For nearly three weeks, their secret weighed heavily on the minds of George and Celia Poteet. Their teenage sons suspected something was up, what with the hushed conversations, the newly unlisted phone number. But the Anne Arundel County couple kept mum, waiting for the right time to share their life-altering revelation.

That moment came on Monday afternoon, when the Poteets finally unburdened themselves to their children.

They had won the lottery. Thirty-one million dollars.

The jackpot was the largest ever in Maryland for the seven-state Big Game lottery. Although it is not unusual for lottery victors to wait a few days before coming forward with their tickets, the Poteets had a special reason for stalling so long: They wanted to wait until their boys were out of school for the summer.

"I was afraid they wouldn't be able to study for their exams if they knew," said George Poteet, 48.

Truth was, the Poteets weren't ready to believe the news themselves until it was confirmed for them by state lottery officials in Baltimore yesterday morning.

George Poteet, a computer analyst for the Department of Defense, is a longtime low-stakes lottery player who spends a few dollars a week buying tickets at the grocery store or gas station. On Saturday, May 22, he stopped by a BJ's Wholesale Club in Pasadena to pick up a garden hose. There was no line at the lottery counter, so he purchased three sets of computer-generated numbers for $3.

Yet he didn't bother to tune in for the May 25 drawing and thought nothing of it until late the next night, when he heard something about the unclaimed prize on the radio.

He went to bed but kept thinking about his ticket, so he got up and called the lottery hot line.

The winning numbers matched his ticket: 12-35-36-38-39, plus 30.

He called his wife out of bed. She checked the numbers and agreed they matched. But she was unconvinced. "Let's wait until tomorrow," she said.

The morning papers gave the same numbers, yet the couple remained numb. "It just didn't seem real," Celia Poteet, 41, said yesterday. "This doesn't happen to regular people."

Lottery officials determined that the ticket had been sold at BJ's on a Saturday afternoon to a buyer who had purchased three sets of numbers.

"We were pretty sure," George Poteet said, "but we were still in disbelief."

Just the same, he stopped by the office of an accountant friend to get advice about how to deal with his imminent fortune. Step one: "He told me to get it out of my wallet and put it in a safety deposit box."

Meanwhile, Celia Poteet confided in her mother, and the news was shared with some close friends. "It was like releasing a pressure valve," she said. The couple finally allowed themselves to begin to make plans for their new wealth, but it still seemed unreal, she said. "Even today, when the agent took the ticket, I was still sure he was going to say, `This has been tampered with.' "

When their sons came home from their last day of school Monday, the Poteets finally sat them down to give them the news. It came as a relief to the boys, ages 13 and 15, who had been unnerved by their parents' strange behavior over the past few weeks. The Poteets declined to give their sons' names.

The family has not made any big plans for spending their wealth. "We have just about everything we want," Celia said. They will help out their relatives, they will stop worrying about college tuition and they will pay off the bills for the addition they just completed on their house. They plan to stay in their two-story home for now; if they do move, however, they would probably stay in Anne Arundel, where the couple grew up.

George Poteet said he plans to keep working, at least for the time being, but Celia has quit her job as an X-ray technician and plans to stay close to home for a while.

"I think the kids need some supervision in the next few weeks," she said.

CAPTION: Celia and George Poteet hold a check representing their Big Game winnings.