By Erik Meers
November 29, 1999 12:00 PM

Kids ask the darndest things. At a recent barbecue that pop singer Amy Grant threw at her colonial home for her 10-year-old daughter Millie, one of the youngster’s friends sized up the presence of country star—and longtime Grant pal—Vince Gill and blurted out the question Nashville nabobs had been asking each other for years: “Is he your boyfriend?”

“I kinda took a breath,” Grant recently told The Tennessean, “and said, ‘He is, honey, yeah.’ ” Thus ended the seemingly endless speculation about the pair, who had vehemently denied they were romantically involved while married to their respective spouses. Since that moment, Gill, 42 (who was divorced from wife Janis in 1997), and the 39-year-old Grant (whose divorce from husband Gary Chapman was finalized in June) have been taking their act all over town—dining at a local Waffle House, attending church together and canoodling on golf courses. “They giggle a lot,” says Kathy Dozier, a volunteer at Gill’s annual golf tournament. “They laugh and touch each other. They are very funny together and very sweet. It’s like they’re in high school.”

Their teen antics aren’t reserved for the links. During a bus trip returning to Nashville from a tour with his band last September, Gill received a call from Grant on his cell phone. Changing his plans, Gill told the driver to drop him off at a McDonald’s parking lot along the way, where Grant would pick him up. “We just took off and left him there,” says photographer Bill Thorup, a Gill friend. “I’ve never seen him happier.” Grant shares her beau’s sunny outlook. She recently told a local reporter that Gill “is hands down, slam dunk, my best friend. We [are] like two peas in a pod.”

Not surprisingly, the pods Grant and Gill used to occupy were not nearly so happy. Janis Gill, 44, Vince’s wife of 17 years and mother of his daughter Jenny, 17, initially tolerated the close friendship he struck up with Grant, known for her Christian-themed paeans to eternal love, after she performed at his 1993 Christmas concert. Janis’s forbearance vanished the next year after she found hand-written notes from Grant in her husband’s golf bag. Her sister Kristine Arnold recalls coming home and finding a sobbing Janis parked in her driveway on the night of the discovery. “She was holding a crumpled note,” says Arnold. “It said, ‘I love you, Amy.’ That was the beginning of the end.” After unsuccessfully begging Gill to cut his ties with Grant, Janis finally divorced him citing “irreconcilable differences” in 1997, reaping a hefty settlement valued from $9 to $20 mills lion, depending on her ex-husband’s a royalty earnings.

Gill and Grant maintain that Janis’s suspicions were unwarranted and that their relationship remained p platonic until their divorces were completed. During Gill’s divorce proceedings, Vince and Amy were even prepared to sign sworn affidavits stating that they hadn’t had sex together. But claims of chastity don’t wash with Arnold. “Janis tried desperately to keep that marriage together,” says Arnold, 43, who runs a Nashville boutique with Janis. “She did not leave her husband. He left her. She loved Vince deeply, and the whole experience has been horrifying. Just because people are not having a physical relationship doesn’t mean they aren’t having an affair.”

Meanwhile, Grant’s long troubled, 16-year marriage to songwriter Chapman was disintegrating. According to a family friend, Chapman, 42, a former Nashville Network host, felt overshadowed by his wife almost from the moment they met at a party in 1979. “[Gill] wasn’t what broke them up. I’d say it was the final straw. They weren’t getting along,” says the friend, “and they hadn’t been for years.” Still, the devoutly Christian pair struggled to make the union work, seeing numerous marriage counselors. But Gill was a constant reminder to Grant that relationships should be easier. “Sometimes an innocent party can come into a situation, and they’re like a big spotlight,” the Augusta, Ga.-born Grant told the magazine CCM (Contemporary Christian Music) this month. “What they do is reveal, by comparison, the painful dynamics that are already in existence. Through all of that process in my life, Vince was a friend of mine.”

In February, Grant finally moved out of the family’s $6 million Franklin, Tenn., farm to a house in Nashville. (Their kids Matthew, 12, Millie, 10, and Sarah, 7, now divide time between parents.) “This is easily the saddest thing I’ve encountered in my life,” Chapman told PEOPLE at the time. “I’m an old-fashioned guy who believes marriage should last until one of you quits breathing.”

For Grant and Gill, it’s time to move on. While some Christian radio stations have pulled Grant’s music from the air because of her divorce, says Lindy Warren, a CCM newsletter editor, Grant is about to begin a sold-out, 21-city tour to support her latest disc, A Christmas to Remember. The pair themselves seem carefree. “I have a picture of them where they are just looking at each other lovingly,” says Gill friend Thorup. “It’s just that look—it looks like a couple in love.”

Erik Meers

Beverly Keel in Nashville