June 28, 1999 12:00 PM

Had she been less a believer in happy endings, romance writer Nancy Richards-Akers might have been more cautious. After all, her estranged husband, Jeremy, a volatile Vietnam War hero, had threatened to kill her so many times, both before and after she finally fled his abuse a year ago, that the gracious Georgian home they had shared in northwest Washington, D.C., was one of the last places she wanted to find herself. But in Nancy’s 16 increasingly popular novels, good always triumphed in the end—and now it seemed it might do the same in her life. She had a new boyfriend, and her husband had lately appeared more reasonable. So when Jeremy unexpectedly agreed to let her take Isabelle, 9, and Zeb, 11, to McDonald’s on June 5, the opportunity seemed too good to pass up.

Too good to be true was more like it. When Richards-Akers, 48, brought the children back to their father around 10 p.m., Jeremy headed over to the red Jeep Wrangler where she sat parked. As the kids drifted toward the porch, the 57-year-old lawyer and former Marine captain offered to take his wife back one last time. When she said no, he pulled out a .22-cal. handgun and shot her twice in the back of the head. Akers fled in his SUV as Zeb and Isabelle cried, “Daddy, we love you, don’t leave!” A little more than two hours later, U.S. Park Police officer Vincent Guadioso spotted Akers near the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the muzzle of a shotgun pointing toward his mouth. No sooner had Guadioso hustled three tourists to safety than Akers pulled the trigger.

It was a bloody conclusion to a marriage of more than two decades, but only the beginning of the questions troubling those who were close to the couple. With all the warnings of looming tragedy, was there no way Richards-Akers could have been saved? “We ask why. We are confused,” Rev. William Foley told 300 friends and family members packing Washington’s Our Lady of Victory Catholic Church on June 9 for an awkward joint memorial service staged for the benefit of the couple’s three children. (Zeb and Isabelle were joined by big brother Finny, 21, a student at the University of North Alabama.) “The question so many, many people are asking themselves tonight,” Foley went on, “[is], ‘Could I have done something?’ ” Says a friend of the family’s: “Jeremy would say he was going to kill her, but none of us took it for real. We all knew he was such a good guy it would never happen. And then, by God, it did.”

Still reeling, some of the pair’s circle sought comfort by sharing recollections of better days. Says the couple’s longtime friend Patricia Duff, who made headlines herself in recent months during her tumultuous custody battle with billionaire ex-husband Ronald Perelman: “In the beginning there was love, and that is what we should remember now.” Indeed, when the couple first clicked in 1976, while both were young staffers on Capitol Hill, “the two of them sparkled,” says Alison Paley, a classmate of Richards-Akers’s at the tony Kent School in Connecticut. “She must have represented all of the things to which he aspired.”

They were the proverbial opposites who attracted. Richards-Akers, a self-described “chronic day-dreamer,” had grown up the cosseted oldest of three children of a physician and his wife in suburban Scarsdale, N.Y., before heading south to such Junior League way stations as Mount Vernon and Sweet Briar colleges. Her beau came from humble roots in industrial Sheffield, Ala., but had the dashing look of a romantic hero. (His military bearing was earned during 10 months in Vietnam; he was awarded two Purple Hearts and a Silver Star for valor.) “She was totally crazy about him,” says Duff of Akers, who had gone on to graduate from the University of Virginia law school. “He was charming and fun and smart. It was as if he walked out of one of her novels.”

He certainly swept her off her feet. The couple’s decision to marry was so sudden—the haste having less to do with Nancy’s pregnancy, friends say, than Jeremy’s impulsiveness—that at the small ceremony at Georgetown’s Christ Church on Aug. 11, 1977, Nancy borrowed maid-of-honor Paley’s wedding dress. “Jeremy was fascinated with her vitality and spirit,” says Paley. “Nancy was very proper, but she could kick up her heels.”

Her new husband presented plenty of contradictions himself. In most respects mannerly and conservative, Akers sometimes pulled pranks on lawyer pals like calling their offices pretending to be a Supreme Court justice. He could be seductively charming—and scarily intense. “I always thought Jeremy was crazy,” says a former Washington coworker of Nancy’s. “There was always an undercurrent of something dangerous.”

Akers’s dark side became evident during the early years of the marriage. Not long after the young family moved to Miami in 1979, where Akers worked for 3½ years as an assistant state attorney under Janet Reno, Nancy began making late-night calls to a friend to complain of abuse. The pattern continued after their return to Washington in 1983, when Akers took a job with the Justice Department handling environmental cases and Nancy went to work for a time as a receptionist at a political consulting firm. “There was a very real power differential,” says a friend of the couple’s who wishes not to be identified. “He would do his own thing, and she would just have to go along and try to carve out her own little niche.”

At first that was motherhood, a role friends say Richards-Akers adored. But, bright and imaginative, she craved something more. Since Jeremy hadn’t been happy when she worked previously, she cast about for something she could do at home—and came up with writing romances. “Once I yearned to write a novel that would change the course of history,” Richards-Akers explained on her Web site. “Instead, I’ve been blessed to write books that change the course of someone’s life for a few hours by giving them a little reading pleasure.”

Richards-Akers began to learn her craft as a member of the Washington chapter of the Romance Writers of America. Though she collaborated on early novels with another author, she published her first single-handed book, The Mayfair Season, in 1987. Soon the manuscripts were pouring out of Richards-Akers’s personal computer, and she was building a reputation with her extensively researched, intensely felt historical tales, particularly those set in Ireland. “She really was an incredibly respected member of our group,” says perennially best-selling author Nora Roberts. “She wrote strong, charming stories.”

That charm appears to have been lost on Akers. The more recognition his wife received—such as having her most popular novel, Wild Irish Skies, named by a Washington Post reviewer as one of the top romance releases of 1997—the greater the strain on their relationship. It didn’t help matters that money was becoming tighter as the environmental consulting firm Akers had started in 1990 began to falter. (As a midlist author selling hundreds of thousands rather than millions of books, Nancy couldn’t command the advances of brand-name writers, and what she did earn was eaten up by her husband’s bills and financial mismanagement.)

While neighbors in the couple’s genteel northwest Washington neighborhood continued to regard them as a close-knit family, a growing number of friends knew otherwise. In chillingly detailed e-mails, Richards-Akers told confidantes of the abuse. “He threatened to kill me, broke my nose, and I was basically a hostage in my own house until early [last June],” she wrote to one in January. “I had to get myself away so my children would not see me killed before their eyes.”

But Richards-Akers was, as she put it, “in an awful predicament.” A few of her Washington women friends feared her husband too much to help her. And Nancy believed that if she fled the city with her children she might face kidnapping charges or, at the very least, serious trouble in her eventual custody battle. Finally, after months of fighting, Akers “allowed” his wife—in Nancy’s words—to leave by herself, then promptly changed the locks so that she could see Zeb and Isabelle only with his permission.

Fleeing succeeded in getting Richards-Akers out of immediate danger. But in other respects it made matters worse. The friend she moved in with was Jim Lemke, a young truck driver and aspiring poet, now 26, who lived nearby in a one-bedroom basement apartment, and Nancy’s presence there infuriated her husband. Initially, it seems, his suspicions were unfounded. But as Nancy spent more time with Lemke, who dubbed himself the Poet King, romance ensued. “We talked about getting married,” says Lemke. “The divorce was going to be a long road. But I’m young. I had the time.”

Although she was short of money, and the legal fight for custody of her children was about to begin, Richards-Akers believed she had turned a corner. In the tranquillity of her new surroundings she had been able to focus on her writing again for the first time in months and had completed the first chapters of a new book. “It seemed that her future was brightening, and maybe she didn’t have to be afraid anymore,” says a friend. “She felt things would get better once the divorce became final and custody was taken care of.”

Sadly, matters never got that far. And so, on the morning after their parents’ memorial service, Zeb and Isabelle bundled into a car with their father’s younger brother “T” (for Tom) for the drive to Alabama, where they will begin their new lives with him and his wife, Carolyn. (The couple have two grown children.) Although the youngsters left without their parrot, their cockatiel and their ferret—T wanted to get them out of the house as quickly as possible because they started crying when the packing began—perhaps they took some solace from their grandfather’s words the night before. “I have three things to say,” Nancy’s elderly father, Dr. Roderick Richards, told the hushed crowd at the end of the service. “One is forgive. Two is forget, because we have to get on with our lives. And three is love one another.”

Pam Lambert

Rose Ellen O’Connor, Linda Killian, Vicky Moon, Susan Gray and Elizabeth Velez in Washington, Sue Miller in New York City and Don Sider in West Palm Beach, Fla.

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