She has been nominated four times before but Erica James finally overcame the opposition to clinch the £10,000 award for Romantic Novel of the Year.
The 46-year-old writer beat a shortlist including previous winners, Jojo Moyes and Audrey Howard, and a rare male contender, Nicholas Sparks, to take the annual prize with her novel, Gardens of Delight.
It follows the members of a village garden club on a tour to Lake Como in Italy to visit the more celebrated gardens of the area. But the trip turns out to be more than horticultural, with three romances springing up and running riot.
Announcing the result at a lunch at the Savoy Hotel, London, yesterday, Jenny Haddon, chair of the Romantic Novelists' Association, said: "It is particularly pleasing that this year's award goes to Gardens of Delight, by Erica James, who has been shortlisted four times before."
She beat 210 other entries chosen for consideration by a panel of more than 100 members of the public, including reading groups.
But the choice of winner was unanimous, according to the judges, Dr Susan Horsewood-Lee; Sue Baker from Publishing News, and Matt Bates, fiction buyer at WH Smith Travel. In a statement they said: "We were looking for a romantic novel of high quality and were unanimous about our winner. Gardens of Delight entices you into a consistent, well-drawn world with credible characters from all walks of life and every age group. It is outstandingly well written and also very moving. And at £6.99 in paperback, it's a cheap way to get to Italy!"
James, who is single, grew up in Hampshire and has since lived in Oxford, Yorkshire and Belgium, before settling in Cheshire with her two sons. She is the author of 10 previous novels.
"It's extraordinary," she said after her win. "I'd got used to being the bridesmaid and never the bride."
When she was sitting writing in her study, she never considered what genre she was writing in - although early reviewers had labelled her work "romantic comedies" her recent work had been anything but.
"I just write stories about relationships," she said.
James began writing as a hobby to see whether she could succeed 14 years ago. "I was a stay-at-home mother with two young children. I loved reading and I thought it would be rather nice to write one's own book," she said. "When you read, it's an escape and you get really involved. I wondered if you got more lost in this world you were creating yourself - and I found that you did."
Only minutes after learning of her victory, she had not yet decided what she would spend the £10,000 prize on. "But I don't want to fritter it away on boring things. I want to spend it on something wonderfully frivolous," she said.
The other books to make the shortlist were: Winds of Honour by Ashleigh Bingham; As the Night Ends by Audrey Howard; An Eligible Bachelor by Veronica Henry; Recipes for a Perfect Marriage by Kate Kerrigan; The Ship of Brides by Jojo Moyes and True Believer by Nicholas Sparks.Reuse content