Burke Donovan was introduced to Oakdale society in May 1983. He was one of two new characters drawn into the chaotic saga that was the Stenbeck family. A handsome, but bitter man, Burke approached James Stenbeck and suggested that they form an alliance against Burke's employer, Gunnar St. Clair, whom James knew was the true Stenbeck heir. Burke’s reason for hating Gunnar was that Burke's wife, Nicole Berrysea, had had an affair with Gunnar and conceived a child. Nicole died after giving birth to a son, Dustin, called Dusty. Meanwhile, schemer, and James's sister, Ariel Aldrin Dixon investigated Burke and began to suspect that Gunnar was actually Dusty's biological father. It was then that Ariel realized Dusty could be the true Stenbeck heir and she talked James into hiring Burke as his horse trainer. During Paul's riding lessons, Burke ran into Gunnar and the horseman's hatred for Gunnar was blatantly obvious. Ariel, meanwhile, found herself attracted to Burke, especially since his son might possibly be the heir to the Stenbeck fortune.
Meanwhile, James's wife, Karen Haines Stenbeck, was aroused when she saw how much time Ariel was spending with the new horse trainer. Ariel claimed that she and Burke had once been lovers, but now were just friends. Karen didn't buy this and asked Burke, who replied that he'd known Ariel for only three weeks! Later, the persistent Karen got the name of Burke's late wife's parents and told that James she was going on a trip. When she met with them and brought up Gunnar's name, it was obvious that, because of their affair, they blamed Gunnar for their daughter's death. On the plane home, Karen realized that Ariel was after Burke because she'd figured out that his son could be the true Stenbeck heir.
In July 1983, after a failed attempt to kill Gunnar by rigging a beam in the stables, Burke decided to pursue Barbara Ryan as a way of evening the score with Gunnar for stealing Nicole away from him. James was intrigued, to say the least, by Burke's vendetta against Gunnar. For the life of him, James couldn't understand what Karen and Ariel saw in a lowly stable hand. Burke's teenage son Dusty was also a troublemaker, and he talked the younger Paul into shoplifting a bracelet from Fashions, Ltd. The juvenile pranks came to a head when a firecracker exploded in Paul's face, narrowly missing his eyes. Gunnar wasted no time in threatening to fire Burke if he didn't keep Dusty away from Paul. This encounter sent Burke on such a rampage that he mysteriously blacked out. When he went to the hospital for tests, Ariel forced Dusty to stay with her, but Dusty hated every minute and ran to the sympathetic Karen. Dr. John Dixon told Burke the test indicated he had a possibly fatal disease, Wilhelm's Disease. Burke didn't want Dusty to find out, and privately he began speculating about who would make a good stepmother for his son.
When James asked Burke about his wife, Burke sadly recalled the argument that led to her death. She had just told Burke that she was leaving him for Gunnar. They struggled, and Nicole fell off the balcony to her death. James thought this incident was just the ammunition they needed to destroy their mutual rival. The plan was to make Gunnar believe he drove Nicole to suicide, thereby wreaking havoc in his marriage to Barbara. James hired a Nicole look-alike, named Lorna Whitmore, to haunt Gunnar, who saw her face in the window one night and woke up screaming. Barbara wanted to know what was going on, and he told her about Nicole and their affair.
Meanwhile, the relationship between Ariel and Burke eventually got hot and heavy, and, before long, the two agreed to marry. Burke collapsed during the ceremony and was taken to the hospital but Ariel got him to agree to finish the wedding ceremony in the hospital. When Dusty admitted he didn't want Ariel as a stepmother, Karen, wanting to stop the wedding, urged him to tell his father how he felt. The ceremony was well under way when Dusty arrived and voiced his objections. Torn between his love for his son and his love for Ariel, Burke was forced to delay the wedding.
Later, from the hospital, where he was secretly scheduled for surgery, Burke called Ariel and told her how much he loved her. Remembering Karen's wish for a son, and knowing how much Dusty disliked Ariel, Burke wanted to make arrangements for Dusty in case anything happened to him. Burke's attorney, Maggie Crawford drew up a custody agreement that named Karen as a guardian, and Burke was relieved when it was signed. After the surgery, John reported that the heart muscle was badly damaged and it was unclear whether the operation was a success.
In the meantime, the Justice of the Peace contacted Ariel and explained that after reviewing the videotape of their first ceremony, Burke had indeed said, "I do," and, therefore, they were legally married. Ariel couldn't wait to tell Burke, while John finally persuaded Burke to tell Ariel and Dusty the truth about his illness. Burke told Dusty he had something important to tell him, but he wanted Ariel to be there, too. Thinking that his father was going to marry her again, Dusty ran away and hid out at Paul's. When Burke heard that Dusty had run away, he and Ariel decided to keep their marriage a secret. When Dusty returned, Ariel pleaded with him to stay for his father's sake.
Since everyone finally seemed to be getting along so well, Burke told Maggie the custody agreement was no longer necessary. However, before anything could be done about it, Burke collapsed and was rushed to Memorial where he died on New Year's Eve, 1983. Gunnar and Barbara were stunned to find out Ariel was Burke's widow. Ariel blamed Gunnar for his death and told him that Burke hated Gunnar for causing Nicole's death. After this sank in, Gunnar realized Dusty could be his and Nicole's son. From the intensity of Ariel's reaction, it was clear to John and Karen that she truly loved Burke. Dusty took the news of his father's death particularly hard and lashed out by destroying John's lab at Memorial.