It was the lonely widower’s first wedding anniversary without his wife, who had died the previous year. He had paid $250 because he wanted to sway to music with a pretty girl — and that was all.
Recalling that night in her memoir “In Pursuit of Love: One Woman’s Journey from Trafficked to Triumphant” (Zondervan), out Tuesday, Bender dreamed of one thing: “The day when someone would miss me that much.”
“I just wanted to love and be loved,” Bender, 38, told The Post.
And that’s how she got involved with a series of violent, manipulative boyfriends who sex-trafficked her for nearly six years.
Bender — who had been a cheerleader and honors student in small-town Oregon — was branded, beaten, told how to dress and sent out to have sex for money.
Growing up in a middle-class household, she was set to attend college until, at 17, she learned she was pregnant. Her boyfriend was jailed on a drug offense, Bender writes in the book, before their daughter, Deshae, was born.
Desperate to reclaim part of her original plan to escape her hometown, Bender and her child moved to Eugene, Ore., to be close to her friends at college there.
She was on campus one day when she met a man she calls Bryan, who told her he was a music producer. He showered her with everything she didn’t have: money, vacations, gifts and affection.
In 2001, after five months of dating, Bryan talked her into moving to Las Vegas. On the first night there, he forced Bender to join an escort agency, she claims in the book. She objected, and allegedly was smacked across the face.
It was the first of many times Bryan would treat her like a punching bag, she alleges. At other moments, he told her she could quit the sex business once his career took off.
Bender hated every second of her first experience as a hooker — “I didn’t know what to do. I froze. And then it was over,” she said — but at least the client didn’t harm her. On later occasions, she was assaulted, chased and choked until she almost blacked out.
‘Every time you knock on a hotel room door . . . you wonder whether it’s going to be the last time you see your kids’
“It’s a dangerous job,” she said. “Every time you knock on a hotel room door . . . you wonder whether it’s going to be the last time you see your kids.” Meanwhile, Bender’s daughter was watched by sitters in Vegas while she worked.
Bender turned to cocaine to numb the pain and became addicted. Her family, aware that something was wrong, begged her to come back to Oregon.
In 2004, she found the courage to leave Bryan. But she didn’t go home. Instead, she walked into an even worse situation.
Bender knew that Kevin was a pimp, but one of his “girls” swore that he was kind. He bought Bender a Mercedes and moved her and Deshae into his 5,000-square-foot home.
Almost immediately, things turned dark. For the next four years, Kevin allegedly forced her to prostitute herself to hundreds of men, she writes in the book.
“It wasn’t a physical kidnapping, but it [was] trafficking because I was brainwashed . . . which stopped me from leaving,” she said. He acted as a dad to Deshae and convinced Bender they could be a family. “It was this dangling of a carrot,” she said. “But it was all lies.”
She was arrested several times but, like the other women Kevin prostituted, she refused to name him. She would spend a night in jail, get slapped with a $1,000 fine — the equivalent of two nights’ wages — and be home by noon.
Finally, in 2008, Kevin was convicted of tax evasion and sentenced to two years in jail.
“It gave me separation from the brainwashing and the courage to move ahead,” said Bender.
She moved back to her hometown, got a job in customer service and married a salesman named Matt in 2009. They have three daughters, plus Deshae, who is 20.
“I told Matt about my past on our first date,” said Bender. “He and my family are incredibly supportive.”
Now, she advocates for trafficking victims through her nonprofit Rebecca Bender Initiative.
“[Americans] have the stereotype of trafficking victims being children smuggled from overseas,” she said. “It’s not allowing us to identify the victims in our own backyard.”