When The Words Are Spoken
Ah, convocation, one of my favorite times of year. Unlike her adolescent self, the adult Sheridan Murphy loved the back to school time.
Her gaze scanned restlessly over the crowd assembled in the university's fine arts auditorium. Where is he? He never misses a responsibility, so he must be here. Eventually, 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 deserved to be part of the group. She walked directly to him and sat down. The noise in the room nearly deafened her as hundreds of professors greeted each other after summers spent traveling, researching, and doing whatever it was professors did between spring and fall semesters.
She leaned over and gave him a friendly hug, which he returned. Ah, his embrace is 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 unusually long. She smiled. This isn't going to be so hard. The thought immediately revealed itself for the lie it was as her stomach swooped.
“How have you been?” she asked, taking in his dearly-missed appearance. As always, his clothes fit poorly, hanging too loose and too ragged around his frame. He's probably got a pretty good physique under those rags, but I can't be sure. His shoulder-length hair hung, lank and scraggly, around his face, accentuating his piercing black eyes, but it also making his beaky nose stand out. He sure isn't hot, just like Erin always said, but I still can't make myself care. He's special.
Michael shrugged at the question. “Can't complain. You?”
“Oh, well you know I worked first summer session,” she reminded him.
He nodded, a hint of a curve lingering around one corner of his mouth. That's as much of a smile as I ever get. I'll take it.
“Then I went up north. My family lives in Duluth, you know? I spent six weeks with them. Turns out my brothers have never grown out of teasing.” She grinned at the memory. “My brother Sean and his wife are expecting their fourth baby.” The thought caused a pang in the vicinity of her heart. She swallowed and pushed it away. This is not the moment.
Michael's cheek ticked, an unreadable response. “I'm glad you had a nice visit, but I'm also glad you're back.”
He's glad I'm back. Yes! she cheered internally, but her voice, when she spoke, sounded demure. “Thank you. It's good to be back. I can't wait for classes to start. It's still hard to believe I've achieved my life's goal of being an instructor at a public university. It seemed impossible when I was eighteen.”
“Well, I remember you at nineteen,” Michael replied, the sharpness in his eyes softening. “I knew even then that you'd achieve whatever you set out to. You had the fire. I must say, I approve of your choice.”
Despite the roar of voices swirling around them, their own conversation stilled into one of those intense silences that often rose up between them, a silence that spoke words neither of them had been able to say. This ends tonight. Again her belly squirmed at the thought.
A few moments later, their friend, Dr. Davontay Jones, took a seat on Sheridan's other side. 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 sported new and fashionable clothing.
“Bonjour,” he said, his low voice overflowing 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. He met her eyes and she could see the awkward shyness hiding under his feigned nonchalance.
“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, pleased he made no attempt to escape her presence. Once the food had been consumed and the instructors began to drift away, she sprang her trap.
“Michael, could I ask a favor of you?” she asked, with wide-eyed innocence.
His dark eyes swept her face before settling into the habitual smoldering gaze that reached deep into her soul and held on tight. “Sure, Sheridan. What do you need?”
“My Buick 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.” She paused, tilting her head, looking 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, a famous clunk, had been giving her trouble for years. A hand-me-down from her best friend Erin, who had bought it heavily used and gnarly, it was a slightly ambulatory wreck more than a car. This is the first time I've 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 fixing that junk heap as you would on payments for something better.”
“You're correct as usual, Dr. Burke,” she teased, playfully throwing out his title even though he'd invited her to use his first name years ago. “I promise to work on it this semester. But until then?”
The side of his mouth curved into a pale imitation of a smile. “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 sounds promising. “Thanks, Michael. I knew I could count on you.” Sheridan slipped her arm through his, like 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. She noticed his fingers felt like ice.
Just look at that sexy beast, she thought, eyeing the shiny black Firebird, old, but unlike hers, in perfect condition. Who would guess someone so obviously unconcerned with appearances would drive such a fancy car? She felt like a modern Cinderella as he opened the passenger door for her. What a gentleman.