Arriving at the restaurant, my nerves slipped away as I spotted Ashley waiting for me.
"You look beautiful," he said, giving me a hug.
I'd met Ashley at my job as a sales manager at a furniture store.
We had a lovely evening together and became an item.
After we'd dated for six months, I introduced him to my son Jack, three.
Jack was autistic, so I wanted to make sure things were serious first.
Luckily, they got on well and we moved in together.
Then one day, I was tidying up our room when I found a pair of red lacy underwear in Ashley's bedside drawer.
"What's this?" I asked him.
His face contorted with rage.
"Why are you going through my drawer?" he yelled.
And then he threw a curve ball.
"You talk too much to your ex," he snarled.
My ex, David, and I had stayed close for Jack's sake.
Ashley and I had a huge fight and he stormed out and spent the night with a friend.
The next day, he came around and bashed my door down.
He charged towards me and wrapped his fingers around my neck.
"Ashley!" I gasped.
I was just about to pass out when he released me.
"I'm sorry," he said, stroking my head before running off.
Shaking, I called my mum, Sharon who lived nearby.
She rang the police and Ashley was arrested.
He admitted assault and causing criminal damage, and was fined $1350.
He wasn't supposed to contact me, but he bombarded me with apologetic messages.
It sounds crazy, but he reeled me back in and we started dating again.
For a while, things were good but soon his controlling behaviour crept back in.
He took over my money and wouldn't let me out of the house.
One day, he'd been taking a lot of calls so I asked him who he was talking to.
"I'm not cheating!" he screamed and punched my head and stomach.
The beatings became the norm and I covered my bruises with make-up.
Then I discovered I was pregnant.
"This will be the making of me," Ashley said and I hoped so, too.
But he demanded sex throughout the pregnancy, sometimes up to four times a day – even when I pleaded with him to stop.
After giving birth to our son Christian, Ashley immediately demanded sex again, even though I was sore down below.
It was hardly a surprise that Christian was just four months old when I fell pregnant again.
Pregnancy meant no beatings, apart from the odd slap around the face, but Ashley continued to demand sex.
When I was nine months pregnant, he came into the room and started groping my breasts.
"I'm really not in the mood," I told him but he ignored me.
Feeling sick, I shut my eyes tightly and waited for it to be over.
The next day I gave birth to another beautiful little boy who we named George.
Back home a day later, Ashley was engrossed in a film when I noticed he'd left his Facebook open on the computer.
I opened his inbox and saw flirty messages with different women.
Furious, I stormed up to him holding George but Ashley realised what I'd seen.
Ignoring our newborn baby, he punched me in the face.
I staggered back and managed to place George safely down before defending myself from Ashley's blows.
Next, Christian started crying and Jack, who'd been watching the film, scooped him up and ran to his room in terror.
Ashley slammed me into the floor and ripped my t-shirt off.
Then he grabbed me and pushed me onto my front.
Panic gripped me as I realised what he was about to do.
"No!" I shouted as he fumbled with his trousers.
I was in so much pain that my body simply gave up as he forced himself on me.
Afterwards, I went up to console the kids and when they went to sleep, I called the police to report the beating.
Ashley was arrested but made me drop the charges.
We stayed together and I fell pregnant again. I became convinced it was his way of controlling me.
When I was five months gone, I accused him of cheating and he handed me his phone.
"I haven't been cheating, check," he said. But he hadn't deleted his search history and I saw he'd been on dating sites.
Realising he'd been caught, he began punching me.
"No, the baby!" I screamed as he battered me, knocking over furniture as he kicked me.
He gripped his hands around my neck, and squeezed so hard I tasted blood.
My kids are going to grow up without a mum, I panicked.
Suddenly, he let go and I managed to crawl away.
I was shocked to see police officers in the house.
My neighbours had heard the commotion and called them.
Due to Ashley's previous domestic violence conviction, the police had turned up quietly so they wouldn't scare him away.
As they tended to my injuries, a realisation shot through my head.
He could have killed our unborn baby. It was the final straw.
I left the house with a bag of clothes and went to a women's refuge with my three boys.
Ashley was jailed for six months for assault and given a two-year restraining order against me.
I gave birth to a baby girl, Macie, and was given counselling to get over my violent relationship.
During my sessions, I recounted how Ashley had demanded sex.
"Emily, that's rape," my therapist said. Being told by someone else made me realise how serious it was.
What if he does it to another woman? I thought.
So, I made a statement to police and Ashley was arrested.
In the following weeks, police informed me that Ashley had another victim.
I felt awful that I hadn't come forward earlier, but was even more determined to get justice.
In time, Ashley Wills was found guilty of three counts of rape against me and a further two counts of rape and three counts of assault against the other victim.
I was thrilled when he was jailed for 18 years.
For seven years, I was trapped in a relationship with a monster.
My children have all suffered emotionally.
We've moved to a new area to get a fresh start and we've all had counselling.
The boys dote on their little sister and are fiercely protective of me.
I don't think I'll ever date again.
My kids are all I need, and we can now move on as a happy, loving family.
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Australian Women's WeeklyFeb 14, 2019