updated 02/20/2006 AT 2:45 PM ET
•originally published 02/09/2006 AT 4:00 PM ET
In the batting cage at Baseball City in Agoura Hills, Calif., on Feb. 5, Heather Locklear was looking fine: her jeans tight, her white tank top showing off her L.A. tan, and – in defiance of house rules – her trademark blonde mane flowing unencumbered by a helmet. And she was hitting hard: swing, crack, swoosh … swing, crack, swoosh. There in the cage, with her daughter Ava, 8 – who had been first up to bat – at her side, she was the picture of suburban bliss.
“They were having a lot of fun,” says a witness of the girls’ afternoon out. “She was laughing and cheering on Ava and having a great time.” But after about 15 minutes, Ava said she was tired. So her mother put down her bat, climbed into her town car with Ava and called it a day. “Heather really did look good,” says the witness. “All things considered.”
“They kept trying to work things out,” says the friend. Then, a few days before she called it quits, Locklear found an e-mail sent to Sambora by a woman they both knew. The e-mail, says the source, contained “provocative pictures.” Though the woman had long been “a sore subject,” says the friend, Locklear never thought she and her husband had actually been “romantic.” Whatever conclusions she has now drawn from the photos, they were, believes her friend, the final straw: “She’s devastated. Absolutely devastated.”
Sambora, meanwhile, seems mostly confused. According to their friend, he is as upset about the photos as Locklear: “Richie’s saying that nothing ever happened, that he never asked for the pictures.” Another source close to him says that while he and Locklear “have issues that they’ve been trying to resolve for years,” the photos are neither the cause of the breakup nor indicative of a liaison between Sambora and the woman.
“This is not the Jude Law story,” says the source. “It’s absolutely not true that they had an affair,” though he adds that the discovery of the photos “wasn’t a great thing to happen when people are on the brink of breaking up anyway, that’s for sure.” Either way, Sambora seemed not to be aware his wife was at the point of filing for divorce. While clerks at the city courthouse in L.A. processed Locklear’s papers on Feb. 2, Sambora was in Washington, D.C., preparing for a Bon Jovi concert. At about 7 p.m. he took a break to do a prearranged interview with ABC News Radio reporter Leah Ricciuti, who told him that an hour earlier PEOPLE.COM had broken the news that he and Locklear were breaking up.
Unfazed, he called the report “completely untrue” and went on to talk about his Valentine’s Day plans to be home with his wife and kid. “He didn’t seem upset, hurt or caught off-guard,” says Ricciuti. Instead he was chatty, funny and open, treating her query only as another empty rumor – “a silly question,” she says. “I honestly don’t think he knew anything.”
Or was he doing what rock stars excel at: performing? Onstage late that night, Sambora delivered “his usual soulful playing,” says a concertgoer with a backstage pass. Afterward he headed with the band straight to the Georgetown Ritz-Carlton, where they were “just hanging out” at the hotel bar, Degrees, says a witness. It was “low-key.” Certainly he had a lot to think about.
As recently as a few weeks ago, he was assuring friends who had heard, as one puts it, “rumblings” of marital trouble that all was okay. “People were calling and asking [him] about it,” says Kathy Dzielak, the entertainment editor of the Asbury Park Press in New Jersey, who remembers native son Sambora since he was a teenager playing in a local band. “Richie told one friend that if his marriage was on the rocks, it looked like he was the last to know.” Indeed, by all accounts the bond between him and Locklear was strong. “I thought they were the perfect couple,” says their longtime friend, music writer Lonn Friend, who insists Sambora was not your typical rocker. “He’d sown some wild oats in his day,” but since hooking up with Locklear, Friend says, he’d become “a family man.” Adds another mutual pal: “They were the envy of all their friends. There was a real fire and passion between them.” Of course, the practicalities of life tested that passion.
During their marriage, Locklear was rarely without a role on a TV series – Spin City, Scrubs, LAX and most recently Boston Legal – which tied her to L.A. Sambora, meanwhile, was regularly gone for long periods while touring, most recently promoting Bon Jovi’s latest release, Have a Nice Day. Still, for years their bond – including their devotion to their daughter – kept them on track. “They’ve always been so unbelievably supportive of each other,” says their friend. “He was always attending events with her. And she’d go to concerts and stare at him like it was the first time.”
In addition to the stress created from having two divergent careers, there was another reported source of friction between Locklear and Sambora: the prospect of having more kids. Sambora is an “amazing, devoted father,” says Lonn Friend, the kind who didn’t think twice, for instance, about ditching an event in New Jersey early so he could fly to L.A. to see Ava perform in a school production of Peter Rabbit. Irrepressibly proud, he loved to take Ava on the road with him, even bring her up onstage. And he has long been talking about trying for kid No. 2. For a time, Locklear, a loving mom, says Friend – “and one of the kindest people I’ve ever met” – was mulling over the idea.
In 2000 her best friend, Lisa Ashley, told PEOPLE “She talks about it, but that’s as far as it has gone. She goes back and forth.” But time took the parents in different directions. When, in her Feb. 2 interview, ABC News Radio reporter Ricciuti asked Sambora if there were any more kids on the way, he said, “I wish, I wish.” But Locklear, he added, was not game: “It just gets to a point where women go, ‘I don’t want to go through that again.’ For us it’s easy. We just point and shoot. So I’m done.” Still, it was a disagreement, not a deal-breaker. Those close to them are even crossing their fingers that the couple will reconcile. “I’m hopeful there’s a way to put this back together,” says one mutual friend. “You’re talking 11 years of history.” But if their history works for them, it also works against them.
“The real answer is that time apart takes its toll,” says their friend. “Physical distance creates emotional distance.” For now, Sambora can count on the boys in the band to get him through the inevitable “mourning period,” says Friend. “They came from the same streets in New Jersey. They will be there for him.” For her part, Locklear is lying low, taking one day at a time. Though “her career is important to her,” says her friend, an industry source notes that “she doesn’t want to commit to anything long-term at the moment. She doesn’t know what she wants to do with her life right now.”
Except, like Sambora, be a good parent to Ava. “She is beyond the priority for both of them,” says their friend. Now the hope is that all that parental love will, if not bring the couple back together, at least keep Locklear and Sambora in an amicable place. “They’re both good people who really deserve good lives,” says their friend. “They admire and respect each other. That’s why it’s so hard, and so sad.”
By Karen S. Schneider. Alexis Chiu, Carrie Borzillo-Vrenna, Tom Cunneff and Ulrica Wihlborg in L.A., Sandra Sobieraj and Emily Hochberg in Washington, D.C., and Diane Herbst in New York City