Cheryl Burke and Drew Lachey by John Sciulli/
You can see the hurt written all over her face. Two-time Dancing with the Stars champ Cheryl Burke, 23, is battling her way back to normalcy after becoming the target of vicious print rumors that she and her married celebrity partner from Season 2, Drew Lachey, had an affair during this winter's national Dancing tour. "The story is completely false. And absurd," Burke quietly said after Monday night's performance show. "I'm just glad that I have friends that stick by my side and know the truth. They were with me 100 percent of the time on tour. I rode buses with [the other dancers, pro and celeb] and we hung out together 24-7."

Some of Burke's peers know what she has been subject to. "I feel so bad for them because I know them personally and I know that nothing ever happened between them," says Tony Dovolani, who himself was the focus of tabloid rumors after his third-season partner, country singer Sara Evans, left the show in the midst of an abrupt divorce from her husband. Dovolani acknowledges that Dancing, which celebrates sexual chemistry on the dance floor - and has sometimes led to real-life romance - is the perfect petri dish for gossip. "But this is so unfair," he says, shaking his head.

The pros have closed ranks trying to protect and support Burke. Julianne Hough, 19, has had to quell rampant speculation about her love life twice before. "The reason I could handle it at all is that I knew it wasn't true," says Hough, who was romantically linked with Apolo Anton Ohno and Helio Castroneves. "You just say, 'Whatever. Who cares? I know it's not true.'"

Much loved by her Dancing colleagues, Burke's bubbly personality has been markedly subdued by the pain this story has caused, not only to her, but to Lachey, his wife and their family. "That's what hurts me the most," says Burke, "that there's a whole other family that the rumors are affecting. Lea couldn't come on this tour because Drew had to fly back and forth to L.A. [to host ABC's Dance War: Bruno vs. Carrie Ann] and it was too much for the baby. But she's come to the other two tours and to every show. She's always been a part of it."

How has Lea been handling it? "She has been supportive of me 100 percent," says Burke. "But Drew's been a little bit down, and so have I. We're just trying to make it through." - Deborah Starr Seibel