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He is tall and lean of jaw. She is willowy, with copper-colored hair. They've been through so much, so very much, already.

They've had their dramatic misunderstandings. Tears have trembled on the ends of her lashes.They've been swept away by passion (though common sense screamed its alarm). With deft fingers, he's unplaited her braid. She has felt, on more than one occasion, the steel grip of his hand on her waist.

And now, on the last page of the novel, all is resolved. A tremulous smile is curving her lips. She is whispering, "Yes."

With more than 90 such trembling/curving/swept-away endings to her credit, romance novelist Janet Dailey might seem the queen of formula fiction.

But in reality, she keeps changing the formula. Since her first novel in 1976, Dailey has gone from Harlequin paperbacks to hardbacks published by Little Brown. She's gone from writing 40 books in 1978 to more like one a year lately. She's grown from obscurity to a spot on the New York Times best-seller list.

Sure, she started out in typical romance style - with stilted dialogue and logic-defying plots - but somewhere along the road to true love, Janet Dailey got to be a noticeably better writer. To compare one of her early novels to her latest is like comparing a TV show that died in the first season to something with enough glamour and guts to hold your interest - say a show like "Dallas."

She's still a pop writer, and she knows it. Dailey aspires to, and is moving in the direction of, writing sagas in the style of her favorite author, Edna Ferber.

Dailey's improved her writing through "practice, practice, practice," she says, during a telephone interview from New York, where she is promoting her latest book, "Tangled Vines." Dailey will be in Utah this week, signing copies of "Tangled Vines" at Sam Weller's, 254 S. Main, on Friday, Oct. 2, from 5 to 7 p.m.

Does she believe any writer who works 14 hours a day, as she does, could see the same growth?

"Writing is not easy; I don't want to mislead. Each of my books seems to be longer than the last one, with much more research involved and much more detail in characters," she says.

"I don't think you can be a writer unless you are first a reader. I read everything; I never zero in on one type or one subject matter.

"It's really a very natural evolvement. As you grow and learn how to do things in one format, you want to take what you've learned, you want to develop the minor characters, you want subplots."

Dailey was born on a farm in Early, Iowa, in 1944. Her father died when she was 5 and her mother moved into town with Janet and her three older daughters and found a job. "She was so self-reliant, I never quite understood what women's lib was all about," says Dailey.

Her mother remarried when Dailey was 13, but life changed very little. Her mother continued to work days, while her stepfather cooked dinner and worked nights. Throughout her formative years, says Dailey, working women were her role models.

Her own marriage has more of the glittery trappings about which she writes. After high school, Dailey took a secretarial course and found a job with Bill Dailey's oil/construction/land development company. "Ultimately," she says, "like any good secretary, I married the boss."

When Bill retired in 1974, she quit work, too. They traveled and she talked about wanting to write a romance novel. He dared her. She did it. Her first effort, "No Quarter Asked," was accepted by Harlequin. "I didn't know that was unusual. I just assumed it would be accepted. I didn't think about rejection."

Today the Daileys live on, according to her press release, BelleRive, a 12,000-square-foot Southern plantation-style dream house in Branson, Mo., the country and western capital of the world, and regularly entertain country music stars there." Also Janet Dailey is "the proud owner of two Yorkies and several Arabian horses."

Part of the seduction of each of her books is that the heroine languishes in luxury. In "Tangled

Vines," Dailey's main character is going through a career crisis and having to confront her tortured past - but at the same time, she is being wooed by a handsome and rich man, staying on his estate, and being awakened each morning by a maid who offers to bring her breakfast in bed.

"Yes," agrees Dailey, "pampering is part of the appeal. We'd all love to be pampered." But, Dailey points out, she is a realistic writer. The heroine, who could have anything she wanted for breakfast, always orders dry wheat toast.

Many readers find her books motivational, she says. They write to tell her they've gone back to college, or patched up a feud with a sister.

Dailey doesn't agree with the assessment that all her Harlequin romances were basically the same book. (Man and woman meet and he seems to be kind of a creep but then she comes to understand him and whatever problem was keeping them apart dissolves and they head for the altar.)

"There would be times I would play it for humor. I would play it for drama. Once I used a minister for a hero. A minister and sex don't seem to go to together. So I was even then hitting ground that had not been done before - just for the challenge."

While one of her early books might have ended at the altar, her latest ends only with a promise of love, not of marriage.

Does that mean Dailey no longer sees marriage as the ultimate happy ending? Not at all, she says. She's just being true to life, she says. In real life, people fall in love; that's one happy ending. A couple gets married; that's one more happy ending. They have problems and solve them; another happy ending.

Her books mirror reality, Dailey says. "I think most people's lives are a series of happy endings."