One Step at a Time

Maksim Chmerkovskiy takes Erin Andrews’ hand in his, then tenderly strokes her forearm. A brisk breeze ruffles her golden tresses and Maks pulls his Dancing with the Stars partner close to his chest, wrapping his powerful arms around her.

No, this isn’t a Harlequin romance, or a rehearsal of a steamy new dance sequence on the hit ABC series. This is how the Ukrainian-born heartthrob and his latest DWTS partner, a reporter for ESPN, act together when the cameras aren’t rolling. Hanging out before a PEOPLE photo shoot, they cuddle, caress and stop just short of kissing. And when Maks, 30, begins to massage Erin’s shoulders, she can’t help but coo, “He’s yummy!”

Could love be in the air? The scent of Maks’ powerful cologne sure is. “He smells so good,” says Erin. “His scent gets me every time.” And how does Erin smell to the cocky pro dancer? “She smells like me,” he says with a wink.

After ten seasons, DWTS has seen its share of hookups (remember Derek Hough and Shannon Elizabeth?), but no pair has seemed to have become quite so smitten so swiftly. From the moment she first met Maks back in February, Erin says he took her breath away. “He walked in wearing this leather jacket, and I was like, yeah!” she recalls. With a high-wattage cast that includes reality star Kate Gosselin and blonde bombshell Pamela Anderson, Erin and Maks have now emerged as the couple to watch for playful-and passionate-performances. Their waltz on April 5 included a moment the show’s 25 million viewers have been waiting for: a tender kiss, in a dramatic performance that drew a standing ovation from the studio audience. Says DWTS cohost Tom Bergeron: “There’s a clear rapport between them, and it’s just charming to watch. With Erin, Maks really has met somebody who has a great sense of humor, who’s not the least bit intimidated by him.”

Spend a little time with the pair and that chemistry is palpable. When Maks emerges from one clothing change at their photo shoot, Erin gasps, “You look hot,” before urging him to “just walk away!” lest she become distracted. But after briefly ducking into a dressing room, he comes back, wearing only a suit jacket and bikini briefs. “Put your pants on!” she screams as he impishly skitters away.

Is this the hottest couple on television? “Of course we are!” Erin declares.

Despite their full-throttle flirting, a darker reality means the couple is taking their romance in baby steps. Last month Illinois resident Michael David Barrett was sentenced to 2½ years in prison for filming Andrews nude through peepholes in her hotel rooms (see box). On April 1 it was revealed that another stalker had sent e-mails, initially sexual and then escalating into death threats, to a radio show; the FBI is now investigating the threats.

While Erin says she wanted to “run and hide” when she heard of the latest stalker, the 31-year-old tearfully and adamantly declares, “I am not going to stop living my life. If I walk away, then this guy won, and what kind of example am I?”

Making it easier to keep on dancing has been Maks, whom she has found comfort in on and off the dance floor. The two frequently dine together long after rehearsal is over-“He knows all the great places to go,” she gushes-and he’s taken on an informal bodyguard role as Erin, who is based in Atlanta, adjusts to a new life in Los Angeles. “He’s always texting me at night to make sure I got home okay,” she says with a smile.

On March 15, the day Barrett was sentenced, “I got very angry in the courtroom. I started yelling. I wasn’t breathing well,” Erin recalls. “I thought I was going to pass out talking to the judge because I was so upset. I went home and had a breakdown on the phone with my parents. I just wanted to cry and be alone.” But Erin was supposed to rehearse with Maks that night. When he heard how upset she was on the phone, staying away wasn’t an option; he rushed over. And when the latest threats were made public, once again Maks raced to Erin’s side. “I was so upset,” Erin says, “but he got me out of the house. I was still in my sneakers, and he just said, ‘Come on, let’s go.’ He’s been so protective. He’s genuinely worried about me, and I think that’s so sweet and compassionate. I’m so thankful to be with him.”

But Maks is grateful that he can be a rock for his partner. “I would never let anything happen to her. I’ll take care of her,” he says. “I text her 10 million times a day: ‘Do you need anything? Can I help you with anything?’ It took her a while to realize I’m not sucking up to her like most everybody else in her life. This is me. This is real.”

It’s a far cry from Maks’ last love affair, which had its own share of drama. This past September he ended his engagement to fellow ballroom pro Karina Smirnoff right before the start of season 9 of DWTS; those close to Maks later said that Karina had broken his heart, leaving him feeling devastated and betrayed. Even worse, the two pros then encountered each other all season long, which made for more than a few awkward moments and plenty of tension. Still, Maks has no regrets about the split.

“Emotionally, it’s black and white where I was then and where I am now,” Maks says, noting that he “absolutely” still believes in love. “I’m grateful for everything that happened [with Karina]. People who come and go in my life, I learn from them no matter if you’re here for a minute or supposedly a lifetime.”

And Maks has already found plenty to admire in the new lady in his life. “She keeps getting all this crap piled on her, and she’s gone through a lot of stuff. But she’ll figure this out, I have no doubt,” he says confidently, before adding more quietly, “I just feel very easy around her. I really do like her.”

As for whether that “like” will build into something that lasts after the music stops, the couple are happy to keep hope alive. “I’m insane and she’s insane, and together, who knows where we can go?” Maks says before sidling up to Erin again. When he pulls her close, she doesn’t bat an eye. “He’s a hugger,” she says. It’s hardly the Maksim Chmerkovskiy that fans of DWTS have come to know for his bravado-and even his colleagues have noticed: “Louis [fellow DWTS pro Louis van Amstel] is constantly saying, ‘I love this Maks. This is such a happy Maks. And Erin Andrews is the person to thank for it,'” Erin says, before sheepishly adding, “I haven’t done anything. I’m driving him insane. I’m giving him gray hairs.” That may be the perfect accessory for the pair who already feel like an old married couple. “Maks has seen every side of me,” Erin says. “At some points, it’s like we’re dating; at others, it’s like, oh, we so broke up two days ago. Now it’s almost like we’re past dating….” She grins at Maks and playfully adds, “Now we’re working on a kid!” If not a ballroom baby, at least a few more kisses, Maks says. “We’ve been practicing that!”

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