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The blond man fell to his knees near her, stretching a hand toward the one struggling in the water. Instead of making an effort to reach the bank, the man called Damon sank like a cast-off sad iron.
"Can he swim?" she cried.
"Damme 'f I know," the kneeling man answered. "I can't swim a stroke. 'M like a cat. Hate water."
Listening to his slurred words, she understood he had been overindulging. No doubt Damon was also foxed, which would account for him overturning the boat.
Drunk or sober, she could not allow him to drown right before her eyes. Thanking God that she had learned to swim after a fashion by secretly observing Freddie paddling in the river and then imitating his actions when she was alone in her secret pool in the glen, Ashley yanked off her bonnet, kicked off her slippers and slid down the bank into the river.
The cold water hungrily reached for her, foaming about her as she waded waist-deep, doing its best to tug her off her feet. Directly in front of her, Damon surfaced, gasping for air, his black hair plastered flat against his head. His dark eyes stared into hers for a moment before he went under again.
Had Freddie told her that a drowning man rose up only once? Or was it twice? Thrice? She could not remember. Ashley plunged beneath the surface, groping ahead of her, fighting the current as she searched for the man called Damon, afraid she might already be too late to save him. She stayed under until she was desperate for breath.
As her head broke water, something gripped her shoulder, startling her into swallowing water. Choking and coughing, she gazed in surprise at the dark-haired man whose hand was on her shoulder. Beforeshe had a chance to collect herself, he grabbed her around the waist and began pulling her toward shore.
"Don't panic," he told her. "I shall save you."
Indignant, Ashley fought to free herself. "I can swim," she informed him.
Instead of releasing her, he grasped her all the more tightly. Moments later, her flailing feet touched bottom. "Let me go!" she cried as she fought for stable footing.
He ceased pulling her toward the river bank, but did not obey her command. Standing facing her, he drew her closer, pressing her body to his, her thighs to his thighs, her breasts to his chest. Bemused, she did not move while he bent his head and his lips found hers.
He was kissing her! In her shock at his effrontery, Ashley allowed more than an instant or two to pass before she tried to push him away. To no avail. Freddie's advice rang in her ears. "If'n a bloke grabs ye unawares-like, miss, 'ook 'im round the back of 'is ankle with yer foot 'n' sorta jerk. Makes 'im topple 'n' ye'll go free."
Ashley tried it. Damon lost his balance in a most satisfactory manner, but unfortunately did not let her go, consequently they both went under. Squirming away from him, she rose and made for the bank, scrambling up its slippery, muddy surface with all the dignity she could manage. Which was not very much. She did not deign to look behind her at the man who had tricked her into believing he was drowning, then added insult to injury by kissing her.