Three years ago John William Shoe III stepped into a storybook, and took this town with him.

When word got around that Shoe, a 21-year-old golf shop manager from a well-to-do family, would be made Lord of Burlington by Queen Elizabeth II, the community brimmed with pride.

Friends ran their fingers over the royal seal on his invitation to Buckingham Palace and they marveled at photographs of Shoe in top hat and tails.

The city council granted Shoe permission to use the city's name in his title and sent him congratulations. "We're very honored," said Mayor K.L. Ketchum.

The home-town newspaper featured Shoe's picture along with a story recounting his tale of having befriended a childless British nobleman on a flight to England. Their friendship blossomed, Shoe said, and the man eventually asked Shoe to carry the family's title.

On Feb. 13, Shoe told the mayor in a letter, it was done. "At a private investiture ceremony in Buckingham Palace, I was created His Lordship, the Right Honorable Lord Shoe of Burlington, by Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth of England."

It was all a fantasy.

Shoe this week admitted that the story, played out over the years in letters, phone calls, transatlantic trips, doctored photographs and tailored costumes, was an elaborate "charade" that had drawn in his family, friends and, before he could stop it, the town.

"It was a fairy tale," said Shoe, a meek man with dark hair and gentle features. "I created it; I acted it out. It was a story, and I brought it to life."

Shoe spent his vacations in London, staying in luxury hotels, ordering phony documents and mailing off letters to himself and to his parents. They were delighted that Shoe's imaginary godparents were taking him to antique stores in London, on shopping sprees to Paris and to garden parties with the queen.

"They showed him such a good time," said Fay Shoe, hours before her son told her the truth.

She said he never meant to cause anyone embarrassment.

"I really am fond of the queen," said Shoe. "I consider her my queen. They're the royals almost a second family because I know so much about them. They don't know who I am, but I feel I know them."

In fact, he said, he never meant the tale to get beyond his family.

"I wanted them to admire me," he said.

Fay Shoe said her son has never had many close friends. "I think he was trying to fill a void in his life of loneliness," she said.

He was always fascinated by British royalty; as a child he spent hours sketching queens and castles. He marveled over English culture in books, films and magazines and on television.

Shoe kept to himself as he grew up. He dropped out of high school at 16, and finished a Graduate Equivalency Degree on his own. "I never really fit in in school," Shoe said.

He lives by himself in a country cottage about five miles west of Burlington, a city of 38,000. Shoe took his first trip out of the state in 1982, flying alone to England. He wasn't worried about money. His parents, who own the golf course they built, provided that along with what he earned managing their pro shop. "I don't how much," said Fay Shoe. "We just gave him what he needed."

On his second visit to London later that year, an idea came to him as he watched a session of the House of Lords.

"I was seeing all these famous people and royalty," he said. "I decided to pretend I was part of that."

When he returned to America, Shoe bubbled with his tale. He told his parents he had come to the aid of an English nobleman who had become ill on the plane.

The man turned out to be a knight and was ever so grateful to Shoe, his story went. The knight, Sir David Haps, sent a chauffeured Rolls-Royce to fetch him from London's Hyde Park Hotel and bring him to Sir David's mansion across town. There, Shoe said, he met Haps' wife, Lady Victoria. They hit it off, he said, and the Hapses insisted that he stay with them.

His parents received letters from Sir David and Lady Victoria -- letters that Shoe had typed himself and mailed when in London.

Letters continued to arrive long after he returned home; Shoe typed them in his cottage and carried them to his parents in envelopes that had come from London stores.

His parents came to know the Haps family through the correspondence.

"They were very, very powerful, important people in the government and military," Shoe said. "They wanted to be close to their children but their son was dead." The Hapses wrote Fay and John Shoe Jr. of their fondness for Shoe, whom they considered their godson.

Shoe described his godfather as a high-ranking military figure "close to the Crown." He told his family and their friends that they must keep the story to themselves. Sir David feared Irish Republican Army terrorists, and he and Lady Victoria valued their privacy.

But Shoe's parents couldn't resist telling relatives and they, in turn, told friends. Shoe was asked to recount the story again and again. He always obliged.

"They were thrilled, and they enjoyed it so much," he said. "By people believing it, it became sort of real."

He wrote more letters, in which the couple invited him back. He then traveled to England, staying in hotels, calling home from London and mailing more letters to his parents.

Shoe said he sometimes would sit down and write out his adventure as a story, then act it out. Even in England, Shoe spent time in archives and studied videotapes of the royal family.

"It became a hobby," said Shoe, who works a half-day at the pro shop of Shillelagh Golf Course, which his parents own. "I had to do a lot of research. It became a challenge, and I succeeded for a good while."

Although he had spent only a few weeks in England, he mastered a British accent and prided himself on the fact that the English he met accepted him as one of their own. A British flag decal decorates the front bumper of his Ford sedan; concrete lions with shields guard the entrance to his driveway.

The Hapses told Shoe's parents they wanted him to take the place of their late son, to become an honorary lord. Shoe's parents were thrilled, and so were all who heard it. Then Shoe wrote Mayor Ketchum, asking permission to use Burlington in his title. Shoe said he now considers that a mistake. Soon a local reporter began pressing Shoe to grant an interview.

"Through a curious set of circumstances that usually takes place only in fairy tales," the Daily Times-News said in its feature profile on Shoe, "Burlington will soon have its own member of English royalty."

Shoe said it was then that he began to feel tension build inside his fantasy.

"It started out as something fun to do," Shoe said. "It went bigger than I wanted it to be, and then I had to go farther with it because I didn't want to disappoint anyone."

He decided to bring the tale to a rapid climax. Shoe reached for the royal stationery he had printed in England and summoned himself to Buckingham Palace. He sealed the invitation, and stamped it with the Royal Seal he had made himself.

He had a costume shop make a fur-lined, gold-striped red velvet robe -- identical to those worn by English lords. He told his parents a tutor would drill him on proper protocol before the queen. His mother had planned to accompany him to the ceremony, but Shoe told her that Buckingham Palace had called and ordered him to come a week early, too soon for her to get a passport.

She watched her son fly off, but not to London. He went only as far as Washington, where he spent the time sightseeing.

When he returned, he described in detail how he had chatted with the queen about horses and gardens, and told his proud family about the elegant reception in his honor.

He showed them a picture of himself posing in the palace ballroom with Queen Elizabeth II, Prince Philip and Princess Anne.

The photograph was a fake. Shoe had cut a picture of the royal family from one of his books and pasted his own face over that of a man in the picture. He got a local photographer to produce a new photo, which Shoe set in a gold frame and showed to admirers.

No matter that the queen seemed unusually young in the picture; she had been too far from the camera for her wrinkles to show, Shoe explained.

"I had questions along and along," Fay Shoe said. "But Johnny always seemed to have an answer."

Shoe had begun to tire of the intricate charade and wanted to let it settle down. But questions came up when Buckingham Palace told the Greensboro News & Record that no one had heard of Shoe.

On Feb. 13, the day the queen supposedly handed Shoe a letter of patent in a royal ceremony, she actually had spent the morning with the ambassador from Cameroon and the English ambassadors to Czechoslovakia and Luxembourg. In the afternoon, she went to the British Museum to view a display, "The Golden Age of Anglo-Saxon Art." "That was it," said John Haslam, the queen's assistant press secretary.

Questioned about the discrepancy, Shoe said at first that the ceremony had been conducted in secret. When Buckingham Palace denied that as well, Shoe realized the fantasy had come to an end. He said he was concerned that the queen might be offended and at first was worried officials might take action against him.

David Hogan, a spokesman for the British Embassy in Washington, said there were no plans for reprisals. "He's perfectly harmless in doing this," said Hogan. "It's quite incredible that he could carry himself for three years this way. He hasn't done anything to us, only to himself really."

As for Burlington's Mayor Ketchum, he says, "I have just dismissed entirely from my mind it happened."

The tale had been harmless, Shoe said; no one had been hurt or cheated. And for a time it had given him a new identity. It had also taught him that he didn't really need one, he said. "My friends are better friends than I ever thought. When I told them it was a story they said they would be my friends whether I was a lord or not. They all have proven how much they really care. All this has touched me deeply.

"I found that after I did all this stuff, it really didn't change the way anybody treated me," Shoe said. "Now, I wish to be John Shoe."