AHHH!!!! I can't believe I finished it!! You guys have no idea how excited this makes me, I've NEVER finished a full length story before! I could just cry from happiness. Anyway, I wanted to THANK YOU guys SO much for all the AMAZING reviews and awesome feedback! I appreciate every single one of them, and I thank all of you for taking the time to read my story! I just love all of you, and I really hope you've enjoyed this story! This chapter is so sweet and fluffy it will make your teeth rot. I hope you like it and find that it was worth the wait! It makes me so happy to say that, without further adieu, here is the last chapter of A Smile Like yours!!!
He missed everything about her. The crooked little smile she gave him, the way her eyes wrinkled in the corners when she grinned, the way she reached out for his hand with her tiny fingers. He missed the way she would curl into his bed when she became frightened during the night; missed the way she always smelled of cinnamon and vanilla. Everything reminded him of her. He couldn't walk into the kitchen without remembering the way she would sit at the table, swinging her feet from the high chairs as she chattered happily over the breakfast he finally began to make her when she asked for it. He couldn't walk down the hallway without seeing the pink stain of the spot where she had dropped her ice cream cone, and the strawberry dessert had melted into the carpet. And though he had lived alone his entire life, and had never minded it, the house had suddenly never seemed quieter. It felt so empty. He hated everything; hated Brenda for being such a cold, heartless bitch, and he hated himself. Hated himself for falling in love with Sophie, hated himself for not doing more to stop Brenda from taking her from him.
He stared at his reflection in the small mirror on the vanity table in the dressing room. Amber had given him his job back, though she'd ended up having to plead with him to take it. He hadn't been interested, not after Sophie had been taken, but she'd insisted, and it was where he was now, backstage, like he had been so many times before. He'd always looked into this mirror, and had always seen the same man; one who had been carefree, and more often than not, happy with his life. He had never worried about loving another person, never worried about the welfare of another human being. His eyes had been bright, his smile had been spectacular. And though it had only been a week since he had lost Sophie, even he could see that so much had changed. He hadn't eaten, because he felt sick to his stomach at knowing that Brenda had his daughter, and was doing God knew what with her just to receive a few dollars per month in the mail. His cheeks were thinner, and dark circles underlined his eyes. He knew it would take more than make-up to pull off hosting this pageant.
There was a soft knock at the dressing room door, and when he didn't call out for the person to enter, Amber poked her head in.
"Hey," her voice was soft, "we go on in ten minutes. Are you okay?" She was tentative, and even with his current situation, he felt slightly guilty for making her feel so on-edge. She hadn't said it, but he knew that the scene she had witnessed at his house the week before had shaken her up, and she hadn't been the girl he had always known her to be. She was quiet, even withdrawn. It took all of the fun out of watching her squirm, and for the first time since she'd taken over as station manager, he didn't want to fight with her.
He felt himself nodding, and swallowed hard.
"Yeah," his voice was dry, and he knew that wouldn't cut it. Not today, not for this pageant. He needed to play it up, even if it was just for an hour or so. He cleared his throat, and looked away from her for a moment before glancing up at her again. "I'm fine." He put on the smile that would have to fool the world, and though Amber tried to hide the pain in her eyes, she failed. She disappeared from the room and he sat, watching his reflection in the mirror as he heard her high heels clicking through the halls.
By the time he was twenty minutes into the show, he thought he might break down at any given moment. Since none of the girls knew what had happened between him and Brenda, they continued to watch him with shifty, cautious glares, and he wanted to shake them. He wanted to grab them by their shoulders and make them realize that he wasn't looking for a cheap lay. All of the music, all of the dance steps they had practiced a million times, it all reminded him of Sophie. It reminded him that if he'd taken better care of her, or if they had left for the zoo one moment earlier, she'd still be his. She'd be sitting in the audience right now, and watching the show. She'd be laughing and smiling, and he'd be able to look into her face, and know that when he went home, he would still have her.
He tried to announce the girls with as much vivacity as he always had; tried to clap encouragingly for each of the performers, and give each of them the biggest, brightest smile he could manage. None of them knew that behind the façade, he was dying. None of them, save Amber, Inez, and Maybelle, knew that his heart was completely broken. Only the three of them knew that he was living on the memories of what his life had been like, if only for the shortest period of time.
He watched the girls dance, but he didn't see them. He remembered Sophie, and the way she had danced the few times he had brought her to the studio. The way she had run towards him enthusiastically, her arms outstretched, making her look like a ballerina. She had wanted to dance, then, and he had stopped her because he was in a rush to get home. He was always in a rush. A rush for work, a rush for home, a rush for bedtime. He suddenly wished that he had spent less time rushing and more time enjoying the company of the child he had taken for granted for so long.
By the time they were halfway into the show, the producer called a commercial break, and he let his feet carry him away from the stage, and into the desolate hallways. He swallowed hard, forcing the angry tears back, pressing a fist to his mouth to keep himself quiet. He hated this, in every sense of the word. He hated feeling so unusually vulnerable, and hated knowing that as bad as he had it, Sophie was a million times worse.
He felt a gentle hand on his shoulder, and turned quickly to see Amber, who was clutching a clipboard in the hand that wasn't touching him.
"Are you sure you're okay?" She looked worried, and he nodded.
She wanted to hold him suddenly; she had wanted to for a week now, since she'd shown up on his porch and begged him to take his job back. But this was so much different; it was no longer a carnal type of desire, it was the need to be comforted; the feeling of being wanted by another person. She had known for so long what it was like to be so desperately alone, and she wanted to comfort him, but he wouldn't let his guard down, even for her. She'd offered to stay with him after the incident, but he'd refused, he'd told her that he'd be okay. He didn't realize she could see the redness in his eyes, the splotchy aftermath of what tears did to a person's face. He, of course, hadn't told her that he'd been crying, so she'd pretended not to notice. But that's all it was; pretending.
The buzzer sounded, and everyone scattered back to their spots. He regained his stance at his podium, and continued to let his fingers tap the rhythm of the music, continued to let himself bob his head, trying to convince himself, and everyone else, that he was fine. He was the same Corny Collins who had stood here for nearly ten years, and everyone seemed to be buying it. There were moments though, when he would catch the look in Amber's eyes, that made him want to give up. Made him want to throw the towel in, walk off the stage, and never look back. Moments that made him remember that this stupid show wasn't the most important thing in the world.
Sometime during the last council girl's dance, he began to hear Sophie; began to hear her cries, begging him not to let Brenda take her. Screaming his name, over, and over again, tears streaming down her face as she was forced into the car against her will. He should have done more. He should have called the police, should have tried to run faster, harder. He shouldn't have given up so easily. Sophie would have never given up on him, or anything else she believed in. It wasn't fair that he had done it to her.
He closed his eyes for just a moment, just to compose himself, but the voices grew louder. They were pounding in his head now, threatening to drive him out of his mind. He let his hands continue to tap on the podium, as if he were simply trying to get into the rhthym. He heard her cries again, and swallowed hard, finally opening his eyes to glance over at Amber, for the moral support he so desperately craved.
But Amber wasn't looking at him; her eyes were focused on something that was happening backstage, though he couldn't see what. He saw her move quickly, and she disappeared from sight, though he was the only one who seemed to notice. The music continued to blare, and the girls continued to dance. He moved his head quickly, in a desperate attempt to see what was happening, but he couldn't see where Amber had gone.
There were shrieks suddenly, and the music continued to play, but most of the girls had stopped paying attention. Their eyes began to look toward the wings of the stage, and the audience fell into a quiet stupor. He leaned against the podium, pushing himself up to see what was drawing everyone's attention, and gasped suddenly.
He could hear her. He could hear Sophie, crying, screaming. Was he going crazy? The noises seemed to be getting louder, and it was almost deafening. And then, suddenly, he saw the two familiar dark heads bobbing near the side of the stage, and he sucked his breath in. Amber was racing towards them suddenly, her feet were moving so quickly that he thought she might fall. The brunette woman looked up at him, and he realized she was holding the hand of a small girl.
"Corny, come get this little brat!" Brenda's voice belted over the music, and before he even realized it, he was racing down from his place behind his podium, his feet carrying him faster than he thought possible. By the time he got close enough to her, Brenda was shoving the child as hard as she could, towards him, and her tiny feet raced to him, her arms outstretched.
He grabbed her in one swift motion and swung her into his arms, holding her so tightly against him as she sobbed, her tiny fingers clutching the back of his neck. He squeezed her, closing his eyes, burying his head into the tiny nape of her neck. He tried to steady her body as she wept against him, clinging to him with such force that he never wanted to let go; never wanted to release her again.
"Oh, Jesus, get a room," Brenda rolled her eyes at them, and turned to go, but he called out to her quickly. He suddenly no longer cared that they were on the air as Sophie continued to whimper against his shoulder, wrapping her thin legs around his waist.
"Why did you bring her back?" He had to know, if for no other reason than to thank God for it. His arms still held her tightly, her soft hair brushing his cheek.
Brenda shook her head, and let herself begin to walk away.
"She's not worth the money I was getting for her." And she was suddenly gone.
Corny clutched the back of her head, holding it to him, hushing her as she cried.
"It's okay," he felt himself saying the words to her, and meaning them, "Daddy's got you now, you're okay, baby."
"Don't let her take me again, Daddy…" she was whining softly now, but still clutching him with a death grip, "I don't want her to."
"She's not going to," he cradled her in his arms, rocking her back and forth, just like he had that day in the parking lot, "She's never going to get you again."
They stood that way for a moment, and when he finally looked up, Amber was watching him, her eyes wide. He wasn't exactly sure what to do; the music had stopped, and everyone was looking at them. Suddenly, he knew exactly what needed to be done.
He cleared his throat, and the studio fell into a hush.
"I have an announcement to make," he swallowed hard, and Sophie pulled her head up to look at him, her face red and stained from crying. He wanted to reach out and wipe her tears away, the tiny ones that still traced the length of her small nose, but his hands were too busy holding her against him. "This is Sophie, and she's my daughter."
She sighed happily in his arms, cuddling into his chest as the people in the studio began to chatter excitedly. Some of the girls on stage crinkled their noses at him, disgusted at the prospect of his sleeping with a former council girl, but the majority of them whispered excitedly to one another, grinning at the sight of him holding Sophie. He caught Amber's grin in the corner of his eye, and let himself smile at her. Sophie wrapped her tiny arms around him, her mouth suddenly next to his ear.
"Daddy, aren't you still on TV?"
Right, that. He nodded, and carried her with him back to the podium, placing her on top of it so that she sat facing him. He felt no further explanation was necessary to any of them, and slowly, the show resumed. Sophie turned slightly, to watch the girls dance, but he was no longer looking at them. He couldn't take his eyes off of the little girl's face.
By the time the show was over and they had crowed a new winner, he couldn't stop grinning like a fool. He suddenly wanted to be out of this studio, wanted to take Sophie out, buy her a toy box full of toys, buy her anything she wanted. Wanted her to start being a child. Wanted to be the one to give her that childhood. But he had other things to take care of, first.
He carried Sophie on his hip to where Amber stood near a camera man, chatting with him about the angles they would need to start using the following Monday, with the new dances. He stood silently for a moment, and when the man walked away, he cleared his throat, and she turned, smiling at them.
"Oh my God!" She grinned happily at them, "You got her, Corny. You got your baby back." She let a hand reach up to gently stroke the small of Sophie's back. "Are you happy to be with your Daddy again?"
"Very much so," Sophie smiled fully at her, and let an arm reach around to pat Amber's shoulder. "I'm happy to see you, too, Amber."
She tried to swallow the lump in her throat as she looked at Corny again, the blush in her cheeks becoming evident as she studied their smiling faces. She wet her lips suddenly, and let herself chew on her bottom lip for a moment before speaking.
"So how about that date now?" She wasn't sure how she'd mustered up enough courage to speak the words to him, but she had, and he grinned at her.
"You're asking me out on a date? It's about time, huh?" He glanced at Sophie, who nodded affirmatively.
"I think she's ready to get laid," Sophie said bluntly, and Amber covered her mouth, trying to hide the outburst of laughter. Corny turned to his daughter quickly.
"What did I tell you about using language like that, missy?" He sounded so fatherly so quickly that it warmed Amber's heart.
"I don't even know what it means!" Sophie offered innocently, "I just heard Ma-Brenda say it. That's what I call her now," she explained at the confused look on their faces.
Corny turned back to Amber slowly.
"Well, you know," he smiled, and studied Sophie's face for a moment, "If you are asking me out on a date, I think you should know that I come with some baggage, and I'm not looking for something that I don't think will last."
Amber twisted the toe of her shoe on the ground, her face blushing as she looked back up at them.
"Well," she sighed, smiling up at Sophie, "I guess I won't mind sharing you with another woman. She is pretty cute."
Sophie grinned back at her, and Amber raised her chin suddenly, her blue eyes sparkling as she spoke to her.
"What do you think, Sophie? Where should the three of us go on our first date?"
Sophie smiled softly, scrunching her face up in concentration.
"The zoo would be fun." She watched Amber as she contemplated the words in her mind, and expected her to refuse. Mama would never have let her come on a date with her and one of her grown-up boyfriends.
Amber smiled warmly at her, raising her fingers to tickle the child's sides softly. Corny watched her, wanting to kiss her suddenly.
"I think the zoo sounds amazing."
He let himself move towards her, his lips covering Amber's in an instant, and he felt her return the kiss before pulling away slightly.
"Don't worry," he grinned against Amber's lips, whispering the words, "You're still getting that spanking later."