October 29, 2007 12:00 PM

In the backyard of their warm, country-style home in Bedford, N.Y., Rob Thomas gives his wife, Marisol, a once-over. “You look so cute,” he tells her. Even cuter? Marisol grabbing a watering can during the photo shoot and dousing her husband. Despite the sogginess, Thomas knows this is just the life he wants. “I used to think I was a city guy, but I’m a driveway guy,” says Thomas, 35. “I need trees in my yard. I’m old!”

Not exactly ancient by rock star standards—but it has been a decade since he and his band Matchbox Twenty shot to fame. After a two-year hiatus, Matchbox is back with Exile on Mainstream, a compilation of greatest hits like “Push” and “3 AM,” plus six new songs. Reuniting with his bandmates, says Thomas, “is a wonderful thing.”

But Thomas has an even bigger reason to count his blessings: Marisol is finally on the mend after a debilitating bout with an autoimmune disorder. When Thomas first met Marisol, a model, almost 10 years ago, she had been suffering from mysterious fevers and hives. “Doctors would look at me like, ‘I have no idea what to do with you,'” says Marisol, 36. Her frustration eventually turned to fear. By ’04, “I was constantly in emergency rooms, having seizures, and I lost about 85 percent of my hair,” she quietly recalls. “It was really rough.” Adds Thomas: “Those days deplete you.” He ended up pouring his emotions into his solo album Something to Be, and wrote “Ever the Same” on one particularly painful evening after, says Marisol, “I fell asleep crying on his lap.”

In 2005 doctors finally had a diagnosis: a disorder similar to lupus in which the body attacks itself. “That black cloud is lifting because we know how to treat it now,” says Marisol, who’s slowly being weaned off her cocktail of medications with a steady regimen of acupuncture (she’s now down to three medications from dozens). “I truly believe that a lesser couple would not have made it [through this]. It’s been amazing regaining my life back. Hopefully I’ll be done by the winter so my body can be ready for a baby.”

Her husband can hardly wait. “I’m baby-ready,” he gushes. Marisol agrees: “Every time we see a little girl with curly hair [like me], he freaks out.” He certainly dotes on “the boys,” a.k.a. their dogs, kissing and making up songs for terrier-mix Tyler and Pomeranian Samy. Jokes Thomas: “Oh, yeah, we need kids!” The pups will do for now as he readies for Matchbox’s tour; the band and their families alone will need four buses. “We’re not 20-year-old kids anymore, with nothing in our lives other than this band,” says Thomas. “We all have gardens outside of this—and they get bigger all the time.”

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