was feeling lucky. "It's always great to come home!" he told a group of screaming female fans at the New Dubliner pub, where he promoted his upcoming album and enjoyed a hero's welcome. "We call him Mr. Cincinnati," says his friend and former 98 Degrees bandmate Justin Jeffre. "He is loved by all in Cincy." Then it was off to the University of Cincinnati basketball game to cheer on his beloved Bearcats. Relaxed, upbeat and on-his-feet enthusiastic when the Bearcats beat Charlotte, Lachey "is in a really good place," says a source close to the singer. "Of course there were a lot of bumps, but [his new] album really goes through some of that and puts him where he is today."
Four months after the end of his marriage to Jessica Simpson
, Lachey has clearly moved on: He's got a new house in Bel Air, a new yellow Lab puppy (Harlan, named after the town where he was born in Kentucky), a string of new romantic possibilities and the still untitled album, due May 23. The highly personal effort "is kind of a journal of the last year of my life," he told New York's Z100 radio station—starting with the confessional first single, "What's Left of Me." The tune was recorded "the day before Thanksgiving, which was basically the day that Jessica told me she wanted to get a divorce," said Lachey, 32, who shot the video (with MTV's Vanessa Minnillo
) for the single in L.A. on March 21.
Post-Jessica, Lachey is also branching out beyond music with new projects: She Said/He Said, a sitcom pilot he's shooting for the new CW network; YFly.com, a teens-only social network Web site Lachey cofounded that aims to keep out adult predators; and ads for the Core Secrets exercise DVDs with fitness trainer Gunnar Peterson, in which the singer flaunts his sculpted physique.
Which isn't to say that it's all work and no play for Lachey, who has been spotted with several young beauties (see box). "He is a single guy, and he's entitled to enjoy himself," says the source close to Lachey. "He's not looking for a serious relationship. His girlfriend right now is his album." He has also been spending time with his family and getting ready for the arrival of his brother Drew's baby girl. "He'll be a great uncle," says Drew's Dancing with the Stars partner Cheryl Burke, 21, who's hit the club scene in L.A. with Nick, sparking talk that the two were an item (nope). "He's been there 100 percent, and I know he will be the one to spoil the baby."
But if starting his own family is a ways off—"It's something that is important to him, but when the time is right," says the source—Lachey has begun the next chapter. Calling "Resolution" one of his favorite tracks on the new album, he said, "It's kind of my way of saying, 'Okay, I'm letting go of this. I'm never looking back.'"
- K.C. Baker/New York City,
- Tiffany McGee/New York City,
- Marisa Laudadio/Los Angeles,
- Kimberly Lansing/Los Angeles,
- Shannon Bradley/Los Angeles,
- Vanessa Diaz/Los Angeles,
- Lesley Messer/Cincinnati,
- Angela T. Koenig/Cincinnati.
Celebrating St. Patrick's Day in his hometown of Cincinnati,