Count Girolamo Riario hated Doctor Leonardo da Vinci on sight.
Much later, he'd attribute that strength of feeling to terror at his true feelings, desires that ought not to exist and could not be easily acknowledged. At that moment however, the hazel eyes and neatly tied back brown hair aroused indignation rather than desire. The arrogant mouth, drawn into a barely respectful smile, made Riario want to backhand da Vinci with a glove.
Most of all, Lucrezia's obvious infatuation with him — barely a gentleman, no nobleman this one — gave Riario an excuse to despise the doctor before da Vinci uttered a word. Jealousy was not an emotion Riario allowed himself, and he could not have at that point recognised it as such. Irrational anger and a quickening of his pulse, were passed off as a gut reaction to finally meeting the inappropriate man Lucrezia had spoken of in such glowing terms.
Riario forced himself to make small talk; literature, the weather, the countryside. Leo responded with equally polite statements.
"I'm still settling in," Leo said. "Your cousin loves the place so much that her enthusiasm alone makes me want to adore it as much as she does."
"It is pleasant enough," Riario allowed, "a welcome diversion from city life."
A shadow passed over Leo's face and then he smiled, cheerful once more. "Perhaps you can recommend suitable diversions?"
Riario's gaze flicked to Lucrezia, who was beside herself with excitement. "I can recommend some activities that ought to be avoided." The hint of a threat hung in the air. Lucrezia scowled. Leo excused himself.
"I was sent to ensure you are not disgracing yourself or our family," Riario told Lucrezia in hushed tones when she began to berate him. "What do you know about him? What is his income?"
"Money! Is that all that is important?" Lucrezia flounced off to find a more sympathetic guest to talk to. She'd wanted to introduce Riario to the community, she said, and what she had meant was to introduce Riario to Leo, and what she had wanted was for him to endorse her affection.
What neither Riario nor Lucrezia had expected was that her introducing Riario to Leo would have planted a seed of desire.
After her third compliment, which was two more than she'd given him in their entire lives as far as he recalled, he sighed. "Whatever you want, cousin, speak plainly."
"Why must I want something?" She turned her doe eyes on him but he was immune to that particular attempt at manipulation.
"Then you want nothing?"
Her lips drew together. They walked in silence for a while. She pulled Riario to a stop near the herb garden. One of the maids was picking rosemary while the head gardener was pulling weeds.
"Doctor da Vinci is a skilled physician," she began. Riario raised his eyes heavenward, having heard her sing the man's praises almost incessantly since he himself had arrived. If her stories of Leo's competence, heroism, and geniality became any more flamboyant he'd be hearing how Leo had raised the dead, defeated a moorland beast, and was about to be named lord of a manor built especially for him by the grateful locals.
"I care nothing for his profession," Riario said. "Or his countenance." He frowned at that, the words falling from his lips before his mind had fully comprehended them.
Lucrezia placed her hands on her hips. "Why do you dislike him so much?"
"Because you like him so much," he returned. "I know desire when I see it and you are dripping with it. Yet you have the most unsuitable taste in men. We have only narrowly avoided scandal in the past and now I hear you have been dining with the doctor, inviting gossip. I cannot condone your pursuit of him."
Tears filled her eyes. "I have had company whenever I have invited the doctor to dinner," she said. "I have not been improper."
"Old Sforza is barely competent enough to take care of himself, let alone chaperone you when he visits," Riario scoffed. "Tell me, Lucrezia, for I am puzzled, what exactly do you see in this da Vinci? At least your prior dalliances have held titles and land."
"He listens when I speak. He talks to me with deference not condescension. He sketched me and when I saw his work I had never felt so beautiful."
She gave a sniffle. Riario remained unmoved.
"He is kind in ways you could never be," she said, her voice wavering. "You are cruel and cold-hearted and you revel in it!"
With a sob she turned and fled towards the house. The maid and the gardener gave Riario disapproving looks and he glared back until they lowered their gaze. Wretched servants. They apparently adored Lucrezia and no doubt thought him as cruel as Lucrezia had claimed.
Someone had to be sensible, Riario told himself, lifting his chin and continuing his stroll around the grounds. Da Vinci was, until proven otherwise, not to be trusted. Riario had a foreign title, equivalent to an English earl, but it was still a title; Lucrezia was Lady Donati, and that made her nobility and open to the attentions of those seeking to better themselves through marriage.
Still, her words stung a little. He did not revel in being mean, only in being practically minded. He would have thought a physician might pride himself on being practical too, being used to making life and death decisions. Yet somehow Leo da Vinci was not only the foremost doctor in all of England, according to Lucrezia, but utterly charming. Not a noble, but a true gentleman with manners to shame a prince. The common people loved him too because he encouraged them to call him Leo whenever he wasn't working, refusing to demand they address him with respect — a recipe for trouble in Riario's opinion.
He had other doubts beside. If Leo was so clever, why then had he ended up in this rural locale? It was a pleasant place for a country gentleman but there were far more opportunities, especially for a younger man like Leo, in a city practice.
It was a question Riario put to Lucrezia later, when she'd calmed herself and was being cordial with him once more while they took tea. Leo had been at Cheltenham previously, she said, but was at a loss to explain his reasons for leaving.
"He never wishes to discuss it," she said. "I think something dreadful happened. Maybe he lost a patient?"
"The blessed doctor let someone die?" Riario sipped at his tea. Lucrezia scowled.
"Maybe a loved one? I asked though and he has never been married. Like you," she added, before he could mention that a man of Leo's age might have been expected to have taken a wife by now.
"So you have elaborate fantasies about his tragic past," Riario said, leaning back in his chair. "But nothing to prove who he truly is or what he might be capable of."
Lucrezia stared into her cup. "I suppose you're right," she said, which so stunned Riario he was glad he was seated. "Perhaps I have been foolish."
Not trusting her to stay away from the man however, Riario made enquires over the next few days yet everyone he spoke with adored Leo. Unlike the previous holder of his post, Leo was not afraid to get his hands dirty and help out with farm animals as well as people. He would drink tea from china cups and dance with great elegance one minute, and swig cider from mugs and show off his juggling skills another. He was all things to all people, and no-one had a bad word to say about him.
Riario acknowledged he might have been too harsh in his initial judgement. He was beginning to admire the doctor's skill in winning people over. This reluctant admiration might have been as far as his feelings about Leo developed, except a week later there was an accident that changed everything.