Nikki DeBartolo felt safe when Chad Chronister was around. The Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy often worked security for her father, Eddie DeBartolo Jr. ¶ The former owner of the San Francisco 49ers frequently required Chronister's services at corporate events, private parties, on his Gulfstream jet. ¶ Chronister, meanwhile, relished the work and the perks — which included getting to know Nikki. "I probably shouldn't be able to, but I can tell you exactly what she was wearing the first time I saw her," he said.
"The 'girls' always asked for me," he said, referring to Nikki's mother, Candy DeBartolo, and sister, Lisa.
"He was practically family,'' she said.
But not just any family. At any moment, the DeBartolo entourage might include football legends Jerry Rice and Joe Montana, big-name sportscasters, agents, actors and musicians.
Deputy Chronister protected Nikki's relatives as if they were his own.
And now they are.
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Their lives intersected after traveling two very different roads.
Nikki, 34, grew up in Youngstown, Ohio, where her grandfather, Eddie DeBartolo Sr., pioneered the shopping mall concept in the 1950s. At 19, she moved to San Francisco and helped run the 49ers charitable foundation.
Originally from York, Pa., Chronister, 42, worked odd jobs around Tampa until going into law enforcement in 1992.
"I was a bellman at the Marriott, dug ditches for a plumber, unloaded UPS trucks at night,'' he said. Since joining the Sheriff's Office, he has worked intelligence, street crimes, narcotics and now warrants. He has a son, Zack, 16.
In 2000, Nikki joined her parents in Tampa, married and had a son, Asher Heldfond, now 6.
When her divorce became imminent, the detective offered a steady shoulder, not unlike Kevin Costner's character in the '90s film The Bodyguard with Whitney Houston.
"It was so natural,'' Nikki said. "We were already spending a lot of time together. Then one kiss changed everything."
But Nikki backed away. She took most of 2008 to travel, to launch a line of jewelry, to think.
"I had to find myself before I found another relationship,'' she says.
So he worked, racking up especially long hours that election year, as Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, Sarah Palin and other candidates crisscrossed Tampa. He pursued a master's degree and earned a promotion to sergeant.
Finally, she called. It was December 2008.
"We talked in my car in some parking lot for two hours about how miserable we were without each other," Chronister said. Soon he was seeking permission from Candy and Eddie to marry their daughter.
"They were very supportive once they got over the shock,'' Nikki said.
The proposal was a carefully rehearsed team effort between Asher and the groom-to-be. "I figured she couldn't say no to him," he said.
Seating his mother on the couch and crouching on one knee, Asher asked, "Mommy, will you marry Chad?"
"It was the cutest thing I've ever seen," she said, sparkling like the nearly 6-carat diamond that Chronister slipped on her finger.
With the exception of rain, all the surprises at the Feb. 27 wedding at the Ritz-Carlton Palm Beach were planned.
Until the Three Waiters burst into Italian opera, no one at the rehearsal dinner at the Breakers suspected the servers were international entertainers.
Food Network star chef Tyler Florence, husband of one of Nikki's best friends, gifted the newlyweds with dinner, overseeing scallops saltimbocca, braised short ribs and roasted filet. The 6-foot-tall wedding cake arrived from San Francisco, six tiers of different flavors, including carrot and banana, iced in black and covered with 1,000 white hand-sculpted edible orchids.
Boyz II Men, dear friends of the family, started the dancing. Las Vegas '70s cover band Boogie Knights cranked up next.
At midnight, when the 200-plus guests thought the evening was winding down, a curtain dropped.
There was celebrity DJ Samantha Ronson, who gained tabloid fame as Lindsay Lohan's ex-girlfriend, to keep the party rocking till 4 a.m.
No need to worry about the paparazzi.
Nikki has her own security detail.
Heart Beat is a summer series that features recent intriguing stories of love and marriage. Amy Scherzer can be reached at email@example.com and (813) 226-3332.