The 23-year-old court clerk engaged to a magistrate more than 40 years her senior previously dated his middle-aged neighbour, it has emerged.
Ashleigh Petrie’s relationship with 68-year-old Rodney Higgins, a grandfather of eight, came to light after she posted loved up pictures of the couple’s engagement on social media.
But before the whirlwind romance — which culminated with a romantic proposal during a Fiji getaway — Ms Petrie was in a relationship with another older man.
Previously she dated businessman Stuart Gowty, 48 and lived with him in Shepparton, north Victoria, Daily Mail Australia reports, posting on social media that she had found the love of life despite a 25-year age gap.
Ms Petrie and Mr Gowty lived next door to her now fiance Magistrate Higgins and his partner of 18 years, who has not been named.
Ms Petrie, who works as clerk in the same court as her fiance, was once very smitten with Mr Gowty, posting countless photos of the pair on her Instagram account often using the hashtag #loveofmylife.
He first appeared on her Instagram feed back in June 2016 after surprising her with a lavish gift, 24 red roses and a Tiffany & Co ring. She captioned the photograph #promisering.
Mr Gowty — who owns a picture framing business — regularly featured in the years afterwards captioned variously “love of my life”, “my amazing man” and “baby”.
In one photo taken at a Western Bulldogs AFL game, the pair took a selfie as they were about to share a kiss. In another they stand pressed together smiling after spending the day at the Shepparton Showgrounds.
She also posted photos of expensive gifts including jewellery from Mr Gowty, for anniversaries and birthdays and trips away.
But the stream of cute couple selfies came to an abrupt end in January 2019, along with a post from Ms Petrie describing a “new chapter” in her life.
“Tomorrow I jet set off to the east coast of the United States for an adventure of a lifetime,” she wrote.
“I return to start my next chapter in my life in Melbourne where I open my mind and soul to new opportunities, to find me as a person and allow myself to grow into the woman I know I can be, to focus on reconnecting with family and friends, to focus on my studies and career and find what it is in this life that sets my soul on fire.
“Farewell to the lost little girl I felt I was and hello to the new Ashleigh.”
Her post was a collage of multiple snaps shared on December 31, many including Mr Gowty, that detailed the “heart ache” she had experienced in 2018.
“#2018 has been a year of highs and lows, lessons and experiences. I have met some fantastic people and some not so great,” she said.
“I have loved and I have felt heart ache. I have grown so much in 2018 and I would not change a thing. I am so excited for #2019 and what the year may bring.”
By April 20, she was posting photos of her now fiance, Mr Higgins, taken on a trip to the beach.
“Romantic day out with my man,” it read, along with a love heart emoji.
By June, she described posts with Mr Higgins as the “love of my life”.
Her latest relationship sparked a comment from an eagle-eyed friend that read: “Jesus. You are a serial old man dater”.
Mr Higgins was a local lawyer when the two began their relationship but has since been appointed to the bench and has been working as a magistrate in Gippsland Victoria.
Mr Higgins and Ms Petrie now live together in Mirboo North, four hours from Shepparton.
They have enjoyed frequent romantic holidays prior to the Fiji getaway, including a trip to Bali in June when they stayed at the Hyatt Regency and enjoyed poolside cocktails and dinners at the Kayumanis Seaside Sanur.
Last month the pair jetted off to Fiji where Mr Higgins popped the question during a luxury jaunt at the five-star Warwick resort.
“It started with a crush and now I have a ring on my finger. The love of my life asked me to marry him and I said YESSSS,” Ms Petrie wrote on her public Facebook account.
In a separate post she described the “amazing” 10-day holiday, and her excitement at arriving as “Rod’s” girlfriend and leaving as his fiancee.
“I cannot wait to become Mrs Higgins!” she posted at the end of their holiday, along with multiple loved-up snaps of their time away.
“We are actually the funniest couple in the world! We spend all day everyday laughing and being silly, having fun! I don’t know how I got so lucky to find such a sweet and caring man with the same sense of humour, this amazing man is the love of my life!”
Friends and family congratulated the couple online, declaring the ring and their relationship “stunning”.
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