Even for Hollywood, April 22 was weird in a kind of Wisteria Lane way—with darkness tinging what should have been a wholesome event: a kiddie fashion show. At L.A.'s Magnolia restaurant, the launch party of Charlie Sheen's new line of upscale clothing for children, Sheen Kidz, was under way. There were tiny hamburgers and temporary tattoos. There were tykes having lots of fun, but none belonged to Sheen. Although Sam, 2, and Lola, 11 months—Sheen's children with wife Denise Richards—were scheduled to appear on the runway in custom-made Sheen Kidz outfits, both were no-shows. A day earlier, Richards had been granted a temporary restraining order to keep Sheen 300 feet away from his children if unsupervised. At Magnolia, he worked the crowd of 200 guests, posing for pictures and shaking hands, even though the topic on everyone's mind was not cute cotton dresses but his wife's sworn court statement (online for all to read) that he had been abusing prescription drugs, cavorting with hookers and threatening to kill her.

The next day events took another bizarre turn. At around 5 p.m., Richards, 35, pulled up in her black BMW SUV to Le Café restaurant in the L.A. suburb of Westlake Village to meet up with Richie Sambora, the soon-to-be ex-husband of her close friend Heather Locklear. Before their respective separations, the Locklear-Sambora, Richards-Sheen couples had been close—in fact, they were next-door neighbors in Westlake Village. "[The four of them] hung out together a lot," says a friend of Sambora's. But this was no ordinary get-together. When Sambora, 46, and Richards greeted each other in the parking lot outside Le Cafe, they were affectionate—walking hand-in-hand, smiling, chatting, even exchanging a quick kiss. As the two sat at a secluded table on the covered patio with a duck pond behind them, it quickly became even more clear that this was not just a platonic meeting. As Richards pulled back her hair and Sambora tilted back his cowboy hat, the two leaned in for a passionate kiss—a public punctuation of a relationship that sources close to both Richards and Sambora say began in March. (Another source puts the start date months earlier.) Says Sambora's friend: "After [their marriages] broke up, they were probably like, 'You like me, I like you. You're right here, I'm right here. Let's see what this is about.'"

Whatever it's about, the relationship was stunning news to Locklear, 44. "She was shocked," a close friend says of the actress, who filed for divorce in February. "This sucks. It doesn't matter if they're all separated and moving on. Either you're a friend or you're not a friend. There's not a woman alive who could say this wouldn't affect her." (For more on Locklear's reaction see box, page 61.)

But if Locklear is looking for a fight with Richards, she'd better take a number. At Magnolia, Sheen, 40, was also preparing for battle—a visitation battle—with his soon-to-be ex-wife. Richards's 17-page statement was filed on April 21 after Sheen's request for overnight privileges with their daughters—privileges she objects to because, she claimed, he brings prostitutes to his home in Agoura Hills, indulges in online pornography (featuring youthful-looking women and men) and is often on the phone with bookies making bets. He is, she charged, "unstable and irrational and cannot be around our children without professional monitoring." Sheen dismissed all her allegations as "vile, unconscionable and without merit. This has nothing to do with protecting the children from this twisted ogre of a father," he tells PEOPLE. "This is about hurting, about punishing." Sheen adds that he has no intention of publicly rebutting Richards's specific charges or of launching a personal counterattack. "I'm not going to lower myself to become a mudslinger," he says. "But I've also got to have a voice in this, a strong voice. I've walked through fire before. I'll walk through it again."

Of course, not even Sheen—a notorious Hollywood bad boy in the '90s who did community service for physically abusing a former girlfriend, had a starring role in the Heidi Fleiss call girl scandal and struggled through a drug problem before re-creating himself as the star of Two and a Half Men—has ever encountered a conflagration such as this. The sordid details listed in Richards's statement—prescription drugs, prostitutes, gambling—read like a Sopranos script, right down to Sheen's alleged response on April 12 when Richards told him she was going to have to tell all in legal papers if he took her to court over the visitation issue. As she recounts, "He told me that 'I will never get to court because I will be f—— dead!'"

"I'm a little shocked that there aren't provisions or legal protections from something this inflammatory—this libel," counters Sheen. "It's one thing to hear about it, it's another thing to read it, on a Web site, word for word, as a legal document. There are children involved. I just don't see who wins as a result of this."

Neither does his father, actor Martin Sheen. "We have to realize that the house is on fire and all the occupants are still asleep, and we have to break and enter and wake them up and get them out to safety and tend to the wounds and put the fire out," says the older Sheen. "That seems to me what we should be focusing on. Everybody's in trouble here."

He sees Richards's salvo against his son—as well as her romance with Sambora—as the actions of "a young woman in trouble. My heart goes out to her," he says.

But one source close to Richards maintains her relationship with Sambora is actually part of her healing process. "He's just a nice, sweet, wonderful guy," says the friend. "After what she went through with Charlie, that's something she's really attracted to."

As for what Locklear might think of her friend tending to her wounds with the help of Sambora, a friend of the Bon Jovi guitarist's says, "I'm sure she's not thrilled, but I don't know if she can say anything since she's [been with David Spade]." (A source close to Locklear says the two are just friends.)

To those who currently work with Sheen, the portrait that Richards paints of him in her statement—including a transcript from voice mails rich in profanity that he left her on April 19—is incomprehensible. On the set of Two and a Half Men, "he is a consummate professional ... and is held in the highest regard by the cast, producers and crew," said a rep for Warner Bros. in an April 21 statement. As Sheen sees it, Richards's accusations are "about her not having the wherewithal to process failure. All I'm asking for," he adds, "is a fair and balanced custody settlement." That includes having his kids spend the night at his house. "[That] is commonplace, responsible parenting."

While a judge works out what is legally fair and responsible in the long run—a hearing about the restraining order is scheduled for May 12—Sheen and Richards are focusing on more immediate relief. The actor recently had the tattoo reading "Denise" removed from his wrist. Richards, meanwhile, is taking comfort in a man who does not make her feel like she has to "walk on eggshells."

For now, says fledgling peacemaker Martin Sheen, "there's more to this than protecting one side or another. They're both in horrible pain. Enough damage has been done. We're going to be called into account in the future by Sam and Lola.... 'Where were you when this went down? What did you have to say?'" He knows what he has to say: "Cease fire! Everybody! Cease fire!"

JUST BETWEEN FRIENDS

What do you do when you find out your close friend has started dating your husband just months after you've filed for divorce? If you're Heather Locklear, you host an impromptu dinner party. On Monday evening, hours after PEOPLE reported the news that Denise Richards and Locklear's soon-to-be-ex, Richie Sambora, were now dating, a dozen or so close friends and relatives began showing up at Locklear's door bearing food (salads, steaks) and offering support. "Nobody talked about it, but sometimes she would stop and look out the window; you could tell maybe her head was someplace else," says a pal. "Everybody was just like, 'We're here for you.'" After years of friendship—Locklear danced at Richards's wedding to Sheen, attended Sam's baby shower and consoled Richards when her marriage went south—seeing her date Sambora "is heart-wrenching," says the friend. Still, "Heather's very resilient," adds the source; she will remain civil with Sambora for the sake of their daughter. "Ava comes first. Heather is a cat with nine lives. She will keep moving forward."

  • Contributors:
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