Sunshine woman, banishing night
From all around you,
Shine your glorious smile
On this one dark soul.
With those lines, Dr. Michael Burke attempted to express his years’ long adoration for his colleague and former student, Sheridan Murphy.
Not content to be worshiped from afar, Sheridan urges her beloved to turn their unrequited passion into a blazing romance.
But will their love be able to survive the secrets each one is keeping from the other, or will their dream of a happily ever after eventually crumble under the weight of their tragic histories?
Because when the words are spoken, there’s no going back.
Ah, convocation. It was one of Sheridan Murphy’s favorite times of year. Unlike her adolescent self, the adult Sheridan loved back to school time. It was still hard to believe she had achieved her life’s goal, of being an instructor at a public university. What had seemed impossible when she was eighteen, had become her reality less than ten years later. Entering her third year of teaching freshman composition, she couldn’t be happier.
Of course, there was more to it than just teaching. She loved being in front of a classroom, but what she loved most was seeing Michael.
She found her former professor and mentor sitting, as usual, near the rest of the English faculty, but somehow separated from them, as though not really sure he was part of the group. She walked directly through the university’s massive theater and sat down next to him in an empty seat. The noise in the room was nearly deafening, as hundreds of professors greeted each other after summers spent traveling, researching, and doing whatever it was professors did between semesters. Sheridan had taught first summer session, but had then spent the second with her family in her parents’ home near the lake, enduring her brothers’ teasing and catching up with her mom and dad after spending most of the year apart.
She knew Michael had worked both summer sessions. As near as Sheridan could tell, he never took time off unless he had to. So it wasn’t like she had gone months without seeing him, but it had been six weeks, and she had missed him.
Actually, Sheridan was completely crazy about Dr. Michael Burke, had been since her undergraduate days. There was no obvious reason for it. He certainly wasn’t one of those hot professors all the young girls pined for. He was tall and dark, but not precisely handsome. In fact, he was rather a mess. He wore his jet black hair long and scraggly around his face, which was dominated by a large and beaky nose. She suspected he had a pretty good physique, but his clothes were so ill-fitting and shabby, it was impossible to know for sure. None of that mattered to Sheridan, though. Michael was special. No other man had ever seen her, really seen her, the way he had.
At first, she had disliked him. She had floated into his sophomore writing class expecting instant accolades, which was what she normally received. Instead, he had rated her first essay a ‘C’, which came as a shock to a girl who prided herself on both her vocabulary and intelligence. So she had gone to him in tears and asked for help. And had he ever helped her. Not that he had been kind or nurturing… at least, not at first. His blunt assessment of her writing had stung a lot, but she had bravely taken his suggestions, and soon she began to experience growth. Without Michael, Sheridan would never have developed her own voice in writing. She would have remained mired down in ridiculously verbose language which swirled around without ever getting to the point.
By the end of her sophomore year, Sheridan’s dislike had turned to gratitude, and she soon realized she was madly in love with him. Oh, she never said a word, of course. It would have been a conflict of interest, and detrimental to his career. But she couldn’t stand to be parted from him, and so she had taken one class after another from Michael. She had enrolled, with his help, in the Master of Arts in English program, and become a teaching assistant at the same time. Eventually she earned the degree and in the meanwhile so ingratiated herself to the department that they had offered her a full-time lecturer position three years later, upon her graduation.
Sheridan had seen the odd flash of emotion in Michael’s eyes, which suggested he might have some interest in her, but in the two years since they’d become colleagues, he had never been anything but professional. Damn it.
This year would be different, Sheridan silently vowed. This year she would claim Dr. Burke for her own, no matter what it took.
She leaned over and gave him a friendly hug, which he returned with no hesitation. His embrace was so warm and lovely, she would have liked to stay in his arms forever. She noticed he didn’t rush to let go of her either, and the hug lingered for an unusually long period of time. She smiled to herself. This wasn’t going to be so hard.
A few moments later they were joined by their friend Dr. Davontay Jones. He had been hired at the same time as Sheridan, to teach senior composition, linguistics, and World Literature. The tall, well-spoken black man was adored by students and faculty alike. Sheridan considered him a dear friend. Having just returned from a summer-long work exchange in Paris, he was sporting new and fashionable clothing.
“Bonjour,” he said, his low voice overflowing with friendly good humor as he gave Sheridan a long, approving look. “Paris was magnifique. How’s life in the frozen north?”
“Still nice so far,” she replied, ignoring his appraisal. “I intend to enjoy every moment of sunshine before the snow blocks us in for the next five months. Would anyone care to join me for a picnic and walk by the river this weekend?”
“Hell yeah, baby,” Davontay replied eagerly, “I’ll be there. Michael?”
“If you want,” Michael shrugged. She met his eyes, startled by his non-committal response. The intensity in his gaze revealed his casual gesture was only a cover for his real feelings.
“It’s a date then.” Sheridan grinned. She settled back in her seat, leaning a little closer to Michael than was really necessary, and listened to the president of the university give her opening speech.
Later, after coffee, cookies and fruit, Sheridan set her plan into motion. She had stuck like glue to Michael through the whole convocation ceremony. It wasn’t unusual, nor did he seem unreceptive to her attention. Once the food was consumed and the instructors were beginning to drift away, she sprang her trap.
“Michael, could I ask a favor of you?” she asked, with feigned nonchalance.
“Sure, Sheridan. What do you need?”
“My car is on the fritz again, it’s in the shop. I took the bus down here, but it’s getting dark, and I don’t feel safe on the bus at night. Especially since the stop is several blocks away from my apartment.” She paused, tilting her head to look at him with wide, enticing hazel eyes. “Would you be able to give me a ride home?”
It wasn’t a lie. Sheridan’s car was well-known as a clunker, which had been giving her trouble for years. It was a hand-me-down from her best friend Erin, who had bought it, heavily used and already gnarly, when both girls were still in high school. It was a slightly ambulatory wreck, more than it was a car. This was the first time she had been delighted about the old P.O.S. breaking down.
“Someday, I hope you’ll buy a new car,” he admonished. “You spend as much money fixing that junk heap as you would on payments for something better.”
“You’re correct as usual, Dr. Burke.” She teased, as she often did, playfully throwing out his title even though he’d invited her to use his first name when she was still a senior. “I promise to work on it this semester. But until then?”
“Of course I’ll give you a ride. It wouldn’t do for my best colleague to be mugged before the semester even gets started.”
Best colleague? That sounded promising.
“Thanks, Michael. I knew I could count on you.” She slipped her arm through his, as though they were actors in an old-fashioned movie. He paused a moment, as though not sure what to make of the unexpected gesture, and then shrugged and went with it. Patting her hand, he walked her out to his car. Sheridan noticed his fingers were icy.
It still surprised Sheridan that a man as unconcerned with appearances as Michael would drive such a sexy car. It was a shining black Firebird, and she felt like a modern Cinderella as he opened the passenger door for her. What a gentleman.
They drove along in companionable silence. Sheridan was glad Michael was not inclined to be chatty. The more she thought about what she had in store for him, the more nervous she became. It was past time to act on her feelings, but that didn’t mean it was going to be easy. Rejection was the most likely outcome, and there was no defense against it. She simply had to act, and if he broke her heart, so be it. She had lived through heartbreak once before.
She looked out the window, her eyes moving over the oak, maple, and pine trees without really seeing them. Yes, she had survived, but the months, the years of agony, and the lingering hurt which never really went away were reminders she had once been a victim. If Michael broke her heart, it would be just as bad. Maybe it really wasn’t necessary to say her piece. Maybe she could just continue drifting, hoping he would wake up and ask her out one day… or never. Most likely she would be an old woman before Michael decided to act. It had to be done.
As he drove up in front of her apartment building, a stocky, red brick structure framed in the front by a shady boulevard lined with maple trees, Sheridan laid a hand on Michael’s arm.
“Would you please come up with me?” she said softly, so softly she could scarcely hear her own voice over the hammering of her heart. “I asked you to drive me because I wanted to talk to you in private, outside of work.”
He gave her a considering look before he responded. “Of course, Sheridan.”
He walked by her side to the front door, where she entered her security code, and then she led him down a tiled hallway to the elevator, where she pressed the fifth floor button. It was hard to tell whether the swooping sensation in her stomach was the lifting motion of the elevator, or her nerves. The little bell dinged and they walked down a hallway with brown carpet and walls papered in matching brown with metallic gold paisleys, to the door of her one bedroom flat. She fumbled with the key, intensely aware of his presence beside her, so close she could touch him without extending a hand. Trying to get a grip on herself, she unlocked the door and stepped inside, dropping her keys in the crystal bowl which sat on a small table her brother had made for her. Next to the bowl was a framed photo she’d received from her brother’s wife for Christmas many years ago. It was a picture of Sheridan, standing in front of Michael and looking up into his face.
Grasping Michael’s arm, she led him into the living room before he could notice the photo, and urged him to take a seat on her antique-style sofa with its curvy wooden legs and red upholstery.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?” she offered.
“No, thank you.”
She took a long moment to gaze at him. It was amazing to see him in her apartment, on her furniture. She liked it.
“What’s on your mind, Sheridan?”
Sitting beside him, she laid her hand on top of his. His fingers were still cold, but they warmed quickly under the heat of her palm. She hoped she wasn’t sweating noticeably. She gazed into his dark eyes and he looked back steadily.
“Oh, this is more difficult than I thought,” she babbled, not knowing how to begin. “Michael, I really appreciate all you’ve done for me. You taught me to write. You helped me achieve my dreams. You’ve supported me in every step of my training. Without you, I wouldn’t be where I am now. And I’ve always thought of you as a friend, not just a teacher, not just a colleague.”
“Of course, we’re friends.” Michael looked puzzled by Sheridan’s gush of words. “What’s going on? I don’t think I’ve ever seen you look so grim. Where’s that signature smile?”
“I’ll smile later.” She laced her fingers through his, her palm against the back of his hand. It felt so nice to be touching him, she just hoped it would last. “The thing is, I have to tell you something.”
“I want something from you. I want to be… more than friends. I want to be with you, Michael.” It all came out in a rush, and her cheeks flushed scarlet.
Michael sat blinking owlishly, not sure what to make of Sheridan’s announcement, for several long moments. He was beyond stunned. The idea that Sheridan, his beautiful, amazing Sheridan, might want him was something which had literally never crossed his mind. He adored her, of course; it was impossible not to love such a special girl. But he hadn’t thought anything would come of his affection for her, so he’d never acted on it.
It was stupid, really, when he thought about it. He’d seen the signs of Sheridan’s interest in him. She hugged him often. Well, actually she hugged everyone, but she must hug him twice as much as anyone else, and there was that one time, during her senior year, when she’d kissed him on the cheek. And every now and then he caught a glimpse of something in her eyes when she looked at him… something which looked remarkably like longing. But he’d explained it all away, certain he was imagining things. And yet, shockingly, it seemed his instincts had been correct. Sheridan Murphy had just asked him, Michael Burke, to be her boyfriend.
“Well, can you say something?” She looked understandably strained. He tried to think of the words to reassure her, but nothing came to mind.
“Sheridan, I… wow. That wasn’t what I was expecting. Okay, give me a moment please. I need to realign several years of thinking.”
Sheridan waited, trying to be patient, but looking ready to jump out of her skin. Michael, sensing her discomfort, lifted her hand onto his knee and laid his free hand on top of hers, so it was sandwiched between both of his. That helped. He felt a hint of tension leave her.
“Okay, I can see what it cost you to say that. And I appreciate your being so direct. First, I need some clarification. When you say… be with me, what do you mean? Like dating? Going to dinner and a movie and all that?” It was an asinine thing to say, and he mentally kicked himself the moment the stupid words crossed his lips.
“Why, Dr. Burke, was that a cliché? I’ll have to mark down your essay,” she teased, easing the tension between them considerably. He gave her a lopsided grin and she continued. “Okay, I’ll stop kidding, it was a lame joke anyway.” Sheridan paused, taking a deep breath. “Yes, something like dating, except we’re not teenagers. We don’t need to go to a movie unless we both want to see it. I could see us… I don’t know. I like going to concerts, walking in the park, having picnics, visiting museums. I know you like those things, and it would be fun to do them together. Sometimes, we could just spend time together, doing nothing at all.”
It sounded wonderful, perfect even, but his brain was still stunned to inactivity while his mouth, completely unbidden, said things which made no sense. “Sheridan, we already do many of those things.”
“Yes, but as friends. I’m hoping to do them as a couple.”
“When did you decide to do this?” Why did he sound like he was arguing? Stop arguing, you idiot.
“To ask you?” She asked. “Over the summer. I just couldn’t wait another minute. But Michael, I’ve wanted you since the end of my sophomore year.”
“Really?” His dark eyes widened. It had been that long? “Why?”
“Because you’re so… amazing. I don’t know. The more time I spent with you, the more I wanted to spend. You’re just special,” she admitted with a blush, her gaze dropping to examine the print of the sofa upholstery.
“Good Lord, you must be joking. I’m nothing special. Just a grumpy old professor. And you… you’re so beautiful. I guess I can’t imagine what about me would be attractive to you.”
Sheridan’s face fell. Damn it, he hadn’t meant to upset her. Her next words made him wince. “I thought, as much of my writing as you’ve read, as much time as we’ve spent together, you of all people would know I’m not so shallow. That hurts a little. What have looks got to do with it anyway? I’m attracted to your mind, Michael, to your soul. Don’t you feel anything towards me?” Her voice got smaller with every word. She looked as though she were going to cry.
He lifted her hand to his lips and gently kissed it, a courtly gesture. She rotated her hand in his so they could lace their fingers together. “Don’t be sad. I… okay.” He finally got control of his runaway mouth. “You’ve been forthright with me, I can do no less. You’re right. This is difficult.” Deliberately steeling himself to do one of the most terrifying things he’d ever done, he told her the long-concealed truth. “Yes, I have feelings for you.”
Those beautiful eyes lit up, and his heart clenched. Such a simple phrase had the power to make her that happy? He continued. “I’m attracted to your beauty, of course, and your smile always improves my day. And you’re right. I know better than to assume you’re shallow. You are, without a doubt, the kindest person I’ve ever known. In fact, I think I’ve been attracted to you about as long as you say you have to me. You were my student for so long. I couldn’t do anything while you were in my class. And you kept on taking my classes, semester after semester.”
“I wanted to be near you,” she explained. “I also wanted you to be proud of me. Most of all, I wanted you to know me. I wouldn’t have written as well for anyone else, because I would have held back. I trust you in ways I don’t trust others. But Michael, I haven’t been your student in two years. Why haven’t you said anything since then?”
“Shyness,” he admitted ruefully. “And the knowledge that you couldn’t possibly be interested in someone like me.”
“You were wrong.” Her words were firm, but gentle.
“And that shocks me. You know,” he said as heat suffused his cheeks, “you were my muse as well.”
“Yes.” He flushed a little more. “Remember all those times I gave you poems which were different from the rest of the class, the anonymous ones, because I said the others were too easy for you?”
“Yes. They were very beautiful.”
“I wrote them.”
“Oh, Michael.” Her warm hand squeezed his palm.
He swallowed hard. “I wrote them for you.”
“I’m the sunshine woman?” She regarded him with amazement.
This time her smile sparkled like sunlight on water. “Well then, I guess that answers the question, doesn’t it?”
“It does?” He raised one eyebrow at her.
“With this degree of mutual attraction, it’s clear we belong together.”
“It would certainly seem so.” Yes! a little voice inside him roared. But then he remembered something important she needed to know. “You have to understand something, though.”
“What’s that?” Lord, she looked beautiful, staring deep into his eyes.
“I don’t know how to do this.”
She looked at him with a quizzical expression.
“I’ve never really dated.”
“No. I never wanted to… until I met you.”
She considered his words, and then raised his hand in hers and pressed her cheek to it. Her skin was velvety soft. “Don’t worry, Michael. We’ll work it out. I know you pretty well, and I have some idea what to expect.”
This time, Michael paused to think. Finally, he spoke, his voice dark with emotion. “If you’re willing to… fumble though it with me, then yes, I would like to try being a couple.”
She flashed him a dazzling Sheridan smile, which lit up the whole room, and impulsively hugged him. He put his arms around her waist, a little awkwardly, but soon he relaxed in the lovely warmth of her body. He hadn’t hugged very much in the last few years, except when she ambushed him. But Sheridan was born for cuddling and he was not immune to her lusciousness. There was something different about this hug. It spoke of a greater heat than mere friendship.
After a long moment, she pulled back, but not very far. She was looking at him full in the face from a short distance, and the impact of those hazel eyes was like a punch to his gut. Michael swallowed hard. He knew what he had to do. Releasing her waist he put one hand on her face and she leaned her cheek into his palm.
Sheridan felt a thrill of excitement as Michael moved towards her. How she had dreamed of this moment! He leaned forward slowly, showing her his intentions, and laid his mouth softly against hers. His full lips were warm, firm, and wonderful.
As kisses went, it was simple and chaste, but the years of suppressed emotion behind it lent it power. She could feel the strength of his affection in that touch, and it mirrored hers.
Michael released her mouth, taking in the sight of her. She was glorious, like a nature deity. Her hair was a nimbus of golden curls, spilling down around her shoulders. Her hazel eyes were wide and at the moment, rather dazed-looking. She had lovely even features under delicately golden skin. She also had a figure like a siren. No scrawny miss, Sheridan was blessed with womanly curves in abundance. She had a shape favored by a bygone generation; soft shoulders, full breasts, narrow waist, curvy hips and bottom. It was the kind of figure which made every man, even one who lived like a monk, think of only one thing. She was deliciously beautiful. And shockingly, she wanted him.
He kissed her again. It was brief but intense, promising hot sweet things to come… another day. He stood, lifting her to her feet beside him.
“I have to go for now.” How he regretted that fact. “We both have class early tomorrow.”
“Yes, I know,” she replied with a hint of regret. “Are we still on for the riverfront this weekend?”
“I wouldn’t miss it,” he told her earnestly.
“Goodbye, Michael. See you tomorrow?”
“Certainly. Thank you, Sheridan, for being willing to risk yourself this way. It means more to me than you know.”
“And you taking a chance on me is more than I could have imagined.”
She gave him another quick, tight hug and pressed her lips to his cheek, and then he headed out.