The Falconers conference room was almost overwhelmingly blue. The colour contrasted harshly with the numerous black suits that seemed to be crowding in around Jack, their general air of ‘managerness’ feeling almost claustrophobic. Jack blinked, trying to push these thoughts away. For a brief moment he was glad that he wasn’t a vocal person by nature, it made the silence created by his shock less telling than it might have been for others.
“Euh,” Jack cleared his throat. His eyes bounced around the conference room, finally landing on George, the general manager of the Providence Falconers, and someone that he trusted to tell it to him without any legal or ‘we appreciate you so much’ jargon in the way. “Could you repeat that for me?”
George sighed and braced her elbows on the table, joining her hands in front of her chest almost like a silent prayer. “When you strip it down to its bones, the fact of the matter is that we simply can’t afford you, Jack.” She said plainly.
Realistically Jack had known this was coming. His entry level contract had been generous at four million over three years, especially for a fuck up coming from the NCAA. Jack had been a gamble to sign and George had thrown nothing but faith into his contract, but it expired at the end of this season. Over the course of three seasons with the Falconers, Jack had gone from overpaid to possessing the most enviable contract in the league. As it stood, he was severely underpaid and everyone knew it. The talks had started the year before, that Jack was headed towards free agency because Georgia Martin had locked herself into too many high paying contracts. The criticism of George was relentless, unfair, and targeted far more than just her abilities as a GM. Jack knew that few people could have predicted how far his value would jump and he couldn’t fault the organization for lack of foresight even if Sportsnet – the same Sportsnet that had called him a dangerous and overpaid investment three years ago – loved to.
“That doesn’t mean we don’t want you here,” George added, pulling Jack from his thoughts. “You belong in Providence. You’re our lead scorer, led us to a cup in your rookie year, and the youngest player in franchise history to get the A.” Jack stopped himself from scoffing, what franchise history? His accomplishments were impressive in Providence, but when compared to older, more well-established teams Jack’s record breaking seemed almost average. Instead he simply shrugged one shoulder noncommittally. He hoped it came across as humble rather than dismissive.
George continued, “You are a leader on this team. The boys look up to you, and we need to keep you here. Now, you have been made aware of our cap situation, and it’s… not ideal to say the least.”
“It’s never been about the money for me.” Jack said simply.
“And I know that, but…”
“How much are we looking at, George?” Jack finally asked, cutting straight to the point. He still hasn’t looked at the group of lawyers and accountants that fill the other chairs, his eyes stayed on George and her familiarity.
She dropped her hands to the surface of the table and leaned back in her chair. “10.8 million over six years.”
Jack tried not to let his face sour. He’d been with his dad during his contract negotiations in the late nineties. Hell, he’d been with his current teammates during theirs, and well… It really isn’t about the money, but under two million a year for a player of Jack’s caliber is a little insulting.
“I know,” George said. “Frankly, I’d throw Matthews or McDavid money at you if we could afford it. We’re well aware of what you’re worth, Jack. But we can’t trade any major figures on our roster so we’re faced with two options.” George held up a hand and stuck her index finger up. “One, I release you as a free agent and you lap up an eighty to ninety-million dollar offer with a brand new team with a chance of captaincy for the next decade. I can maybe promise you the chance to retire a Falconer down the line.” She stuck another finger up. “Or two, you decide to stay in Providence, and we try to make it work.”
“We make it work how?”
“That depends. How serious are you about staying here?”
Jack paused, considering his options. He was comfortable here, he liked his teammates, his condo, and he was close to his friends in Boston. Providence had been a home when no one else would give him a chance. He owed it back to them. “Extremely.”
George nodded and the lawyer to her right slid a stack of paper towards him. Jack expected it to be a draft of the contract but instead he was looking down at an NDA. The confusion must have shown on his face because the lawyer quickly started talking about how, even if Jack decided that he wasn’t interested in their proposal, this conversation could never leave this room so he had no choice but to sign anyway. Jack ignored his Dad’s voice screaming in his head to never sign what he doesn’t read first, and wrote Jack L. Zimmermann on the red marked line.
The NDA was pulled away from him and filed before Jack had a chance to ask any questions, and several people filed out of the room until it was just George and Jack left.
“George, what’s-“ Jack started to ask, but she held up a hand to cut him off.
George sighed, like the weight of this proposal finally coming off her chest was the most relief she’d felt in months. “This is an idea that is as equally brilliant as it is completely stupid. Technically it’s fraud, but that’s only if we get caught.”
“I don’t understand where you’re going with this.”
“We want you to get married.”
Jack felt the room tip on its axis. “Excuse me?”
“Not just to anyone,” George clarified. “A member of our staff. Someone we can promote without it seeming suspicious, and someone we can pay a NHL salary to, which of course would be funnelled into a joint bank account. It would be a way to pay you without actually paying you . Like I said, technically it’s fraud, but we’d keep it quiet. And with a lot of care, actually pull it off.”
Jack felt stunned more than anything else by this proposal. “You want me to get married.”
“Legally yes. Beyond that-” She made a so-so motion with her hand. “We wouldn’t expect you to live with them or anything. You could still date other people if you really wanted too, but for the sake of not getting caught you wouldn’t be able to have anything serious. A few casual flings are fine, but don’t get hung up on any serious wife or husband material. We’d expect the marriage to last as long as the contract, then you could quietly get a divorce and we’d budget better cap space for your next negotiation.”
“Would there be a no-trade clause?”
George nodded. “Obviously. And protection against any expansion drafts. We’re very serious about keeping you in Providence as long as you wish to stay.”
“Has this…” Jack gestured vaguely around, “sort of thing ever been done before?”
“Of course it has,” George said far more casually than the situation called for. “How do you think the Leafs keep getting around their cap issues? And Vegas isn’t known for legally dubious marriages for nothing.”
Jack avoided flinching at the mention of Vegas. For a fraction of a second his mind wondered if Kent had a similar arrangement, but no, it couldn’t be. He’d actually gone in the draft for what he was worth, hadn’t he? Jack shook his head to try and clear his thoughts.
“I know it’s a lot to consider.” George said, mistaking it for disagreement.
“I just want to play hockey. Why does it have to be so complicated?”
George shrugged. “Capitalism? The pricey cost of good players with the NHL breathing down our necks? Take your pick.” George leaned forward and squared her shoulder, and Jack realized how terrifying she must have been in the face-off circle when she played.
“Look, we don’t need an answer right away. But it would be beneficial to get one sooner rather than later so we can start to arrange things for it to work. It’s still relatively early in the season, but we’d need to know by the end of November. The other party – the person you’d marry I mean – has already agreed to it.” The end of November was only two weeks away.
“You have someone picked out already?”
“Yeah. There was really only one option that we trust enough to pull this off and we wanted to make sure he was willing to do it before we made the offer.”
George pursed her lips, and considered Jack for a moment. “I don’t mean to spring this on you Jack, but he’s actually here if you’d like to meet him. I understand that this is confusing, and it’s moving fast, but it might be a good idea.”
Jack’s head was reeling but he found himself agreeing to meet with him. He shouldn’t even be considering this as a serious option, but Jack liked Providence. A lot. He felt comfortable here, and give or take two seasons, they had a serious chance at another cup. He didn’t want to give that up to be traded away to a team that was trying to rebuild or trying to make a valiant effort at a cup with an overqualified centre. He could end up on the other side of the country, or worse, playing for a team like the Bruins. This whole…marriage thing seemed like a viable option. It’s not like Jack was particularly interested in dating. He just wanted to play, and like George had said, this idea was almost as brilliant as it was stupid. Almost.
Jack’s nervous energy had built up past the point of allowing him to sit still, so he stood up to start pacing the room. How long could it possibly take for George to collect this guy? He was so lost in his thoughts Jack didn’t hear the door open. He turned to continue pacing and came face to face, well more like face to air, with a short blond man. Why’d he have to be blond?
“Oh,” Jack said.
The man stuck his hand out for Jack to shake, and Jack took it numbly. “Nice to meet you Mr. Zimmermann, I’m Eric Bittle.” His handshake was firm, and Jack noticed a southern twang to his voice. He sounded, and Jack wasn’t sure why this connection felt so immediate and so accurate, but his voice sounded like melted butter being poured over freshly popped popcorn. Jack immediately felt warmed by his presence.
Eric continued to shake his hand with an amused look on his face. “This is the part where you say something back.”
Jack pulled his hand back, realizing just how long he’d been shaking Eric’s hand. He was trying to place the name, almost certain that he’d heard it before. “Should we sit?” Jack asked and immediately sat down without waiting for an answer. Luckily Eric followed suit. It suddenly felt overdue, but Jack hastily added, “Euh, I’m Jack, it’s nice to meet you too, Eric.”
“Please, call me Bitty.”
Jack leaned forwards in his chair, and looked Bitty over. “You play hockey?”
“Played.” Bitty corrected, puffing up his chest a little bit. It was barely noticeable, but Jack was paying an overwhelming amount of attention to his body. “I know I don’t look like a hockey player, but I was part of a Queen’s Cup winning team my senior year.”
“You played in the OUA? Don’t take this the wrong way, but you sound...”
“Extremely southern? I am. Georgia born and raised, Mr. Quebecois. Tuition is cheaper up North, even if your weather is unbearable.” Bitty said by way of explanation. Jack felt himself grimace at the pronunciation of ‘Quebecois’, but he didn’t say anything.
Jack felt like he was grasping at straws to try and make this conversation not awkward, but he’d never been good at small talk, or really talking in general. “So what is it that you…do?” He asked.
Bitty’s face only looked more amused. “As in what is my job besides marrying hockey players?” Jack nodded. “I do media for the Hawkers. You know those thirty-second challenge videos? As well as managing a few of the bigger social media accounts. Or at least, I did before the Falcs snatched me up at the beginning of the season.”
Suddenly it clicked where Jack knew Bitty’s name. “Oh right, you’re coordinating the faceoff videos now aren’t you? I heard from a bunch of the guys that they really like you.”
“And there you go with the charm,” Bitty’s tone was teasing but he ducked his head to hide a blush. “Mr. Zimmermann, I’ve already agreed to marry you.” And just like that the atmosphere in the room changed.
“Why would you agree to marry me?”
Bitty’s expression tightened. “In all honesty? They offered me a lot of money. Providence isn’t a cheap city and I’m up to my eyeballs in loans.”
“You’d be willing to sign away six years for that?”
Bitty shrugged half-heartedly. “It’s not like I’m going to be getting married any time soon.” Bitty leaned back in his seat and his arms crossed over his chest suddenly looking cautious. Jack desperately wanted the easy banter to come back. This was business now.
“I don’t want to make you do anything you’d be uncomfortable with.”
“You’d barely be making me do anything.” Bitty said. “Plus, I’ve already agreed to the deal without any pressure from you. They didn’t even tell me who it was until George grabbed me from the staff room. It’s a joint bank account for six years and discretion in any relationships in exchange for enough money to be comfortable for the rest of my life? Seems pretty doable to me.”
“I don’t come from money, Jack. Some of us don’t have the luxury of passing up opportunities like this.” Bitty snapped. Jack knew that was a target for his wealthy parents and the fact that he was standing on the edge of turning down more money than most people would ever see because it wasn’t enough. It was deserved, but it didn’t make it sting any less.
Jack looked at the ceiling to try and force his attention away from the awkward silence that spanned between Bitty and himself. He noticed a small water stain on the edge of a ceiling tile, and wondered if anyone else had seen it before. “So,” he finally said, “are we doing this?”
His eyes fell to Bitty, who looked surprised and maybe a little bit confused. “I already signed a contract.” Bitty said, his voice was soft, but determined. “Are you?”
Jack thought about it. About a new city on the other side of the country, a new cold condo, and twenty new faces and names to memorize. “I’m ready.”
It all fell into place rather quickly after that. George had everything arranged much faster than Jack had expected. The news of his resigning for such a low number branded Jack a hero to Falconers fans and was an unexpected bonus to his public image. Within a week of meeting Eric Bittle, Jack prepared himself to stand across from him, in the same conference room in the Falconers’ arena, and repeat a simple set of vows in front of a judge that had been hired for this purpose.
They had already signed their marriage licence, and about a thousand NDAs, and there was little weight given to the ceremony. It was for legality more than anything, but Bitty had still dressed up, making Jack feel incredibly guilty for showing up in his only slightly nicer work-out clothes. He had planned on going for a jog afterwards.
“You look worried,” Jack whispered to him just outside the room their sham marriage would happen in.
“It’s not every day you get married. Forgive me if this isn’t exactly how I pictured my wedding.”
“If it’s any consolation, I didn’t think I’d ever get married. This is just as strange to me. But I got your back, promise.” Jack gave Bitty a little genuine smile that widened when Bitty returned it, his hands stopped fiddling with his bowtie, and he straightened up his head just stopping under Jack’s chin.
“Well, are you ready Mr. Zimmermann?”
“As I’ll ever be.”
“Then let’s get married, shall we?”
Jack should be freaking out. Worry about this getting leaked landing him, George, and Bitty in a prison cell, and worse, out of the NHL for good. Not to mention the less legal dangers of how Jack had a type. One that his new husband matched perfectly.
But that all had to be put aside for hockey. He’d learned that the hard way when he was eighteen and the world was falling out from under him. This felt like risky territory, but Bitty seemed trustworthy and it wasn’t like they were going to see much of each other. Their marriage would be little more than a footnote – just a legal loophole that had made it possible for Jack to stay in Providence.
It was all so convenient and simple that it felt like nothing could go wrong. There’s only one thing Jack forgot to consider. That the press is excellent at finding out exactly what you don’t want them to.