The Women of Great Heron Lake: A Novel

New Release!

The Women of Great Heron Lake
Deanna Lynn Sletten

Book Description:

Two strong women, generations apart, living parallel lives.
Cover by Tugboat Design

When Marla Madison’s husband of twenty-two years dies, she finds her life has become very small. Her daughter is grown and she’s spent the past two decades around his friends, his interests, and his home. Feeling lost, she throws herself into fixing up the one-hundred and fifty-year-old family manor on the lake. While remodeling, she discovers an old journal in a secret drawer and is instantly intrigued. The handwritten book describes the life of another Mrs. Madison from over a century ago, the first woman to live in Marla’s home. As she reads the journal with the book club women she’s recently befriended, Marla finds that her life parallels that of the woman who wrote those words decades ago and Marla finds inspiration from her strength.

1875 - Alaina Carlton was content to become a spinster until her beloved father introduces her to Nathaniel Madison, one of the most prosperous men in their town of St. Paul, Minnesota. Even though she loves her independence and enjoys working on her father’s finances for his factory, she is intrigued by this man who pursues her. When they marry, she believes she’s found a man who will treat her as an equal, but soon realizes that isn’t entirely true. From their mansion on the illustrious Summit Avenue to their manor at Great Heron Lake, where the rich and powerful play, her life is no longer her own. But fifteen years and two children later when Nathaniel grows ill, she takes her rightful place where women weren’t allowed in order to secure her children’s inheritance and her future.

An inspiring family saga of two determined woman who found meaning in their lives by following their passions and not allowing society, or propriety, to hold them back. 

The Women of Great Heron Lake is a Silver Finalist in the Readers' Favorite Book Award Contest 2020!

Now available in Audiobook!

Read the First Chapter of The Women of Great Heron Lake:


Marla sat in the stuffy, closed-up bedroom watching each labored breath her husband took. He was almost gone; she knew the end was near. After over a year of suffering from pancreatic cancer, that had eventually spread, his body could stand no more. She watched his chest rise and fall and listened to his ragged breathing. Yet, she sat silently, waiting.

Gently, she took his bony hand in hers.

At last, it happened. He exhaled, a long, final sigh. He was gone.

Marla stood stiffly, walked slowly to the window, and pushed aside the old heavy draperies her husband had always insisted they keep. She unlocked the window and slid it open. Fresh, crisp, spring air floated in, and she inhaled deeply. Marla desperately hoped that his soul would escape the confines of this room on the scented spring breeze.

“Goodbye, Nathan,” she said softly.

Marla turned and walked out the door, not ready to notify anyone yet. Walking down the long hallway, ignoring its oppressive dark walls and woodwork, she continued taking deep cleansing breaths. She should be sad, but no tears came. With each step, her spirit grew lighter.

She was free.




Chapter One





Marla Madison drifted through the crowd of mourners in her home, gracefully accepting their heartfelt condolences. The great room was filled with Nathan’s oldest friends and colleagues from the university. Even former students had come to pay their respects to their once beloved English and Literature professor. It was a wonderful tribute for a man who had lived a relatively quiet, private life.

She ran her hand over the skirt of her black Chanel suit, smoothing out creases that had formed throughout the long, warm day, and glanced at her reflection in one of the tall windows. Her short hair was still neat, and her mascara hadn’t run—yet. However, her feet ached in her high-heeled pumps and her head hurt, as well. Despite the well-meaning wishes from those who’d gathered, Marla longed to be alone. But she continued to smile politely and nod at each guest and thank them for coming to pay their respects.

Scanning the room, Marla checked to ensure the servers were passing around appetizers and offering beverages to the guests. She spotted their longtime housekeeper, Florence Cooper, standing stiffly in her black uniform watching the women with a keen eye. Marla should have known Mrs. Cooper would have everything under control.

Marla turned to say a few words to the president of the Great Heron Lake Yacht Club that Nathan had belonged to since he was a mere boy. She caught the eye of her daughter, Reese, sitting on one of the leather sofas by the stone fireplace with her most recent boyfriend, Chad Winters. She could tell from Reese’s red-rimmed, blue eyes that she’d had enough. The funeral had been long and the reception line had been endless. Now, with the house full of people, Marla knew that like her, Reese was on her last nerve. Despite being an adult of twenty, Reese was still her father’s little girl and today had been especially difficult for her.

Anthony Williams, the family attorney, appeared at Marla’s side and gently touched her arm. “Marla. You look exhausted. Would you prefer we wait until Monday for the reading of the will?”

She turned and gave their old friend a wan smile. Anthony had been buddies with Nathan since childhood. They’d sailed, golfed, and even attended college together. But while Nathan had maintained a youthful appearance into his sixties, until he’d become ill, Anthony hadn’t been as lucky. At sixty-five, his once thick, dark hair was balding and nearly gray, and lines were etched around his warm brown eyes. He’d also become quite portly, partly due to his eating at the club most nights since his wife had passed away the year before. But he was still the gentlemanly, caring friend he’d always been. Marla appreciated him, especially now.

“No, let’s go ahead with it today,” she said. “I have a feeling Reese will want to go back to her townhouse in St. Paul before the weekend is over.”

Anthony shook his head disapprovingly. “She should spend time here with you. I’m sure the university would understand if she missed a few more days.”

Marla sighed. She wished it were that simple, but she knew that now Reese’s beloved father was gone, she’d spend even less time at home. She and Reese had never been able to create the bond mothers and daughters were supposed to have. Especially not the same type of close relationship Reese had enjoyed with Nathan. Father and daughter had connected the moment Reese was born, and it remained that way over the past twenty years. And while Marla was pleased that Nathan had been able to enjoy fatherhood and bond easily with his child at an age when many men were becoming grandfathers, she’d always felt left out when father and daughter were together.

Now, Reese would have an empty spot in her heart that her father had once held.

Marla hoped she’d be able to help fill even a little of that space, but she knew it wouldn’t be an easy task.

Marla looked up at Anthony. “I’ll say a few goodbyes to our guests then we can meet in Nathan’s den.”

He nodded and gave her an encouraging smile before turning away.

“Oh, darling! What will you do now without your Nathan? He was the true north that guided your family.” In her black sheath dress, dripping in diamonds and white gold, her friend, Victoria Carter, swooped down upon her and gave her a gentle hug. Her husband, Marshall, owned a chain of high-end jewelry stores in the Twin Cities and Vicki modeled their wares quite beautifully. Tall, slender, and with auburn hair and green eyes, Vicki was gorgeous. Her most recent hospital visit to tighten a sagging jawline had helped to ensure that beauty lasted.

Vicki was her closest friend, even though Marla sometimes felt a little put off by her. They’d met over twenty years before at the Great Heron Lake Yacht Club beside the Olympic-sized pool, both pregnant and feeling like whales. From that day forward they’d been fast friends, golfing together in the women’s league, volunteering at the same organizations, and planning school fundraisers together. Their daughters were born within days of each other and had also been friends throughout their school years. But despite their friendship, Marla bristled at the words that had just left Vicki’s mouth.

The true north that guided their family? Did her friend really believe that it was Nathan who’d kept their lives running smoothly for the past twenty-two years?

“It will be difficult without Nathan,” Marla said softly, keeping her thoughts to herself. “But Reese and I will soldier through.”

“Oh, but Marla,” Vicki continued in her dramatic way, “Nathan was everything! You two were inseparable. It must be devasting to you. And poor Reese! She was the apple of her father’s eye. Poor dear.”

“Thank you, sweetie,” Marla said, rubbing her friend’s upper arm. She watched as Vicki accepted another glass of white wine and sipped it. Her blood-red lipstick made half-circles on the rim of the glass. Vicki loved her wine. Marla wondered just how many glasses her friend had already consumed.

Marla shook a few more hands and visited a moment with her other close friend, Catrina Richardson, another club member whose husband used to golf regularly with Nathan. It didn’t go unnoticed by Marla that all their friends were an extension of people who’d known him through his club or his work.

As the crowd thinned, Reese walked over to her mother with Chad in tow. Marla had only exchanged a few words with Chad since they’d arrived late Wednesday night, but she already knew she liked him better than the last four young men Reese had dated. He was from a wealthy family—old money, of course—yet was very down-to-earth and polite. Compared to Reese’s former biker boyfriend, and adventure-seeking one, Marla thought Chad might be a keeper.

“When is Florence going to push everyone out the door?” Reese asked, sounding annoyed. “She’s good at doing that. I’m so sick of being friendly when all I want to do is be left alone.”

“I know, dear.” Marla wrapped her arm around her daughter’s waist. “But we can’t be rude. Everyone means well by being here. Your father would have been honored to see such a turnout of old and new friends.”

Reese wrinkled her nose. “Dad would have hated this too. He was happiest in his den, surrounded by his books.”

Marla nodded as she studied her daughter. She was such a beautiful girl with pleasing features, a tall, lean body, and long, thick blond hair. But sometimes her impatience and, if Marla were honest, superior attitude, made her seem less beautiful. She’d learned her perspective from her father, who, despite being a good person, could also display superiority over what he called “common people.” He was from an older generation and an old money family, and sometimes that outdated attitude came out in him.

Reese pulled away from her mother and headed for the kitchen. Marla knew exactly what she was up to and soon saw Mrs. Cooper round up the women serving food and beverages and sending them to the kitchen. Once the food was gone, so also would the crowd.

Marla shook her head and sighed. Mrs. Cooper had been with the family for fifty years, since she started as an upstairs maid at age twenty. She’d worked her way up to head housekeeper and had since run the home. Even now, long after the days of house guests and weekend parties were gone, and the cleaning had been delegated to a service that came twice a week because of Mrs. Cooper’s arthritic hands and bad knees, she still ruled the house with an iron fist. Nathan’s family had set up a pension for her years before, and Nathan had bought her a nice cottage on the lake to retire to when she turned sixty-two, but the woman still had not left. She’d been there so long, no one had the heart to tell her to go. And Marla would have felt the same way if Mrs. Cooper hadn’t regarded her with disdain over the past twenty-two years.

The people finally filed out as Marla bid several of them goodbye. Soon she and Reese were sitting in the den across from Nathan’s antique desk where Anthony sat. He pulled a pair of reading glasses from his jacket pocket and perused the papers he’d taken from his briefcase.

“Well, there isn’t much to tell you that you probably don’t know already,” Anthony said. “Nathan’s will is simple and clear-cut. Since Reese had been left an ample trust fund by her grandmother, which she will inherit when she turns twenty-one, Nathan felt that would be more than enough money to provide for her. Reese will take ownership of the townhouse Nathan purchased for her in St. Paul, and her bills and college tuition will be paid for out of an account he’d left for those needs. Otherwise, this house, and all the rest of the money is left to you, Marla.”

Reese sat there with her legs crossed, impatiently bouncing one leg up and down as if she were bored. As Anthony had said, she was inheriting a virtual fortune from her grandmother, and she’d already known that and hadn’t expected more. But Marla was surprised to be inheriting the house.

“I thought he’d leave the house to Reese,” she told Anthony. “It’s been in the Madison family since 1885.”

“He and I discussed that at length, and he was firm about giving you the house,” Anthony said. “It’s yours to keep or sell or do whatever you wish with it. Nathan understood that with his passing, this house would no longer be in the family line. And he also assumed that Reese wouldn’t be interested in keeping it.”

“Dad was right about that,” Reese said. “I wouldn’t want to live here anyway, and it’s too big and costly to keep up as a summer home. I’m fine with not inheriting it.”

Marla turned to Reese. It amazed her at how little her daughter cared about family lineage and responsibility considering how dearly Nathan held on to the past. He’d been proud to live in the family home, which had been passed down for generations, and carrying on the family name.

“Are you sure, dear?” Marla asked.

Reese sighed. “Mom. I’m positive. Besides, you’ll be living here for years and I can always change my mind if I want this house later on, which I doubt,” she said.

Anthony continued reading the will. A generous donation would be made to the university for scholarship money, contributions would also be given to other charities that Nathan held dear, and there was an added bonus for Mrs. Cooper to thank her for her loyalty. Other than that, the money and possessions had all been bequeathed to Marla.

After Anthony left, the house fell completely still. Reese changed clothes and went for a walk with Chad, and Marla went to the kitchen to see if Mrs. Cooper needed help cleaning up. The women they’d hired to serve were doing the lion’s share of the cleanup under Mrs. Cooper’s supervision, so Marla left them to their work.

She walked around the empty house, going from room to room. She still couldn’t believe Nathan had left her the family’s legacy. Built in 1885 by his great-great-grandfather as a summer retreat when the town of Great Heron Lake was first being formed as a playground for St. Paul’s elite, the house had grown from a weekend cottage to a mansion of over 6,000 square feet. There were seven bedrooms and eight bathrooms, the great room, family/media room, kitchen, a morning room for Marla and a den/library for Nathan. A game room that held the antique billiards table and the indoor pool built in the 1920s for extravagant weekend parties added to its bulk. The house sat on five prime acres of land with 1000 feet of lakeshore and held tennis courts as well. It was extravagant, absolutely decadent, compared to the scant lifestyle Marla had grown up in, and now, it was all hers.

She wasn’t sure she wanted it. It felt like a heavy weight had been dropped on her.

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