hero, “but a whip isn’t for lashing. Of course, some folks like to scare the living daylights out of an animal with it,” he said, cracking the whip in the air with a thunderous thwack over several well-coiffed heads, “but horses are just like the people who ride them—they learn through touch, and the gentler you are, the better.”

For most of the writers who listened attentively, success like Judith McNaught’s—she bumped Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October from the number one slot on the Times’ best-seller list with her 1990 romantic triumph, Almost Heaven—is probably an unattainable dream. Nevertheless, the thrill of writing about romance doesn’t wane. At the meeting’s close, new romance writer Jean Brashear stood up. “I have a very important announcement to make,” she said excitedly. “I sold another book!”

“It’s about time, honey,” chimed in one of the women with a good-natured laugh.

“I’m not a one-book wonder!” Brashear exclaimed to enthusiastic applause.

Hearing good news from a publisher may not be as romantic as having a bashful cowboy finally say, “Ma’am, may I have this dance?” But it’s a romance writer’s favorite happy ending.