Ophelia Caldwell was not her real name, but the way he said it made the words feel like an ugly stain on her skin. She might have chosen the name for herself, but it became his upon his lips. The man who’d once been a friend—a possible lover even—had become an enemy. The Alpha bear stepped closer. The compassion in his eyes felt fake, thin and flimsy. He reached for Lia, but she stepped back from his touch.
The face Lia once thought roguishly handsome curled into an ugly scowl. “All you have to do is make a choice. I’d like to think I’m the easy choice. You wouldn’t have to worry about your safety.”
“But, I’d still have to worry about my freedom. What makes you think I’d want to belong to any of you bears? I know what you want me for.” Lia spat the words like spikes, hoping they would strike him and force him back.
Unfortunately, she had no real power against the bear. His human form echoed the grizzly that lived inside him, lending him a massive form. His hands were like giant paws, and even if they didn’t have claws, he could clench them and do just as much damage.
“You would want for nothing with me,” he growled. Again, he stepped into her space.
Lia backed up, her spine slamming into a tree trunk. A spike of fear rocketed through her. It filled her with cold dread. This whole situation was her fault. She never should have returned to the ocean. She’d wanted to hear the crash of the waves against the rocks, to breathe in the scent of salt in the air, but her longing made it all too easy for the Alpha bears to track her. It was no mere chance that Caz found her.
It was her own stupidity.
“What’s freedom when you could have anything you’ve ever wanted?” His breath washed over her bare shoulder as he ducked his head toward her. Once upon a time, this might have turned her on. Now, it only made her shudder with revulsion. “One way or another, I’ll have you as my bride.”
She laughed, the sound becoming barbed and bitter. “Not only do you have two other Alpha bears to get through first, but you have yet to find my sealskin.”
Again, his face twisted into a scowl. She saw the nearly imperceptible flex of his shoulder right before he slammed his fist into the tree behind her. Bark rained down over her head as she tried her hardest not to flinch.
“I can’t find the damned thing because you hid it.”
“You don’t have to remind me.” Her skin crawled. Every moment without her sealskin was torture.
It’d been too long since her last shift. Ever since the Alpha bears began their hunt, she’d had to be more careful
Lia wished she’d never told Caz what she was. There’d been no way for her to know her ancestors had made an agreement with the alpha bears that gave control of the coast to whichever bear held a selkie skin. But clearly Caz and the other alphas in the area had known. As soon as they found out she was a selkie, they had started this seemingly endless hunt.
Each Alpha bear had a different approach. They thought they could coax the location of her hidden skin out of her while their packs sought it. Caz thought he could buy her selkie skin from her. His every step was volatile. Lia waited for the man to explode while he tried to promise her the lap of luxury.
He leaned in. Afraid he might try to touch her, she ducked under his arm. She spun around the tree. Putting it between them, Lia sucked in a deep breath. The scent of the ocean lingered in the air. It called to her, made her ache in ways Caz would never understand.
“Ophelia,” he called out. “Things would be so much easier if you would stop running. The bears aren’t going to stop until someone owns you. If you would just choose one of us, this would be over.”
She ran through the trees, her heart pounding as the ocean opened ahead. Caz spoke as if there was only one outcome. Lia refused to believe there was a future in which she wasn’t her own person. There had to be another way. There had to be another option.
She refused to be caught by these animals, only for them to rule a strip of land. Their hearts would not be in it. Her body would belong to them while her spirit broke.
No. Lia refused.
Caz caught up to her. He spun her around. His hands were rough but didn’t hurt. Still, she reeled away from his touch. His lips pressed together. He looked as though he wanted to say more. They would never stop fighting. It wouldn’t end until she stopped it.
If this was a game they wanted to play, Lia could play it, too.
“Just stop this nonsense,” Caz pleaded. “Make a decision. Hand over your skin.”
She backed away from him. Ahead of her was a future she did not want. Behind her, the ocean lay beneath a rocky cliff. Salt filled the air, clinging to their hair and skin. Caz looked at her with soft eyes, his hand extended as if he truly expected his change of behavior to win her over.
Her foot slipped. Rocks tumbled over the edge of the cliff. Caz’s eyes widened. Below, waves crashed against the rocky shore. She could feel the water’s movement like her own soul. It danced and beckoned her.
She turned to Caz, letting a smile slip over her lips. This game had only just begun, but she would win it one way or another. Confusion passed over his face before she turned and leapt. Lia trusted the ocean below. She could feel the water against rocks, knew where to jump. As she broke the water, she arched her back. Her fingertips brushed the soft, sandy bottom before she kicked toward the surface.
As much as she missed her sealskin and the creature within it, she also missed the ocean. The waters swirled around her, inviting her to dance. Tendrils of seaweed tickled her legs. Fish darted from her presence. She wished she could stay forever, an ache blooming in her heart stronger than the fear she felt in Caz’s presence, but she knew she would never be happy with one or the other. Either would be living a half life.
Lia had spent too much time on land. Her heart belonged to both civilization and the sea. While she hungered to crunch on tiny fish fresh out of the water, she also knew she would forever crave sweet lattes and late-night Netflix binges with her best friend. The ocean was vast, and while she might not have much of a family on land, it was still far more than what she might find in the ocean. There was a chance she’d curse herself to a life of loneliness, unable to find her pack, if she returned to the sea.
Her head broke the surface of the water, and she dragged in a deep breath of salty air. Above her, Caz howled with anger. His roar shook the rocks beneath her, but the water promised her safety.
These shores would belong to no one but her. She would see to that.