May 15, 2006 12:00 PM

It had only been a few days since Heather Locklear got the shocking news that her not-quite-ex husband was now dating her friend and neighbor Denise Richards, but she wasn’t about to let her emotions get in the way of her 8-year-old daughter Ava’s fun. On April 28, pulling up outside Richie Sambora’s house to drop Ava off for a prearranged snowboarding trip with Dad, Locklear handed Ava the bag she’d packed for her, gave her a hug and told her to call her if she needed anything. “She made it very comfortable for her,” says a friend. “Is Heather bummed? Yes. But for her well-being and Ava’s, she’s got to move beyond this.”

She’s working on it. Between meeting pals for brunch, hitting the driving range with her father and catching the movie RV with Ava, Locklear, 44, isn’t exactly moping at home with a tub of Ben & Jerry’s. Still, after a meal at an L.A. Korean restaurant the other day, where she dined with David Spade, she made her feelings very clear to a group of photographers outside. When asked if she was still friends with Richards, Locklear, in pigtails and sporting a girlish grin to match, responded with a sarcastic reply: “Yes—my best friend.” As one pal puts it, “She is not happy with what went down.”

Actually, neither is Richards. “I wish Heather well,” says Richards, who insists her relationship with Sambora was nothing but platonic until after Locklear filed for divorce. “Unfortunately our friendship had to dissolve and I’m sad about that. The last thing I would want to do is create a media frenzy like this, especially as I’m trying to get through a divorce.”

Not surprisingly, spinmeisters in both camps are coming out of the Hollywoodwork in support of their friends. The saga is turning into a real-life Betty-versus-Veronica comic strip (who plays the nefarious Veronica depends on whom you ask), with confidants on opposing sides spewing accusations, making it almost impossible to decipher fact from scandalous fiction.

As recently as last December, the actresses couldn’t have appeared closer. On New Year’s Eve, they were photographed arm-in-arm on the way to a party together. Richards, who was in the middle of another rough patch with husband Charlie Sheen, 40, with whom she was attempting a reconciliation after filing for divorce nine months before, was even wearing an outfit she’d borrowed from Locklear. “Heather had helped her get dressed to perk up her spirits,” says a friend of Locklear’s. “They were really good friends.”

Something changed around the time Locklear filed for divorce from Sambora, 46, in February. While Locklear’s pals rallied around her in support, she and Richards—mom to Sam, 2, and Lola, 11 months—had been growing apart since mid-January, friends of Richards estimate. But Locklear was taken aback when she found out, after many of her friends agreed in an act of solidarity not to attend Sambora’s Bon Jovi show in L.A., that Richards was there.

Richards’ camp, meanwhile, cites another cause for the recent iciness between the two. “When Heather filed for divorce, she went to Charlie’s attorney, and Denise was really upset about it,” says the source. Furthermore, friends of Richards’, 35, insist that her relationship with Sambora didn’t start until weeks after that March 3 concert, at which Richards merely said hello to the guitarist—nothing more. But two weeks later, Richards and Sambora ran into each other at the L.A. sushi restaurant Tomodachi, and a stop-and-chat ignited a few sparks between them. “They started talking about their divorces and their kids,” says a friend of Richards’. “From there, it just started to blossom into something more than friends.” (Sheen’s camp claims the relationship started months earlier.)

Knowing each other for four years and living just a few minutes apart in the exclusive Westlake Village area, about 40 miles outside L.A., it’s not surprising that Richards and Sambora were drawn to each other. When they were still together, Richards and Sheen and Locklear and Sambora occasionally hung out, even taking their kids out trick-or-treating together last October. And during Richards’ trouble spots with Sheen, Sambora was right beside Locklear consoling her. “He’s a genuinely nice guy,” says one source.

After a tumultuous marriage, a little hand-holding under the California sun has been a bright development in an otherwise gloomy period for Richards. “Richie’s been very supportive through one of the most difficult times in her life,” says a friend.

Of course, thanks to recent photographs taken of the couple kissing at a Westlake Village cafe, Richards is very aware that Locklear is now going through a difficult time of her own. “This wasn’t something they planned—it just happened,” says the friend. “She knows it sucks and it’s horrible, but it is what it is.” For the sake of all parties involved, including their children, Richards and Sambora lay low for more than a month. “They had been keeping it so secretive, but when they found out people had caught wind of it, they were like, ‘You know what? Oh, well, here we go.’ With everything going on, Denise has learned that life is so short, it’s hard to worry about what everyone thinks. Everyone hated Angelina Jolie for a while, too.”

While Richards has found solace in the arms of Sambora, who just moved the last of his belongings from Locklear’s garage, Locklear is getting some support from a snarkier source. Although the two insist that they’re just friends, she and David Spade, 41, have been spotted together a number of times since she filed for divorce. In fact, insist friends of Richards’, the two had been seeing each other before Locklear’s split from Sambora (a charge both Locklear’s and Spade’s camps vehemently deny). These same friends claim Locklear was also having secret rendezvous with ex-husband Tommy Lee while she was married to Sambora (again, Locklear’s side refutes the allegation).

In any case, Locklear wants to put the whole messy saga behind her. During a recent pedicure, “a woman came up to her and said ‘I just think you’re great. My girlfriends and I want to make Team Heather T-shirts,'” says a source close to Locklear. “But she doesn’t want Team Heather T-shirts. She just wants to move on.”

Working out almost every day and lining up new work projects after taping the TV pilot Women of a Certain Age, “she’s been staying busy,” says a friend. And she has not, says a source, tried to contact Sheen, her former Spin City costar, to kvetch about their exes hooking up.

Even Spade seems to be keeping his distance from Sheen. Out at the L.A. restaurant Bridge on April 27, the same night that Sheen and pal Matthew Perry were there, Spade didn’t pop by to say hello to Perry until Sheen was in the restroom. As for Sheen, he appears to be every bit as anxious as Locklear is to move on. At Bridge, “he was in good spirits,” says an observer. “He was out with his friends, enjoying a nice night out. Chin up, ya know?”

He definitely had a smile on his face that weekend, when he got to see Sam and Lola in a supervised visit. “He’s doing pretty good—he spent the day with the kids,” says dad Martin Sheen, who was also happy to get in a visit with the grandkids. “I miss Denise, too. This is a very painful, sad time.”

If there’s one thing that all parties can agree on, it’s that this shouldn’t be a sad time for any of the children involved. “This is all hard—it’s very painful,” says Richards. “The thing that’s getting me through all of this is my daughters, just staying focused on them.”

The same goes for Locklear and Sambora. “They continue to have their daughter’s best interest at heart,” says a friend of Sambora’s. “Ava’s doing well. She’s been staying at Richie’s house and has friends over.” In fact, it’s because of Ava that both her parents are looking to leave any anger behind them. “That’s the saving grace of being a parent,” says a Locklear friend. “You have to just keep moving forward.”

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